Ground Report of Van Gujjars Condition in Bugyals of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, Uttarkashi
The present report is a study conducted under the aegis of Think Act Rise Foundation, petitioner PIL 140 of 2019 before the Hon’ble High Court of Nanital. The study is to assess the conditions of Van Gujjars in Sankri Range, who access these Bugyals in the range for grazing their buffaloes and other livestock. The said study is conducted in the backdrop of these Van Gujjars who were formerly denied entry to the range by the Deputy Director Govind Pashu Vihar National Park.
The following are the topics on which study is conducted
- Present conditions of Van Gujjars in Bugyals
- Support provided by the district administration and Forest Department while entry was granted to access these Bugyals.
- COVID-19 situation- medical condition and livelihood support
- Present Conditions of Van Gujjars in Bugyals
After the order of Hon’ble Nanital High Court in PIL 14o of 2019 on 25th May 2021, approximately 25 families have migrated to the Bugyals in Phullu Thatch and Baikullu Thatch. Most of these families have migrated from Herbetpur, Sahaspur, Dhaulipur and river banks of Yamuna and Asan river. The total permit holders in this range are of 20 families but certain extended families of brothers and sons have also migrated. The primary reason to migrate for these families is to access the lush pastures within Bugyals for their livestock. These families already face severe income stress during winter month when they have to spend approximate 1.25 lakh to 1.50 lakh rupees on fodder and feed. Here amidst the Bugyals, their expenditure is close to Zero and ensure the health sustenance of their indigenous Gojri breed of buffaloes. There are several ecological benefits too through this migration as it helps maintain the growth of these grasslands by virtue of fertilization of the landscape from the manure of their livestock. The community is also relieved of paying lease on the revenue lands they reside during winter as well as ensures adaptability and resilience of their livestock. Last year due to inability to migrate in 2020 due to COVID-19 several buffaloes were falling sick and unable to access healthy fodder or grass. It is important that transhumant pastoralism is allowed to flourish if we must recognise the value of these forest dwellers within the forest. For the Environmental Justice Paradigm to prevail, the Van Gujjars should be allowed to access these Bugyals year after year and efforts must be made to recognise their conservation protentional through grant of Community Rights and Community Forest Resource Rights under Forest Right Act, 2006. For facilitating their claims, while a Forest Right Committee has been initiated, the district administration, primarily the Sub Divisional Magistrate and District Magistrate in Purola Block, Mori Tehsil and Uttarkashi district, to handhold the members of the community with respect to flung of claims and recognition of rights under the Forest Right Act 2006. Furthermore, it is also hopeful that the Forest Department will cooperate in this exercise and ensure timely verification of these claims, to ensure continued access. Lastly, it is the hope of these Van Gujjars families that their access is not restricted in subsequent years, which is crucial for their pastoral livelihood and identity.
- Support provided by the district administration and Forest Department while entry was granted to access these Bugyals
Apart from the threats and coercive action of the Forest Department, primarily the Deputy Director, who made several families migrating to PISHTARA in Sankri range sign and submit in writing that they will not access these Bugyals, the Ranger in Sankri as well as forest staff have been sympathetic to pleas of Van Gujjars. The Ranger at Sankri was extremely hospitable to us and also offered several facilities to us such as providing access to guest house, sleeping bag and horses for transit. However, we managed to travel on our own and were waiting for forest staff to inspect our activities.
The Ranger acknowledged the ecological benefits of Van Gujjars in the National Park and did not consider them a threat to these grasslands and forests. They also facilitated in distribution of ration and supplies to the community. Along with the district administration, they conducted COVID-19 medical tests for families as well as livestock and helped provide fodder. The Van Gujjars who migrated here have no qualms with the local Forest Department staff who have been always co-operative in their migration. They only hope that in future too that they are allowed to access these Bugyals in subsequent summers without any hinderance as they faced in the past years and this year. If migration is stopped, not only will it adversely impact their lifestyle and way of life, it will cause severe income stress. In such case, the Forest Department must ensure rehabilitation on the conditions and demands of the community based on free prior informed consent rather than arbitrary allocation of land or compensation.
- COVID-19 situation- medical condition and livelihood support
The Van Gujjars amidst the Bugyals lack access to medicines and health facilities. The local administration should conduct 2-3 medical camps in one season for their support. Furthermore, since access to markets is restricted, their milk products like paneer and butter must find adequate supply at remunerative prices. Efforts must be made to coordinate with NGOs to restart volunteer-based schools and literary programmes for community when they migrate.
It is hopeful that this ground report will also motivate the Van Gujjars to record their traditional knowledge and history as well as provide pointers for policy implementation for pastoralists. The High Court must favorably look upon the report as an evidence which the petitioner in PIL 140 of 2019 is keen to bring forward in right of the legal recognition of rights of Van Gujjars. The recognition of the contents of the report will go a long way in securing rights of these Van Gujjars and ensure they have equitable access as forest dwelling pastoralists. The author of the report hope that this documentation of ground realities of Van Gujjars goes a long way to fulfill the unrecognized claims and historical injustices which the community has faced.
We are thankful that the Forest Department allowed us access in these trying times and are hopeful they will amicably work forward in recognizing the customary traditional rights of Van Gujjars under FRA.
Advocate, Delhi Bar Council
Date of Study- 15 June 2021 to 18 June 2021