Under open sky, facing extreme weather

FRA fails to give shelter rights to nomadic Chopans, Gujjars
Under open sky, facing extreme weather
Azee Begum's Tarpaulin shelter at DiskhalPhoto credit: Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Early this year I wrote a series of articles on the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The part IX of that series, titled “ Right to repair damaged Kothas” was published on Feb 6th 2021. I was optimistic that pastoralist communities such as Chopans, Gujjars or Bakerwals, who faced a lot of difficulty during repair of their damaged log-and-mud huts, also called Kothas, would get a sigh of relief. I was sure that after rolling out of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the government would issue a circular in this regard. The nomadic groups have already migrated to the upper reaches along with their sheep, goat and cattle, but most of them are denied permission to repair their Kothas which have been damaged during the winter snowfall recently or some years back. There is no clear direction given by the Government to the forest department on this issue. I saw many nomadic families of Chopans and Gujjars living in miserable conditions in the Pir Panjaal pasturelands in district Budgam. I had gone to visit the area along with some friends and activists recently. I met several shepherd and gujjar families between June 19th to 21st who are forced to take shelter under open sky in the extreme weather conditions.

Azee Begum of Raithan

On the way to our basecamp at Corag on June 19th from Doodhpathri, we reached Diskhal meadow after a 3 hour hike. I met some shepherd women and their little children in the meadow who were collecting some wild leafy vegetables. An old woman of around 70 years of age who introduced herself as Azee from Raithan Chack Budgam asked me and my friends to see her shelter. The old lady seemed depressed and distressed. I could see a white tarpaulin sheet spread over some rocks from a distance. Azee said “Aess che Aeth Manz Rozaan” (we live in this). I couldn’t believe, Azee and her family would be staying under that tarpaulin sheet in harsh weather conditions of Diskhal as the area is not only located at an altitude of 3500 meters but also witnesses very fast winds almost every day. Recently the fast winds destroyed hundreds of trees in the nearby forests of Doodhpathri and Doodh Ganga valley. Diskhal is a green pasture with no forest cover at all and the winds are faster and stronger in the area. The tarpaulin shelters of Chopans get damaged almost every day. The situation is horrible and every night it is like a nightmare for these poor shepherds.

We were very much exhausted and went to our basecamp 1 km downhill of Diskhal at Corag. I assured Azee that I would come to see her tarpaulin shelter on our return. When we left back on June 21st afternoon from Corag, I went to Azee’s tarpaulin shelter. I made a short video which has gone viral on my facebook page. I could imagine how the family would be struggling with cold and high speed winds in the area? Even to collect firewood is a challenge for the shepherd women as the same has to be collected from forest located almost 2 kms downhill.

Kothas burnt down

Azee told me that she, along with many chopan families, owned Kothas in the Diskhal meadow until 5 to 6 years back. The same were burnt down when these shepherds came back from the meadows around autumn of 2015. Till date it is a mystery who actually had burnt down those one dozen log huts in Diskhal? Some sources told me it was timber smugglers who were behind that arson as Chopans were their biggest enemies; since they would alert the forest officials about their illegal activities. Pertinent to mention that Chopans never indulge in timber smuggling and instead work hard to make their both ends meet. They have been targeted for conserving forests and the forest department hasn’t even recognized their contribution. The department never ever allowed them to reconstruct the huts (kothas) and from the last 5 years these families have lived under tarpaulin sheets.

Gul Jan’s damaged Kotha

Gul Jan, a resident of Gohi Dragan village in Kaich Khansahib comes to Mechi Khanain Jabb every summer with a flock of cattle from her village. Mechi Khanain Jabb is also a highland pasture located around Diskhal. Until 2016, Gul Jan would come to the meadow every summer with her husband Ghulam Hassan Deenda. He died in 2017 due to some illness. Gul Jan, who belongs to Gujjar community, didn’t surrender after her husband's death. In order to make both ends meet she continues to come to pastureland with the cattle of her neighbors for 3 months. After August, the cattle are taken care of around Gohi Dragan village for another 3 months. Gul Jan is assisted by her four children. The condition of her Kotha made of wooden logs, stones and mud is terrible. She has been requesting the forest department to allow her to collect some old wooden logs in the nearby forest area of Mechi Khanain jabb so that the Kotha could be repaired. The forest department doesn't allow it. Some repairs are allowed and it is alleged that forest officials take bribe from the poor migratory population for giving such permissions unofficially. Some months back Gul Jan was told that under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) she would be able to get some old wooden logs from the forest to repair her hut, but that isn’t the reality. I met some forest officials in the area who told me they have no direction from their officers to allow repairing the Kothas.

Conclusion

Section 3(1) (d) of the Forest Rights Act says that other community rights of uses or entitlements such as grazing rights (both settled or transhumant) and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities are recognized for individuals and communities. If these communities are entitled to get certain rights like repairing or construction of log huts or Kothas , why isn't the Govt having a concrete policy about the same? Chopans, Gujjars or Bakerwals are the backbone of our economy as they take care of our almost 40 lakh sheep and goats plus thousands of cattle. Isn’t it the duty of the Govt as a welfare state to ensure these nomads live dignified lives with better shelter facilities in the highland pastures?

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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