In Uttarakhand, there is a strong drive to displace the nomadic pastoral tribe of Van Gujjars in order to protect wildlife. “Van” means forest. It was an identity conceived by a group belonging to the larger Gujjar community, to protect land rights during the formulation of the Rajaji National Park in 1992.

At the same time, there is an expanding road network, an upsurge of wildlife and religious tourism and more recently, talks to withdraw the conservation status of the Shivalik Elephant Reserve. Yet it is the Van Gujjar community that is blamed for increased pressure on wildlife through the overgrazing of their buffaloes.

The relation of Van Gujjars with the forest may have been often romanticised. Pernille Gooch, a retired senior professor from Lund University in Sweden, who has studied the forest pastoralists in the Himalayas, believes this ideological set-up of Van Gujjars in harmony with nature might have actually worked against them. “But not being allowed to move up and leave during summer (due to enforcement of conservation rules), meant that they already knew that the forest will not survive. It meant that they are surviving but as something else than Gujjars…”

A Van Gujjar with a herd of buffaloes. Rearing cattle is a part of their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Photo credit: Radhika Gupta

Long ignored minorities

The constant accusation of overgrazing is unfair, according to Manshi Asher of Himdhara, an environmental research and action collective. “Over the years, it is industrialisation and urbanisation that has forced Van Gujjars to become sedentary and limited their access to smaller forest patches, manifesting as overgrazing,” Asher said. It is paradoxical, she said, that both development and conservation have acted to dispossess the communities of their resources.

Bivash Pandav, an elephant expert at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, disagrees with the notion of disruption of old migratory routes. “They have entered the market economy from the barter economy,” Pandav said. “The restriction is only an excuse.” According to him, staying in one place ensures regularity of income, without the need to move through difficult mountainous terrain.

The “voluntary relocation” of Van Gujjars first commenced in 2002, in order for the continued protection of the Rajaji National Park. On the contrary, significantly intrusive steps are being deliberated. Uttarakhand’s 5,400 square metre Shivalik Elephant Reserve is being assessed for withdrawing its conservation status, partially to expand the Jolly Grant airport for international travel.

This raises questions of whether conservation is valued only at the cost of marginalised and minority communities. According to a report by the Rights and Resources Institute, an estimated 13.6 crore people worldwide have been displaced to formally protect the land. The report states, “Conservation’s colonial history has contributed to a growing list of human rights abuses, displacements, and increasingly militarised forms of violence in the pursuit of protecting biodiversity.”

Insecurity over land

Displacement has absolved community ownership of the pastures and provided individual land for a renewed life outside of protected forest areas. A young Gujjar woman of Diyawali in Uttarkhand is hopeful that soon it will be their turn to relocate. “When the janglaat (Forest Department) will give us land, we will be happy to move. There is a lack of connectivity and no education for my daughter here.”

A young Van Gujjar mother of Diyawali village in the forest is hopeful that her family will be resettled with new land so that she can send her daughter to school. Photo credit: Radhika Gupta

Social science experts and activists believe that the need for a secure piece of land is a coping mechanism for harassment and constant jostling by the forest department. “If you ask them, they will say, we want land,” said Gooch. “Because they feel so horribly insecure… the forest cannot take so many buffaloes. The whole system of buffalo herding was fine-tuned to the seasons and movement. There is added and mounting external pressure on forest resources from people who do not share the same relation with the forest as the Gujjars.”

The harassment, despite legal rights to land, is well documented. Under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 or the Forest Rights Act, the Van Gujjar are specifically entitled to, “seasonal use of landscape in the case of pastoral communities, including reserved forests, protected forests and protected areas such as Sanctuaries and National Parks to which the community had traditional access”. In reality, though, this is often ignored.

The FRA was meant to address repeated discrimination faced by the hundred million forest dwellers across India. Instead, there is a clear emphasis to further disempower them, according to political ecologist Trishant Simlai of Cambridge University. He studies the impacts of “social sorting” on vulnerable communities in the Corbett Tiger Reserve of Uttarakhand.

He said, “Surveillance by the Forest Department is particularly intensified where Van Gujjars and other scheduled tribes lop trees and graze cattle, through the use of camera traps and drones.”

Chaotic relocation

An entire population of Van Gujjar has battled with adaptation and loss of identity. Masardin Gujjar was moved to Gendi Khata when he was 20 years old. His family does not have legal rights to the land they were assigned.

“We came here quite suddenly and most of our buffaloes died,” Masardin Gujjar said. “There was no place to keep them. We were told we will be given land in our name and a house. If we try to collect wood for fire or building purposes, they snatch it from us.”

An old woman in Gendi Khata remarked, “The officials said this land is now a park for the animals. So, you need to leave the park.” She is anxious – “Who knows if one day the government will kick us out from here as well?”

According to Bivash Pandav, “This is a very smart move by the government to not allocate land in their name. Otherwise, they will immediately sell it off and get back to the forest.” He believes that forests with Gujjars have no future as far as wildlife is concerned. “In fact, the land that they receive is something they cannot earn even for ten generations. The package is obviously lucrative, which is why only about a hundred families remain in the forest.”

Over 1,390 families have been relocated from Motichur and Ranipur areas of the Rajaji National Park to Patri and to Gendi Khata villages. They were expected to build houses, find access to water and establish new livelihoods on an empty piece of land, but without being able to claim ownership.

Another estimated 1,300-1,600 relocated families have nowhere to go and have built temporary shelter by river banks. They were not given any land for residence due to missing documents or miscounting of family heads, depending on who you ask.

Section 4 of the FRA mandates that the process of notifying a Critical Wildlife Habitat require the involvement of local people, as well as a scientific assessment to prove that co-existence is not possible, and exercising rights would lead to irreversible damage to the habitat or species.

“The FRA does not take a position that communities can never be evicted from protected areas,” said Sharachchandra Lele, an expert in environmental policy and governance at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. “It is meant to be a lawful and inclusive process of exploring co-management by involving local communities and consent-based relocation as a last resort.”

A focus on “keeping forests pristine” is unscientific, he added. It eliminates the possibility of human-wildlife coexistence.

Fragmented forests

Wild animals are rarely restricted within the virtual boundaries of parks. Around Rajaji, there are increasing instances of human-wildlife conflict. Between 2016-’17 alone, 222 wild animals were killed due to speeding vehicles on National Highway 74 in the Haridwar forest division.

For example, elephants regularly leave the Shyampur forest range at dusk to cross the river into town and return by dawn. Across the river are fields of sugarcane that they devour through the night.

A male Asian elephant crossing the National Highway 74 Haridwar-Najiabad, Uttarakhand. Photo credit: Rajeev Mehta

“As soon as the munji [rice] season ended, they now come for ganna [sugarcane]. They take a round at least once in fifteen days,” said Bahuguna Jeevanan, one of the many farmers whose fields are raided by elephants.

Jeevanan was worried that visits from elephants and other wild animals may increase in the future and he could lose access to grazing his cattle in the forest. “This area has already been declared as a buffer zone [for conservation]. When and if the Forest Department decides to relocate the Gujjars, the forest will become void of humans and their cattle. Soon, the traffic of wild animals to our fields will increase.” He said that about 15,000 affected residents of Shyampur and Lal Dhang have made protests in the past.

Bahuguna Jeevanan of Peeli Padav village stands between his sugarcane field destroyed by elephants. Photo credit: Radhika Gupta

Exclusionary conservation

The key question that remains unanswered is “Conservation for whom”? Is it for tourists who drive in, or fly in, with the roads and airports eating into forests? Is nature merely a spectacle, or is it something that communities like the Van Gujjar or the farmers near protected areas, can find a way to participate in?

“It is so rare to see the knowledge that challenges power,” said Simlai of Cambridge University. “Most often, it is seen as the role of critical social scientists. It is funny that the ecologists and conservation biologists over the years who have looked at the impact of Van Gujjars on the forest, are not as vocal when it comes to the impacts of large-scale infrastructure, tourism-related land grabs, or the Kumbh Mela.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.