- Ten years after their relocation from Corbett Tiger Reserve, the Van Gujjar community members are yet to receive what was promised to them.
- Of the 181 families who were to be provided land and other facilities under the relocation package, only 157 families were provided land; 84 families who were promised monetary compensation have not yet received any money, explain the authors of this commentary.
- Land for schools, health centres and other community facilities, were taken from the land allotted to individuals.
- The views in this commentary are that of the authors.
Sabhalgarh Compartment 8, in the Haridwar forest division is known to the residents as Gaindi Khatta. This is a settlement of the Van Gujjar community, who have been relocated and resettled here from Corbett and Rajaji Tiger Reserves, in Uttarakhand. This commentary throws light on the process of their rehabilitation, and their current socio-economic status. Of the 1,200 families relocated from the two tiger reserves, we focus on the 157 families relocated over a decade ago, in 2013, from the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary (SWLS).
The SWLS is a part of India’s premier tiger reserve, the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR), in Uttarakhand. It was notified in 1987 with an area of 301.18 sq. km, adjoining the Corbett National Park. It was added as part of CTR in 1992 under Project Tiger, a centrally sponsored scheme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. In 2010, the CTR was notified under the Wildlife Protection Act, of 1972, with a total area of 1,288.31 sq. km, including a Critical Tiger Habitat of 821.99 sq. km.
The Van Gujjars are a pastoralist community living in the western Himalayan regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. They practice seasonal migration, moving to the upper Himalayas during summer and towards the lower Gangetic plains during the winter. They rear an indigenous breed of buffaloes called the Gojri‘ breed that also derives its name from the larger Gujjar community.
In Uttarakhand, a substantial population of the community has been residing, for generations, in areas that have, in the past few decades, been declared as Protected Areas, including Sonanadi.
Pre-relocation procedural lapses
The Sonanadi families were relocated in 2013, although the talks had begun in 2002. It resumed in 2012 following a case filed in the Nainital High Court, by the Himalayan Yuva Gramin Vikas Sansthan on the status of conservation activities and tourism in CTR. The families, residing in four forest ranges, Adnala, Sonanadi, Maidawan and Palain, in the Critical Tiger Habitat of CTR, were promised relocation packages under the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) (Normative Standards for Tourism and Project Tiger) Guidelines, 2012. A total of 84 families were promised Option 1 of Rs. 10 lakhs monetary compensation while 181 families were promised Option 2, a combination of land and monetary package that included 12 ½ bigha (7.5 acres approximately) private land, drinking water, electricity, cemetery, cattle shed and other facilities, amounting to Rs. 10 lakh per family.
Of the 181 families who were listed under Option 2, only 157 families were relocated. Twenty years after the talks began, the remaining 24 families are yet to receive land and continue to live with insecurities of the unknown. The 84 families who were promised Option 1 have not received any compensation. A bench in the Nainital High Court, in the Think Act Rise Foundation vs Uttarakakhand (WP (PIL) 140 of 2019), on December 15 2021, ordered the forest department to provide alternate land arrangements for the 24 families and to process the payment to 84 families within three months but no action has been taken. The department is yet to comply with the order and things continue to remain the same.
For those families who have been relocated, there is a visible contrast between the policy and its implementation on the ground. Hussain Ali, a community elder, stated that the pre-relocation process was a product of coercion by the Forest Department. The department’s rejection of the community’s choice to relocate to Lansdowne Forest division instead of Gaindi Khatta, threats of evictions and imposition of false cases on refusal to relocate, constant harassment was traumatic for the community members and hence they agreed to go wherever the department rehabilitated them, to get away from such problems.
On the other hand, the relocation process itself has been far from satisfactory for the people, missing many legal requirements of providing complete facilities at the rehabilitated site, and fraught with mismanagement of financial and other resources points towards lack of proper action from the FD in ensuring a just transition for the families.
Of the entire package, the people have only received 12.5 bigha land, per family. They had to use their own resources to transport their belongings, build houses, and within the space also house the cattle as no separate facility was provided. Due to a lack of financial resources, many have had to use either used tarpaulin or metal sheets as roofs, some are still in the process of building brick by brick.
The land allocated for community facilities such as schools, cattle shed, and place of worship, was taken from the private land which was part of the package. No electricity was provided only recently have some families received electricity connections, while a few are yet to do so. The private land provided to the people is still legally forest land. The promise of rights over their land as well as the converting the settlement to the revenue village is yet to be fulfilled.
Post-relocation status of livelihoods
Agricultural land was provided to the people without any additional support for farming. The Van Gujjars are predominantly a pastoralist community and do not practice agriculture. Only in a few places where some have sedentarised, the families have been depending on agriculture as a source of livelihood. Therefore, it was a significant change in livelihood source for the Sonanadi families, and with no support being provided many families were not able to generate income for sustenance and had to depend on their neighbours and relatives for survival.
The relocation has also led to decrease in their access to forests. As a semi-nomadic pastoralist community, their relationship with their forests forms an important part of their culture. The Forest Department has claimed that since the land has been provided to them, there is no reason for the Van Gujjars to access forests. This has caused a major problem due to the lack of grazing areas for their buffaloes, which most families brought with them from their original homes and have continued to rear.
The shift to agriculture and the lack of access to forests have also forced a major change in their livelihood source. The families earlier depended on the sale of buffalo milk for their income, but with no space to house the buffaloes and forest access for grazing, the number of buffaloes per family has reduced drastically. The milk produce is primarily used for household purposes, and only a small quantity is sold to nearby dairies for a relatively lesser price. However, even with the added pressure of maintaining the health and well-being of their buffaloes, they continue to rear them since it is an important part of their culture, that they attempt to retain.
Village development funds
Gaindi Khatta is not only the home to the Sonanadi families but also to around 20 families who were the original habitants of the area and the 878 families who were brought here from Rajaji Tiger Reserve. The village development fund allocated for the development of the rehabilitated families including common facilities are divided among three units: for the unit of Rajaji families in Gaindi Khatta, families from Sonanadi, and families who were relocated to Pathri range, Haridwar forest division, from Rajaji Tiger Reserve. The Sonanadi families stated that until 2018, all the funds that arrived were only used for the Rajaji families in Gaindi Khatta and Pathri. The argument being that since they were relocated earlier, they were eligible for receiving the funds and that the Sonanadi families had to “wait for their turn”. The Sonanadi unit was established only in 2019 and even the percentage of funds received is comparatively lesser to those of the Rajaji units.
When asked what was the benefit of having relocated the site, people shared that the most significant benefit was peace of mind due to freedom from the harassment by the forest department and freedom from a constant sense of insecurity of not knowing the future. The life in their original deras within the sanctuary, especially after the area was declared as a tiger reserve, was full of tension and constant pressure from the department, with false cases registered for lopping trees, entering forests, and even in cases of unrelated wildlife deaths. The nature of the interaction has now changed.
However, their current area has been identified as an important wildlife corridor and therefore surveillance from the FD continues, albeit to a much lesser degree, compared to their former area.
Negative impacts of relocation
The manner in which the relocation was carried out has negatively impacted the socio-economic conditions as well as the culture and traditions of the Van Gujjars. The families find themselves in a precarious situation with no proper livelihood as well as community facilities. A primary school that was built in the area is non-functional due to lack of funds. Their demands for a health centre, cattle sheds, anganwadi and schools among others, have been left unheard.
With the lack of political support for their cause, the community is looking towards two response mechanisms, through legal recourse towards the fulfillment of the promise given to them by the forest department and other institutions. This includes the specific demands of proper compensation to all families who have not received what is due, health and education centres, facilities for the sustenance of basic livelihoods, individual rights to the families, and the status of the revenue village. The second is through social and political mobilisation on the larger issues of rights and empowerment of the Van Gujjars, which is being done by the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan.
The authors work with Kalpavriksh, an environment action group.
Banner image: People collecting wood in Uttarakhand. Representative image. Photo by Ashutosh Rawat/ Wikimedia Commons.