After visiting several high altitude pastures last summer, amid COVID 19 pandemic, I wrote a series of articles on the life of Kashmiri shepherds who are known by their surname. – Chopan. A chopan, also called Pohul in Kashmiri, lives a tough life. This pastoral community usually owns no livestock of their own, but take care of sheep belonging to local farmers. It is not uncommon to see these shepherds dotted across the hilly rangelands of Jammu & Kashmir. In the summer months they negotiate the treacherous mountain pathways to reach the alpine meadows, also called Bahaks. In these bahaks Chopans graze the sheep from June till the onset of autumn. The farmers pay them to look after their sheep for a season which lasts for 5 to 6 months. Some Chopans who have grazing land around their villages continue the activity after their return from Bahak until late autumn.
As already mentioned in my series of articles on these nomadic shepherds, the Chopans are socially, educationally and economically an underdeveloped community. In spite of being a pastoral community, and tribals in real sense, Chopans have not been included under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category by the Government of India. Kashmiri shepherds or Chopans are similar to the Changpa community of Ladakh or Gadis of Jammu or Himachal but Changpas and Gaddis have been given ST status long back and Chopans continue to be discriminated against. J&K Legislative Assembly long back passed a resolution for the inclusion of Chopan community under ST category but Govt of India never took that resolution seriously. Recently when I met with Lt Governor Manoj Sinha and brought this issue to his notice. He assured me that he would take up the matter with the Govt of India.
Chopans & FRA
After 4 years of being in a state of suspended animation the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) last year has brought back the Model Guidelines for Conservation, Management and sustainable use of Community Forest Resources (CFR Guideline) under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). A committee headed by NC Saxena, former member of the Planning Commission & National Advisory Council (NAC) in February last year was asked to examine and recommend CFR Guidelines under FRA.
The CFR right under the FRA empowers Gram Sabhas to conserve and manage their forest. As per section 3 (1) (i) of FRA the Gram Sabhas have rights to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage any community forest resource that they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use. The Tribal Affairs Ministry had also created two more committees, headed by its former secretary Hrusikesh Panda along with the committee on CFR guidelines. One of the committees has been asked to look into the recognition and vesting process of habitat rights of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) and the second will submit a report on the seasonal resource access to nomadic and pastoralist communities which includes the Chopans of Kashmir.
Repairing the Kothas
The Chopans lead a very tough life. With no means to buy even the durable tents, they often take shelter under trees or tarpaulins/polythene during rains while on the way to highland pastures. As they are neither recognized as farmers or scheduled tribes ( STs), they miss out on the subsidy schemes announced by the government. Farmers are provided subsidies for buying cattle, sheep, water motors, spray pumps, gen-sets etc., but there is nothing for the poor Pohul? There is heavy snowfall in pasturelands located at 3500 to 3800 meters above sea level. The Kothas made of wooden logs, rocks and mud get damaged every year. Some weak structures get fully damaged. These poor shepherds are not even allowed to repair their kothas ? Isn’t this injustice ? Abdul Rashid Chopan from Namtahal Chadoora had to sleep in an ordinary tent for three months last year as the forest officials didn’t allow him to repair his damaged Kotha at Ayaud pastureland in Doodh Ganga forest range of Budgam. Those who managed to bribe some officials could manage to undertake the repairs. On the other hand several illegal Kothas have come up during the last several years in several rangelands of Pir Panjal forest division. Now under the FRA these newly constructed Kothas can be regularized as well through illegal ways. These are the challenges which need to be addressed. The census report of the Kothas needs to be made public . For instance if there were 100 numbers of Kothas in a particular forest beat or block in 2015 , how can this number jump up to 200 in 2019 or 2020 ? A mega Kotha made up of Iron girdles was dismantled last autumn by forest officials. For many weeks the forest department didn’t even accept the fact that illegal Kotha was being constructed around Chazkani Naad area of Doodh Ganga forest range. It was only after the photographs were sent to Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) through whatsApp, the DFO Pir Panjaal acted against the encroacher who is a well off man living a luxurious life with houses in Srinagar and Jammu. In contrast to this poor Rashid Chopan who is dependent on the forests for his livelihood and lives in the pastureland for 3 to 4 months every year was not given permission to even repair his Kotha and he had to struggle with cold and rain inside an ordinary tent, from June September last year.
Section 3(1) (d) of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) says that other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies, grazing (both settled or transhumant) and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities are recognized for individuals and communities. Those shepherds (Chopans) who actually live in villages located outside the forest areas and neither fall under the other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) community, still have the rights on grazing their animals in bahaks and rangelands. They can now repair their Kothas as well under the FRA after following the due process of law. The Forest Department needs to ensure that FRA should is not misused to construct fresh Kothas. A fresh census of these huts should be taken up soon before the rights of the tribals and OTFD are recognized.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. He is an Anant Fellow for Climate Action.