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Van Gujjars in Peril as Eviction Notices Served in Dehradun’s Lachhiwala Range

The notices have been served to many families of the Van Gujjar community in the Lachhiwala range.

The gathering at the range office (Photo: Aftab Chouhan, VGTYS)

Dehradun: People from the Van Gujjar community gathered at the Lachhiwala Forest range office in Dehradun on Friday to peacefully demonstrate against the sudden eviction notices served to them. The notice termed these traditional forest dwellers as "illegal encroachers".

The notices have been served to many families of the Van Gujjar community in the Lachhiwala range.

The meeting was organised by the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan (VGTYS), an organisation built by the young Van Gujjars who are trying to reclaim their tribal Identity and rights, which are safeguarded for them by the Constitution.

The president of the Sangathan, Md Ameer Hamza, said, “The notices are illegal and do not provide any opportunity for the community to present their side to the concerned authorities through legal means. According to the Indian Forest (Uttaranchal Amendment) Act, 2001, the person who has been termed as an encroacher has to be served notices such that they are given an opportunity to present their case legally. These notices do not have any mention of any legality whatsoever,” Hamza said.

Addressing the gathering, he said, “The notices that have been served do not mention any kind of law, nor do they mention any articles of the Forest Rights Act.”

Hamza further said the people from the tribal community in the Lachhiwala range, who have been served these notices, have inhabited in this range since 1903. “According to the working plans of the Forest department itself, the Van Gujjar community has been living here for the past 120 years,” he added.

The Van Gujjar community is a pastoralist and semi-nomadic tribe found widely across the forest ranges of Uttarakhand. For a long time, this indigenous community has been considered the guardians of Himalayan forests due to the distinctive symbiotic relationship they share with forest ecosystems. Their beloved animal "Gojri" buffalo is a unique breed of cattle that can only be found with these traditional forest dwellers. This close association of these indigenous buffaloes with this tribal community is self explanatory in describing the kind of nourishing relationship they share with biodiversity around them. They have the concept of "milk economy" wherein they rear buffaloes for milk; it is their traditional and primary trade. They utilise the forests and its resources for cattle grazing, while living in ‘deras’ (small huts made of mud, straw, and bamboo) deep inside the forests.

The everyday lives of Van Gujjars is full of empirical evidence which bear testimony to the symbiotic relationship they share with the forest ecosystems.

Their Gojri buffaloes help in seed dispersion, keeping invasive species in check and they themselves help in weeding out the invasive and toxic weeds from forests, such as lantana, which pose a massive threat to the forest ecosystems.


Photo: The range officer amidst the gathering of Van gujjars. Ameer Hamza (in the middle) and Adv. Shaakir Hussain (on the right) are also present. (Credit: Aftab Chouhan, VGTYS)

In an ensuing confrontation between the Gujjars who have gathered and a forest department official, Ghanand Uniyal, the Gujjars reiterated that the notice served to them is outside the ambit of the law as it violates the rights of forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

Uniyal presented the issue of anti-encroachment drive in the state as ubiquitous, carried out by all the different kinds of departments under the state government. “The anti encroachment agenda is present in all the departments and ranges of forests as per the orders by the state government and the CM,” he said, “The Lachhiwala range is more sensitive. Gujjars have been allocated land in the range but land allocation has not been implemented. Now we see that there is encroachment of large amounts of land. We have taken into consideration all the laws and acts including tribal and forest rights laws.”

The Van Gujjar representatives responded to this asserting that the notice of encroachment served is encompassing all Van Gujjar households in the range, labelling every dera in the Lachhiwala range as encroachment. They say that the forest department has the right to remove the encroachers but there is no information provided whatsoever about the details of the encroached area and which persons and families are encroachers. The people say that the notices served to them do not seem legal as there are no stamps from the local police thana either.

All in all, the Gujjars ask for a simple legally bound notice “that is under the Indian Forest (Uttaranchal Amendment)  Act 2001's article 61(a) which provides the opportunity for the community to present their case,” Hamza said to the range officer. Uniyal responded by saying that the department has surveyed the whole range of Lachhiwala and found everyone to be encroachers.

Van Gujjars say that even if there was a survey, they were not consulted, nor are there any available details of the survey conducted. This aspect of the whole anti-encroachment drive was also questioned by the legal advisor, Shaakir Hussain providing legal support to the Gujjars. He asked, “Were all the people living in the range found to be encroachers?” To this, the range officer responded affirmatively. This confused the gathering, and has been termed baseless by them.

“There is no proof of any kind of survey that has been conducted by the forest department. These are just talks and are used as a ploy to trouble this community,” Hussain said, adding that “just the word ‘Atikraman’, i.e. encroachment, is used in the eviction notice without specifying the nature of encroachment. This has created an atmosphere of fear in the community as the notice blatantly termed them as encroachers who are ordered to vacate the encroachment within five days."


An eviction notice served to a Van Gujjar family (Photo: Md. Shamshad, VGTYS)

On being questioned by Hussain on these lines, the range officer simply responded that the notices sent were simply 'show cause’ notices. "Had the forest department actually conducted the survey they are claiming to have undertaken, they would've simply served the eviction notice to a few encroachments, if any exists, instead of sending it to all families of the range,” Hussain said.

Shabeer Ahmed, a local from Lachhiwala Range expresses his plight since the serving of the impromptu eviction notices. "We have been living here since ages, but in 1975 we were given permits to live in the Van Vaha range of Doiwala. The eviction notice served to them even lacks the officials government stamps and along with the legal provisions as well. The forest officials are also wrongly implicating that new people other than locals have settled here. This is completely false, only the new deras in the families of community members who have gotten married had come up with Derasin the allotted land itself to support the community members. But the forest department never spoke to us regarding this and unlawfully termed us as encroachers," he said.

Another local Basheer Ahmed from Lachhiwala range who has been served eviction elucidates how the survey undertaken by forest department cannot be trusted. He said that in the list of encroachers, they have also written the name of two girls who were guests in the community for a brief time who simply came to visit their relatives. He further claimed that the community has not encroached on any land by narrating an incident of 2018 where the forest department demarcated the allotted Van Gujjar land, conducted plantation around its boundary, wired and fenced it, thus separating it from the forest. “The community hasn't moved out of the demarcated area and yet we are being termed as encroachers now,” he said.

Many women from the community who participated in the meeting expressed their concerns against the sudden notices handed over to their families. Reshma, a woman living in the Lachhiwala range said that her family has been living here since 1910. “Our five generations have lived here and the forest department has time and again troubled us with such notices. This land where we are living is also a resettlement land given to us. They say we have to be resettled from the forests, but instead of making any arrangements for that, they serve us such notices about encroachment. We would happily accept the eviction notices had there been enough amends by the government but as of now I fail to understand why our entire community in this forest range is being termed as encroachers,” she said.

Anjum, a student of Masters in Hindi and from the community, spoke about how women have to come forward in such struggles. “I think, women from the community have to speak up to the authorities and present their grievances as well,” she said, adding, “we were served these notices on the 16th and I want to say that we are not encroachers. We have been living here since decades and we should not be removed from here.”

Reshma said that such impromptu notices that have been given to the community affected their collective well being and mental health. “We don’t know what will happen to us, fear of uncertainty looms over. We are living presently on the basis of the permits provided by the department itself, but we are still questioned like this. We would accept anything in accordance with law if it ensures that we won't be served notices like this yet again and we earnestly wish for a solution to our continuous plight. It hurts being termed encroachers in the very forests our generations have lived in,” she said.

Commenting on the marginalised status of the tribal community, Reshma added that the community is largely uneducated and is cut off from the mainstream. “We are supposed to be given ST status, we live in the jungles but we are denied such status. But what more can we think of now when we have to live in this constant state of anxiety where even the roofs over our heads are under threat. We are experiencing sleepless nights, these notices are a hindrance to our children's education as well,” she said.

The authors are independent journalists.

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