Demanding land rights as per the Forest Rights Act 2006, Uttarakhand Van Gujjar Yuva Sangathan at Kaluwala village in Shivalik Mohand range on October 10, 2020 alleged that the government was trying to illegally remove the Van Gujjars from the area under the guise of protecting the region as a tiger reserve.
State President Ameer Hamza said that the Van Gujjar community is entitled housing and pasture rights under the given Act. Vice-President Aman Chaichi and other members concurred saying the whole Van Gujjar community in Uttarakhand supported the Shivalik Van Gujjars’ demands. Local representatives Haji Abdul Karim, Gulam Nabi and Noor Jamal denounced the forceful eviction that violated the laws under the Forest Act.
Recently, one organisation representing Van Gujjars under the leadership of Hamza lodged a complaint to the Lucknow administration against the illegal attempts. The community alleged that the Saharanpur administration wanted to evict them out of the area without any plan for their rehabilitation and without following the due procedure given in the Forest Act. They pointed out that the government had not taken any initiative to remove illegal firing ranges which is the real snag of a tiger reserve. Moreover, as per the Forest Act, no tiger reserves could be established without the consent of the people.
The Shivaliks, a 110 kms-long mountain range that passes through Saharanpur, Haridwar, Dehradun, Bijnor and Himachal Pradesh, is home to a large number of Van Gujjars. While they are Adivasis, they do not have a tribal status in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Van Gujjars associated with animal rearing have a unique culture. Even today, 90 percent of Van Gujjars in Mohand and Shivalik range practise a nomadic livelihood.
They spend six winter months in Rajaji National Park and take to the mountains in the summer season. Although this constant shift deprives many Gujjar children of primary education.
The Shivalik forest area with its rich biodiversity was declared an elephant reserve in 2009. Many other animals like leopards, Gorals, reindeers, Chital, barking deers, porcupines, jackals, peacocks also reside there. The administration claimed to have recommended the tiger reserve due to all of this and the area’s proximity to Rajaji National Park.
However, Van Gujjars have been peacefully living with these animals for ages. So, who is really harming the forest: the forest department, the government or the local residents? After all, local communities have famously done more for the environment than government policies.
Thus, there is a need to understand the interaction of local communities with the surrounding biodiversity rather than decisions of outright evictions. The Forest Rights Act acknowledges this relationship and grants local communities the rights to control, manage, protect and reside in the area.
Van Gujjars in Shivalik come under Behat town administration of Uttar Pradesh. Most often, this community is only remembered by politicians during elections.
National General Secretary of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) Ashok Choudhary said that the Supreme Court in its landmark judgement of February 28, 2019 stopped the displacement of Scheduled Tribes and traditional forest dwellers. This, along with the rights entitled to the forest-dwellers under the Forest Rights Act makes the forceful eviction of Gujjars illegal – a fact about which the administration should be well cognisant.