Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) pastoral community of Chopans continue to be denied the status of Scheduled Tribe (ST) despite the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as Forest Rights Act (FRA), recognising and vesting “the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded”.
The Act provides a framework for “recording the forest rights so vested and the nature of evidence required for such recognition and vesting in respect of forest land”.
Recently, J&K lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha addressed functions in Srinagar and Jammu and said that the administration is working to safeguard the rights of tribals. He also handed over individual and community forest right certificates to some beneficiaries from the Gujjar, Bakarwal, Gaddi and Sippi communities.
LG Sinha giving certificate under FRA./Daily Excelsior
Notably, the Chopan community, which too comes under the Act’s purview and is part of other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD), was not invited to the functions. Ironically, due to the lack of awareness about the Act in J&K, even officials believe that the law is only applicable to STs such as Gujjars, Bakarwals, Gaddis and Sippis. Even the government’s press release issued after the functions didn’t mention the Chopans, dashing their hopes of getting justice during the L-G’s rule.
Who are the Chopans?
The nomadic community is similar to landless farm labourers as they usually own no livestock and only take care of sheep belonging to local farmers. The pastoralists, also called Pohul locally, are spread across the mountains and the pastures of the Valley, as well as some parts of Jammu, especially around Ramban and Kishtwar districts.
During summers, they negotiate the treacherous mountain roads to reach the meadows and the alpine lakes, where they graze the sheep for Rs 400-Rs 500 per head till the onset of winters.
In some villages located near the forests, the Chopans cultivate forest land. However, the government issued them eviction notices, especially in the Pir Panjal forest division of Budgam district, Kashmir, under the obsolete Indian Forest Act, 1927, in November-December 2020.
When the Chopans, the local Gujjar population and right to information activists jointly resisted the decision, the government decided to roll out the Forest Rights Act. The Act had not been implemented before despite being extended to J&K following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in August 2019.
More than 20 years ago, the J&K Assembly adopted a resolution to include the Chopans in the ST category. However, the ministry of tribal affairs has been sitting on the resolution with successive governments in J&K failing to persuade the Centre in granting ST status to the community.
In November 2020, the Centre asked the directors of animal husbandry and dairying in several states and Union Territories to provide information about pastoralists and the challenges faced by them. Apparently, J&K has not informed the Centre about the challenges faced by the Chopans or the Bakarwals.
Aforementioned letter by the Centre to states.
Plight of forest dwellers in Darwan Basti
Darwan Basti, an alpine meadow situated at an altitude of around 2,700 meters and adjacent to the Yusmarg tourist resort, is peppered with mud and log huts. Forest dwellers, from both the Gujjar and the Kashmiri communities in more than 300 households in Chalyan, Choonti Nad, Darwan and Nowgam villages, in Budgam, shift to Darwan Basti every summer for six months along with their livestock.
The forest dwellers would grow vegetables in Darwan Basti for their own consumption. However, in the summer 2020, forest officials barred them from growing vegetables. When the decision to roll out the FRA was taken, the forest dwellers were hopeful that they would be allowed to grow vegetables this summer. Forest dwellers whom I met recently in connection with an awareness campaign on the FRA said that they had more rights earlier.
“We had been growing vegetables at Darwan Basti for our own consumption, not for commercial use, since ages. The forest department prohibited us from growing vegetables around two years ago. The FRA hasn’t helped us at all. We want the L-G and the principal chief conservator of forests to intervene immediately,” said Ghulam Qadir, a forest dweller from Darwan Basti.
Men walk 2-3 km to purchase potatoes and green vegetables from the market. “The vegetables we buy from the market are of the worst quality and start rotting after a few days. It is physically demanding for old men and women to walk 2-3 km to purchase vegetables. It is also useless to stock up vegetables for a week because they start rotting. The FRA hasn’t benefited us. We seek immediate government intervention,” said Zooni Begum of Darwan Basti.
The FRA also guarantees safeguarding the rights of OTFD residing in forests for generations. However, out of 20,000 claims under the Act, only 67 have been settled across J&K. Despite J&K chief secretary A.K. Mehta directing the authorities to finalise the claims within two-and-a-half months, not even 5% claims have been settled in the last 15 years.
The claim forms filled up by thousands of Gujjars, Bakarwals and other traditional forest dwellers earlier this year are gathering dust. The government must, therefore, clarify who are the 67 people whose claims were settled.
When forest dwellers are disallowed from even growing vegetables or repairing their damaged huts inside forests, the government cannot then claim to be safeguarding the rights of traditional forest dwellers in J&K.
(Raja Muzaffar Bhat is a Srinagar-based columnist and activist. He is the founder and chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement and an Acumen India Fellow.)