Shivalik’s Tongia and Van Gujjar communities protect wildlife but their rights are ignored

  • The traditional forest communities of the Shivalik range in the Himalayas have planted and maintained over 10,000 hectares of forest area for decades.
  • However, due to poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, the communities are left to struggle for even their basic rights.
  • Some experts also allege that the removal of tribal communities from forests is leading to an increase in human-animal interactions in the region.

On a lazy April afternoon, Pallo Devi, 52, sits languidly on a bamboo and jute rope chair outside her home in Haripur Tongia village in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar district. Dressed in pink salwar-kurta, her wrinkled face suggests a woman in whom experience and struggle run deep. “We are Tongia Kastkaar,” said Pallo Devi in a lamenting tone, ”the workforce that built and rejuvenated the Shivalik forest. Unfortunately, we are now seen as encroachers  in our own homes.”

Tongias are a forest-dwelling community of northern India and are considered traditional forest builders of outer Shivalik hills in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. It is believed that they have planted approximately 10,000 hectares of forest in this region since colonial times.

The community practised agroforestry until the enactment of the Forest Conservation (FC) Act of 1980, that restricted communal habitation and management of the forest.

“Now, not only threats of eviction and demolition are a routine to us, we struggle to access basic services and welfare schemes due to lack of permanent residence,” said Pallo Devi’s daughter Sangeeta, a single mother is struggling to get an Aadhar card (a government-issued national identity card) issued for her child.

The fate of Tongias is similar to Van Gujjars – another Himalayan forest-dwelling tribe that practice transhumance. With their livestock, this pastoralist tribe seasonally oscillates between the upper Himalayas and lower Shivalik hills.

This community has no permanent residence and stays in hamlets of four to five mud hutments. “We depend on our livestock to survive. Unfortunately, our entry into the forest is now prohibited and we cannot take our cattle to graze in the forest,” said Saddam, a youth from the Van Gujjar community, who is struggling to feed his herd of 15-16 buffaloes in the outskirts of Uttarakhand’s Buggawala village.

The struggle of these communities is rooted in India’s Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwelling Communities (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, commonly known as FRA. The act recognises the importance of communal management of forests and grant them user rights over the forests, ownership of the minor forest produce and recognise their property rights over ancestral land. However, even after 14 years of enactment, the FRA’s on-ground implementation remains abysmal in this region and the community’s claims over forest land are rejected on baseless grounds.

A Tongia house in Uttar Pradesh's Pelo Khurd village. Photo by Devyani Nighoskar.
A Tongia house in Uttar Pradesh’s Pelo Khurd village. Photo by Devyani Nighoskar.

These communities have taken the task of maintaining the set of documents that are required for filing claims under the FRA 2006, which is ideally the duty of the forest department.

Enormous paperwork and power struggles have led to the poor implementation of the act. “FRA grants Gram Sabha the power to verify the claims of people based on oral or physical evidence of habitation. As the power of people increases, the power of forest department decreases in the same proportion, and the department is not very happy with the implementation of the Act,” Ashok Chowdhary, General Secretary of All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), told Mongabay-India.

The ancestral wisdom of Tongia community

The Tongia community also highlights that the government is pushing the afforestation programmes without taking into account the traditional practices of the communities living there for a long time.

“The traditional plantation by our community keeps the interest of animals in mind. We planted bamboo trees along with other varieties as it’s the favourite food of wild elephants, but now the government’s afforestation program under CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) – plants trees of high economic and less ecological value. Weeding out harmful plants such as Lantana and Carrot grass was also routine in our practice,” Munnilal, a Tongia activist from Haripur village, told Mongabay-India.

However, the forest department cites the provisions of the Wildlife Conservation Act, 1972 which restricts human activity in protected areas in response to the lack of basic facilities and permanent housing in the forest villages even as the FRA recognise the importance of communities in forest ecology. “The forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (are) integral to the very survival of the forest ecosystem,” notes the preamble of the FRA 2006.

The removal of these communities from forests has led to heightened episodes of human-animal interactions in the region. “Due to lack of fodder, wild animals come out of the forests and destroy our food crops, and from less to no compensation is paid to us,” alleged Pradeep Saini, a farmer of the adjacent revenue village Buggawala.

Read more: Livestock grazing in eastern Himalayan pastures enhances biodiversity and productivity: Study

The Van Gujjar’s symbiosis with forests

In 1994, an investigation under the Indian People Tribunal was conducted at the Rajaji National Park, in response to an order of eviction to Van Gujjars living there.

Justice P.S. Poti, one of the jury members of the tribunal observed in his report that removing forest-dwelling communities may disturb the forest ecology, as the animal, plant and human life in the forest has complex interdependence.

Shamsher Ali of the Van Gujjar community posing with a fee slip for taking his cattle to graze in the forest. Photo by Nishant Saini.
Shamsher Ali of the Van Gujjar community posing with a fee slip for taking his cattle to graze in the forest. Photo by Nishant Saini.

As a result of climate change, the rivers in the Rajaji’s outer reserve area dries up in summer leading to water scarcity for wild animals. “Our presence ensured water availability for wildlife; We have indigenous water harvesting system called ‘Uggal’ in vernacular language Gojri, the water of ‘Uggal’ is availed by both our domestic and wild animals,” said Ameer Hamza, the 26-year-old president of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan.

“The trails and tracks made by our movement compartmentalise forest and prevents the spread of forest fires from one part of the forest to another, we also deploy our people to check the forest fires after monthly meetings of the community,” Hamza told Mongabay-India.

Read more: Van Gujjars: People of the forest or nowhere?

The oddity in conservation

Lately, the state’s forest department has approved the felling of 56,000 trees in one of the most ecologically sensitive belts of Uttarakhand for the central government’s ambitious ‘Char Dham Road Project‘. Ironically, Pallo was asked to leave the forest when she asked the forest department to cut an old and weak tree that could fall upon her house at any time. “Even the people outside the forest have more rights over the forest than us,” said Pallo, recalling her confrontation with a forest guard.

But Manoj Chandran, Chief Conservator of Forests at Uttarakhand Forest Department disagreed and said: “We acknowledge both the rights of communities and their role in wildlife conservation.”

“There are people who have filed claims but do not depend on forests for livelihood, and there is always a risk of getting external elements such as ‘Land Mafias’ involved. In the said context verification of genuine claims takes time. Further, we are prioritising recognition and rehabilitation of villages in core wildlife zones” Chandran told Mongabay-India.

Munnilal, a Tongia activist, in conversation with the Tongia men of Kaluwala village of Uttar Pradesh. Photo by Nishant Saini.
Munnilal, a Tongia activist, in conversation with the Tongia men of Kaluwala village of Uttar Pradesh. Photo by Nishant Saini.

While Chowdhary from the AIUFWP believes that even the frontline staff of the department is dependent on forest communities, but they fail to have a meaningful relationship with forest dwellers due to the larger politics which impedes wildlife conservation. “There are no markets in the forest, even for drinking water the front line staff depend on the community in deep forest villages,” he said.

The forest communities of outer Shivalik grapple with administrative issues and lack of legal support while they struggle to exercise their rights.

“This is not just a permanent house, this is our struggle in form of a house and we will rest only when we are not seen as encroachers in our own homes,” said Munnilal, gazing keen-eyed at the construction of a permanent house in Kaluwala Tongia village.

Read more: Is the upcoming Char Dham highway speeding towards environmental disaster?


Banner image: Ramsingh, a Tongia man in Kaluwala village, manually twisting the ‘Bhabhad’ grass filaments to make jute-like rope. Tongias traditionally cut the Bhabhad grass to make ropes, this, in turn, prevents the spread of forest fires as this grass is highly inflammable and moisture-less. Photo by Nishant Saini.

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