The people of northern India’s Van Gujjar tribe are nomadic water buffalo herders whose lives revolve around caring and finding food for their animals. Originally from Jammu and Kashmir, the tribe has over time spread out across the ranges of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh in search of rich forests and meadows for their cattle. A Muslim community, Van Gujjars have their own dialect called Gujjari, which is a linguistic fusion of Dogri (a Kashmiri tongue) and Punjabi. For most of their history, the nomads were known as Gujjars. They only added the word Van (forest) to their tribal name in the late 1980s. Winters are spent in the lowland wilderness of the Shivalik Hills, where the thick jungle foliage provides plenty of fodder – and plenty of isolation from the rest of the world. There are no roads, no electricity and no fixed addresses on this journey that takes them across high plains, treacherous passes and picturesque Himalayan valleys.

By April, however, temperatures soar above 110 degrees; leaves and grasses wither and die; creeks run dry. With nothing left for their buffaloes to eat or drink, the Van Gujjars must move. Entire families, from infants to the elderly, trek with their herds up into the Himalayas, where melting snows reveal lush alpine meadows laced by gurgling streams. When the cold sets in at the end of September, they head back down to the Shivaliks, where the jungle has sprung back to life following the monsoon rains.

There are two things that the Van Gujjars have to reckon with to optimize the timing of their ascent. If they reach alpine grasslands too early, the meadows will still be covered with snow. But if they linger too long en route, they will waste money (earned by selling milk on the way) to buy fodder and food they don’t actually need. So they move strategically, analysing the ground conditions, aiming to reach the meadows as soon as the grass comes up.

Each member in a Van Gujjar family has a well-defined role (based on age) with the animals: the adults walk with big buffaloes and horses while the children follow at a slower pace with the calves.

True nomads, they’ve followed this cycle of seasonal migration – shunning settled village life – for over a thousand years. These tribes are of the mountains and for the mountains as they have lived in the jungles from the beginning.

Problems faced by the community:

This life of constant movement and relative isolation from the urban world has led them to build a self-driven community. However, with changing times and urban development they have been deprived of some health and educational benefits that stand crucial in today’s times and for the community to grow.

  • The new younger kids are not able to gain the basic education.
  • Due to the lack of proper representation as a community they have not been able to reap the benefits of India’s judicial, social and health industry.
  • The community has been living in the jungles for so long that they have developed their own sustainable means of living.
  • Constant movement and no permanent address also puts them on a backbench of reaping the benefits by the government.
  • They have not been acknowledged by the Forest Department which makes their lives even riskier.

Building the community

  • The Van Gujjar community should be given designated rights under the Forest Rights Act.
  • The sustainable means of living that they have developed over the years can be turned into business models for the other villages to apply in their living
  • They should be given proper access to education so the younger generation can go beyond the forest areas and build a stronger community.
  • They should be given access to health centres to be treated during ailment.
  • The community can be given vocational training for growth.

And our team is working relentlessly over the same.