Mohammad Manzur, 28, a van gujjar, did not catch a wink of sleep all last weekend. A thunderstorm nearly blew up the tarpaulin-sheet that is his family’s only abode. He and his brothers held tight to the edges of their tent, their only safety net, whenever the storm grew worse. Manzur’s large family, which includes his parents, brothers, their wives and four young children, were halted as they were making their way to the Asan river in Herbertpur city of Vikasnagar, a tehsil in Dehradun district of Uttarakhand, by the sudden nationwide lockdown.
Rukma, an 80-year-old van gujjar says that the van gujjar community has never aborted their summer migration like this before.
The van gujjars are a nomadic community who live in forests and migrate north every summer, usually in March, to alpine pastures of the Himalayas where their cattle graze until the end of August. By the time they wend their way to the plains every September, the grass which had dried in the summer becomes green, succulent and nutritious again.
The van gujjars usually put up their deras in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand, such as in the forests and pastures of Govind Pashu Vihar, Gangotri Wildlife Sanctuary, Badkot, Tons, Purola, Chakrata, Upper Yamuna, Uttarkashi, Tehri, Kedarnath and Rudraprayag.
Manzur’s family has parked itself where it was—next to the Asan river—when the lockdown was announced. They now make up a bevy of 25 or 30 deras, each representing a family housed in one tent. Their belongings and cattle are out in the open. Their summer migration had begun, and they had hoped to resume their journey after a short stoppage after the lockdown was announced. But the state government’s recent directive to ban summer migration altogether has dashed their hopes of moving on.
The directive issued on 29 April by the chief secretary of Uttarakhand, Utpal Singh, says that the State Animal Husbandry department must arrange for fodder for the van gujjar’s cattle and rations for the stranded families. It also directs the forest department to compile a database of the van gujjars and count the livestock in their possession. A regular health check-up of members of the community and their livestock is also to be done.
But the chief secretary’s orders are not translating into action on the ground. Manzur says no official or assistance has reached them so far. They had enough food to last their 20-day migration, which they are now running out.
Initially, Manzur’s dera was stranded on a stretch between Daat Kali and Mohund, on the outskirts of Dehradun. They managed to travel a short distance, to a spot near the Asan river bank where water for their livestock is available.
Each van gujjar family owns 15-20 buffaloes, a couple of horses and 8 to 10 goats. “The livestock has consumed lot of grass already, which is drying up due to rising temperatures,” says Talib, 42, whose dera is close to Manzur’s. The shortage of green grass and fodder looms large over the van gujjars. Plus the heat is taking a toll on the health of all the camp’s residents. “Our buffaloes are not accustomed to the harsh summer weather. They may fall sick. The state government must allow our migration and, for precaution, check our health on the border and allow only the healthy to move and put others in quarantine,” he says.
Manzur had to leave his goats at an acquaintance’s dera a few kilometres away, at Dharmowala village, after two of his goats died. They had consumed the deadly “besharam” (Ipomoea carnea) weed, which grows around the parts they are parked in. He will pick up his goats when they move from the place.
The lack of fodder, growing heat and lack of fodder fit for animals to consume has compounded their worries. “It is scorching hot during the day and as we lay on beds of polythene and gunny bags, either hot winds or storms batter us from all sides. Mosquitoes don’t let us take rest or sleep after sun-set,” Talib says.
Himachal’s van gujjars supply milk to Verka in Punjab:
The gujjars from Himachal Pradesh were also stopped from moving around, but their situation is different compared with Uttarakhand’s van gujjar’s. Skina, from Baddi in Himachal, says their summer migration was not banned by the government, though as groups of them made their way—in motorised vehicles—to the alpine pastures of Narkanda, Rohru and Rampur, they were stopped by the police. “We are yet to attempt making the rest of the journey on foot,” says Skina.
Mohammad Sadiq, a van gujjar (also in Baddi) says that the Punjab Milk Producers Federation, which supplies milk and milk-based products under the Verka brand, has started buying milk from them during the lockdown. Their usual customers in Punjab had dried up because residential buyers started blocking the van gujjars from entering their localities from fear of catching Covid-19.
Then the state government intervened by providing them an alternative milk buyer in Verka. At the same time, cooperatives are also buying milk from van gujjars. “Cooperatives may pay Rs 30 a litre compared with the Rs 50 that sweet shops and hotels used to pay, but still we are making some money,” Sadiq says.
Every morning the van gujjars in this region load milk cans on their bikes and ride 8-10 km to the cooperative societies at Panchkula in Haryana and Ropar in Punjab to offload their supplies.
It is true that the Uttarakhand government has also arranged for a cooperative to purchase milk from the van gujjars in that state. Neha Verma, additional forest secretary, Uttarakhand, says that the state government has instructed the Uttarakhand Co-operative Dairy Federation, known for their milk brand, Anchal, to procure milk from the van gujjars. (Anurag Mishra, the assistant director at Anchal, did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment.)
In the summer, milk yielded from buffaloes reduces. However, milk remains the van gujjar’s main source of income. This is why they are badly hit by the lockdown. “Our main customers are sweet shops, hotels and restaurants, which have all closed. Then some retail buyers did not give us our payments, citing loss of income or heavy salary cuts,” says Talib.
As a result, on the one hand the van gujjars are earning less and on the other they have to buy cattle fodder at steep prices, for prices have shot up during the lock down.
KK Joshi, the director, Animal Husbandry, Uttarakhand, says that fodder was being sold at reasonable prices at various locations in the district which van gujjars could easily buy from. He clarified that the department has got no directive to distribute fodder free of cost.
No labour work for community:
Almost half the van gujjar men earn their living through labour. “We asked for work when wheat was being harvested in the surrounding fields last month, but people said they had harvested it themselves,” says Mir Hamza, a van gujjar. They pinned hopes on working in the apple orchards around Shimla next. “But that is unlikely to happen now with Uttarakhand government banning our migration,” he says.
While Neha Verma explains that it is the mandate of the district administration to arrange ration supplies for the van gujjars, the sub-divisional magistrate of Vikasnagar, Saurav Aswal, expressed ignorance about why rations were not reaching the van gujjars near the Asan river. He assured urgent assistance to them and took their exact locations and other details. However, even after two days, the same van gujjars said they had got no help from the district administration or from outsiders. Aswal did not respond to calls.
The apathy and communication gap are explicit, as government officials say they have no clue about the location of the van gujjars, while the stranded van gujjars have no knowledge of the facilities announced for them by the state.
No census of van gujjars in Uttarakhand, Rajaji maintains data of its van gujjars for rehabilitation:
There is no comprehensive data available on this community in the state, according to Neha Verma. However, van gujjars have been rehabilitated outside forested areas by the forest department. Such non-migrating van gujjars, who have been settled, are funded by the state and central government and data is available on their numbers and status.
Hence, the roughly 1,360 van gujjars who were living within the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and were provided two hectares land in Pathari and Gaindi Khata forest in Haridwar, have schools, mosques, cattle shelters, roads and drinking water and electricity supply, according to Rajaji officials. These rehabilitated van gujjars are not running short of food and resources during the lockdown.
Amit Verma, divisional forest official of Rajaji Tiger Reserve says, “Only 10-15 families are left within Rajaji, and they will also be rehabilitated after the lockdown.”
He says that nomadic communities such as the kanjar and sapera, other than van gujjars, who live on the outskirts of the famous tiger reserve, were also given packets of ration by the forest staff and by members of the World Wildlife Fund, who distributed 10 kg flour, 5 kg rice, pulses, sugar, tea leaves and potatoes to each of the 350 families living in the area.
As for the van gujjars who are still nomadic pastoralists, as they were for millennia—it would seem that they have been forgotten, wherever they are.
The author is a freelance journalist who writes on the environment. The views are personal.