Kashmir: Asifa's tribe Bakerwal and Gujjar demand forest rights, protection

Srinagar: Jammu and Kashmir’s Gujjar and Bakerwal scheduled tribe communities have urged the state government to restrict conversion of grazing land for any purpose in the state and to grant them identical or similar rights on forest lands that have been constitutionally made available to other scheduled tribe communities across the country. Forest Rights Act was implemented across all the states in the country except Jammu and Kashmir in 2006.

 “Grazing areas, pastoral land and other community resources belonging to a tribe/village/area or others may not be converted or vested to an agency or agencies for any type of usage,” said Dr. Javaid Rahi noted tribal activist, while talking to MG. A big chunk of grazing lands, he alleged, has been given to offices, universities, colleges, defence agencies and NGOs across the state. The grazing land that was traditionally used by cattle grazer families has been converted over the past two decades, which has threatened the livelihoods of these tribes.

Such conversions, said Dr. Rahi who is Secretary Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, are adversely affecting centuries-old tribal migratory culture and nomadic way of life of the communities which are already passing through tough times in the state. Gujjars and Bakerwals are main animal-rearing communities of the state and thousandsof nomads are solely dependent upon the grazing land. The grazing land, Dr. Rahi added, must be used for animal rearing (Ghaa Chirai) only and should be strictly kept for the use of tribal communities.

He further observed that it is urgently needed to empower the nomadic community with the means to determine their destiny, their livelihood, their security and above all their dignity and self-respect and all these can be achieved by giving them forest rights in the state.

Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation, in a day-long programme on “Tribes and land issues” in the winter capital Jammu (April 29) stressed that the grazing lands were fast shrinking due to their rapid conversion for different purposes and a large number of tribal families, which were entirely dependent on these lands, are facing helplessness. Speakers, according to a press statement issued by the Foundation, further said that after the implementation of Roshni Act in the state in the last decade, whereby government vested ownership of land to the occupants, the grazing/free government lands have been occupied by influential people leaving the tribal and landless people aside and this needs a probe. They urged the state government to formulate a plan for the eviction of illegal/unauthorized occupants of grazing lands meant for community use. The Foundation had earlier said that a sizeable chunk among nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwalsin the state are landless, shelterless, as such they deserve dwelling rights on forest lands which they are using as traditional inhabitants since centuries. They mainly rear sheep, goats, buffalos, camels and other animals.

Several members of tribal communities have been pleading that the government follow the model of other states to rehabilitate the nomadic Gujjars-Bakarwals who are the main forest dweller communities in the state. Presently, the state’s nomadic tribes have no rights on the forest lands as no law identical to the Forest Right Act is enforced in the state. The forests are the home of nomadic Gujjars-Bakarwals in Jammu and Kashmir and their economy is completely dependant on forest lands/products. Since the tribes have been protecting forests against mafias and land grabbers, since ages, they must be declared as a forest protectors by settling them properly and lawfully, emphasized the tribal community members. They added that if the Forest Right Act is implemented, it will provide them with “relief and development rights”. They explained that the tribals in other states of the country were entitled to “title rights'” and land ownership which is being cultivated by them since long. They further demanded that each family of tribal and forest dwellers of the state be allotted four hectares land (as per Forest Act) with “use rights” to grazing areas and pastoral routes, etc.