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Old life lost, new one never emerged

Aug 21, 2008

For Ban Gujjars, buffalo herders in the hilly north Indian state of India, life has never been the same ever since they were evacuated from Rajaji National Park a decade ago. In the process of relocation they have lost their livestock, traditional livelihoods and customs.

The once-dignified mud-and-thatch house is now just a roof on wooden pillars, with a crumbling wall and a door clinging uselessly to it. Inside, within a temporary enclosure built by standing cots on their sides, a woman is cooking borrowed food in borrowed utensils, while hungry children swarm around her.

“We were fast asleep when the rush of water came. The first thing we knew was that three of our small children had been washed away. We all ran about in the dark trying to find them. It was a full hour of struggle before we found the children, with the help of some neighbours. By then all our belongings – stocks of food, clothes and utensils – were washed away,” says Noor Bano.

Bano’s family is among the nearly 1,000 relocated Ban Gujjar families of Gaindikhatta Gujjar Basti in Haridwar, Uttarakhand that suffered huge losses due to a flashflood on May 20, this year.

Bano’s family is among the nearly 1,000 relocated Ban Gujjar families of Gaindikhatta Gujjar Basti in Haridwar, Uttarakhand that suffered huge losses due to a flashflood on May 20, this year.

The flood damaged houses, washed away belongings and left more than 200 families with no shelter at all. Roads within the colony are a mess of slush and puddles. Apart from a pittance given to a handful of people, the colony is yet to receive any relief or compensation despite the fact that two months have passed since the catastrophe occurred.

Although it’s been over six years since the first of these families arrived in Gaindikhatta, they have not been provided any of the amenities promised by the government. Not even concrete houses. The families have built their own traditional mud-and-thatch dwellings, called deras, but, though suited to the mountain lifestyle of the Gujjars, the deras are proving utterly ineffective in the flood-prone plains.

“We agreed to come here because forest officials promised us education for our children and all kinds of facilities. But we have been reduced to penury here,” says Roshandeen, a community leader.

“It appears now that all they were interested in was getting us out of the forest. Now that we are here, and in no position to return to our original lifestyle, they have forgotten us altogether.”

Relocation history

The process of relocation for Ban Gujjars living inside the Rajaji National Park, located close to the city of Dehradun, began in 1998 as part of a conservation drive. The overall relocation package included 0.82 hectares of land per family, apart from certain civic amenities.

According to Gauri Shankar Pande, director, Rajaji National Park, a total of 1,213 families have been relocated till date at the two relocation sites of Pathri and Gaindikhatta in Haridwar district.

According to Gauri Shankar Pande, director, Rajaji National Park, a total of 1,213 families have been relocated till date at the two relocation sites of Pathri and Gaindikhatta in Haridwar district.

The Ban Gujjars are a transhumance tribe of buffalo herders who traditionally live in the Himalayas, migrating to the upper alpine regions during summer and moving to the lower Shivalik foothills in winter.

Pande claims that relocation has vastly improved the lives of the Gujjars as they now have access to schools and health centres, which they lacked earlier. But community members and forest rights activists allege that the relocation process is riddled with problems.

Discriminatory treatment meted out to residents of the two relocation colonies has created rifts within the community. The drastic change in lifestyle has caused a number of health and livelihood problems too. And despite clear court orders, an estimated 1,300 families whose names do not figure on the relocation list are being forced to move to the relocation sites without any compensation.

Discrimination, corruption

Despite the problems, Pande says the relocation to Pathri has been a huge success. He even offers to arrange a visit. There is no mention of Gaindikhatta.

The reason for this omission is obvious to anyone who visits the two colonies. While Pathri, where the first 600 families were settled, boasts concrete houses, tolerable roads, electricity, a school, drinking water, toilets, a community hall, health centres, etc. Gaindikhatta has nothing.

Pande explains that work on the provision of amenities has already begun in Gaindikhatta. But the residents say it’s progressing at a snail’s pace and is of extremely poor quality.

Mohammad Rafiq, one of the first settlers in the colony, says: “We have been here for six years now, and development work (involving 150 cattle sheds, 140 toilets, roads and electricity) was taken up only last year. It’s still incomplete, and is of very inferior quality.”

A look around the colony shows this to be true. There are loose wires dangling from electric poles; the toilets are nothing but little brick cabins with no fittings; the cattle sheds are leaky (some are crumbling); and the single freshly metalled road is already sinking.

A look around the colony shows this to be true. There are loose wires dangling from electric poles; the toilets are nothing but little brick cabins with no fittings; the cattle sheds are leaky (some are crumbling); and the single freshly metalled road is already sinking.

“What we badly need is concrete houses,” says Mustafa Mai. “Every year the floods damage our mud houses. This year has been the worst. We have also had two fires, and once all the thatch on our houses was blown away in a storm. In the forests we could easily reconstruct damaged dwellings because we had free access to thatching grass. But here grass is very expensive and the timber that we brought with us is beginning to rot. Unless houses are built soon it will not be long before the entire colony is living out in the open.”

The work being undertaken in both colonies is of extremely poor quality and a recent departmental inquiry exposed allegations of corruption and irregularities worth crores of rupees against Pande. No action has yet been taken.

Loss of livelihood

Besides apparent differences in the provision of facilities in the two colonies, both share the problems caused by relocation. The most important of these is loss of livelihood.

The Gujjars are traditionally buffalo herders; they live on a thriving milk trade. Shifting to the plains has seen the virtual demise of this trade, following the death of a large number of buffaloes, which belong to the rare Neeliravi breed that is known for its high yield, at both camps.

Over 2,000 buffaloes have died in the last six years in Gaindikhatta, says Roshandeen. While each Gujjar family owned an average of 10-15 buffaloes in the mountains, the animals are a rare sight in the colonies.

“Our buffaloes are used to cool hill weather, abundant green fodder, free access to water bodies and lots of exercise,” says Hussain Bibi.

“Here they have to be kept tied up in a shed and fed on dry straw. The heat and dryness causes them to suffer from infections of the throat and hooves. In the hills, hoof infections would strike once in 15-20 years; here there is simply no getting away from it.”

Hussain Bibi’s family used to own 12 buffaloes. Only one is still alive.

Mohammad Musa, an elderly resident whose family lost 33 of its 35 buffaloes, says: “Except for a handful of lucky people who managed to sell their buffaloes and start petty businesses like small shops, everyone in the colony is now reduced to doing manual labour. In the hills, a family that owned just 10 buffaloes could send 60-70 litres of milk to market every day. And ghee production was anything between 100 and 200 kilos per season per family. The milk alone would fetch a family Rs 600-700 every day. Now it is difficult to get even Rs 70 per day.”

Agricultural land is little consolation because, unused to agriculture, most Gujjar families do not know how to cultivate the land.

Agricultural land is little consolation because, unused to agriculture, most Gujjar families do not know how to cultivate the land.

Mustafa recounts how he lost two paddy crops in a row, and Rs 15,000 in investments, because he did not know that paddy seedlings need to be transplanted and paddy fields bunded.

“I do not know if I will ever be able to learn enough to feed my family,” he says. Most families in both colonies have entered into unremunerative share-cropping contracts with local farmers for want of an alternative.

People have also not been given ownership papers to the land, despite the fact that some of them have been living here for 10 years. When asked, Pande said the land was forest land that had not yet been denotified.

“We will complete the process and distribute ownership papers once all the families have moved,” he said.

Members of the community remain unconvinced. Noor Alam, a community elder and office bearer of the Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti, says: “How can we believe this? In 1972, the government gave some Gujjars land in Satiwale and Kunaoon. Now they too are being forced to relocate. How do we know this will not be repeated?”

Shrikant Verma, legal counsel for the Gujjars and head of the Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti, says that the clause regarding all families moving is misleading.

“The relocation has been going on for 10 years already. And, being 10 years old, around 1,300 families do not figure on the list. There is stiff resistance to the move. It could easily take another decade or more before the relocation is ‘complete’ in any sense of the term. Also, what about the rights of the 1,300 families?”

Health impact

Changes in diet and weather conditions have adversely impacted the health of the relocated people. In their natural environment, the Gujjars’ diet consists of abundant quantities of milk and milk products, and the cooking medium is pure ghee.

Since the relocation, these products have virtually disappeared from the table. “Our household of 22 used to consume 15 litres of milk per day in the hills,” says Roshan Bibi whose family lost 14 of its 15 buffaloes. “Now there is no milk even for tea.”

The switch from ghee to vegetable oil has brought on stomach problems, and children are the worst sufferers. In the last two years, numerous cases of whooping cough have been reported among children in Gaindikhatta.

Women’s health has also been adversely impacted, with problems like anaemia and jaundice, which the Gujjar women had never known before, now commonplace.

Women’s health has also been adversely impacted, with problems like anaemia and jaundice, which the Gujjar women had never known before, now commonplace.

“We agreed to relocate because we were promised good urban facilities and an opportunity to come up in life,” says Roshandeen. “But we have lost everything, and gained nothing in the process. Our old life is gone, our buffaloes are gone, but the new life we were promised has not materialised.”

Source : Infochange
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