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Van Gujjars: Victims of Conservation

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Van Gujjar uttrakhand
Uttrakhand. Photo Credit: Amit Rathi

Amit Rathi

Van Gujjar tribe still follow their traditional way of life, they are nomadic water buffalo herders. They live year-around in the wilderness- never in villages- grazing their livestock on the foliage that grows in the forests and mountains of Northern India. The community spends winters, from October to April, in the Shivalik Hills- a low but craggy range that arcs through parts of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. Amidst the thick forest, each Van Gujjar family settles into a base camp; every day, from their huts of sticks and mud, they roam over gnarled sedimentary topography, through a tangle of deciduous trees and bushes, feeding their buffaloes on the plentiful foliage.

Uttrakhand
Uttrakhand. Photo Credit: Amit Rathi

In the month of March, however, heat begins to sear the Shivaliks. By mid-April, temperatures soar to 45 degrees. The creeks that snake through the range run dry. As though baking in an oven, the forest canopy turns brown. Leaves wither, die, and fall from the trees. The once-verdant hills go bald. With little left for their buffaloes to eat or drink, the Van Gujjars must move elsewhere to survive. They pack their entire households onto horses and bulls and hike their herds up to the Himalayas, aiming for high alpine meadows that are flush with grass throughout the summer.

Van Gujjar Uttrakhand
Uttrakhand. Photo Credit: Amit Rathi

They stay in mountains until autumn. Then, with temperatures plunging and snow beginning to fall, they retreat back down to the Shivaliks. By the time they reach there, usually in early October, they find the low hills bursting with life once again, the thick forest canopy regenerated over the previous months by the moisture delivered during the summer monsoon, the water sources recharged. With plenty to sustain their animals, they stay in the jungle- each family often returning to the very same hut that they occupied the previous winter- until springtime temperatures drive them back to the Himalayas. This migratory pattern-up in spring and down in autumn- has been practised by Van Gujjars for many, many generations.

Van Gujjar Uttrakhand
Photo Credit: Amit Rathi

It is believed that the first Van Gujjars came to the Shivalik region, probably from Kashmir, some 1,500 years ago. No one knows what or exactly why, but some in the tribe say their people were invited by the local raja; he’d been travelling in Kashmir and was so impressed by the Van Gujjars. Their buffalo herds, and the high quality of their milk, that he asked them to come live in this kingdom. Today, an estimated 30,000 Van Gujjars still dwell in the wilderness, moving seasonally between the Shivaliks and the Himalayas. They still speak their native dialect, ‘Gojri’, which is a linguistic fusion of Dogri (a Kashmiri tongue) and Punjabi.

Uttrakhand
Uttrakhand. Photo Credit : Amit Rathi

Though changes are beginning to penetrate into their secluded forest realm- with severe cultural consequences in some places- the essence of their traditional herding lifestyle has remained largely intact through the centuries. Although for Van Gujjars sense of honour, traditional lifestyle, and community are most important to their identity, they are a direct, pragmatic and realistic people who see the increasing pressures on their culture and lifestyle. They remain extremely confident and proud within their own community, yet they are frustrated by their powerless and their exploitation by outside forces. They refuse to give in or shed their values in order to take another path, but they see little hope of success within existing system as exploitive forces lined up against them. These realities have provoked much discussion in recent years spurred on by the escalating park and people conflicts.

(Amit Rathi Gujjar is one of the Criminal Justice Fellow in TISS, Mumbai working with Van Gujjar community in Uttrakhand)

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