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A tall, well built man with a long beard wearing a sherwani and distinctive pugree explains,

“We Van Gujjaras are buffalo breeders. We migrate into the alpines during the summers and return to the lower Himalayas crossing the Rajaji National Park. We have done this for centuries, ever since they migrated from Kashmir with their animals. In 2009 the Forest Department permanently stopped us from crossing the National Park, seriously compromising our security, profession and lifestyle.”

A Van Gujjar elder speaks at a consultation

The Gujjars of Savai Madhapar were resettled outside their traditional home, the Ranthambore National Park, in Rajasthan around the same time. Their Buffalos milk yields reduced to less than half, in the sedentary farms they had to settle into. Most of the Gujjars have had to give up animal keeping altogether, bringing their breed close to extinction, explains Ambalal.
Almost all the pastoralists present in the meeting organised by MOTA FRA cell, Vasundhara and Sahjeevan had similar stories of discrimination and harassment. They were surprised that the Forest Department could not see the benefits their animals brought to the ecologies of the National Parks and the very wild species they hoped to protect. As Magan Raika from Rajasthan explains, “if our lifestyles are dangerous for the forests, how is it that the only forests left in the country are where there are pastoralists?! We protected the forest’s FRA Workshops even before the Forest department came to manage them!”

Herders and members of civil society at a Goshti in IGNCA, Delhi

It is precisely this understanding that has been enshrined by our lawmakers in the 2006 Forest Rights Act. The seminar on ‘FRA and Pastoralism’ organised for the very first time, since the Act was promulgated, listened to over 15 pastoralist communities from 10 states of India. Madhu Sarin, who was a member of the drafting committee of the Act explained that as pastoralists are in minority in many villages and cannot set up VLC’s (Village Level Committees, the legal entity to accord rights) and travel through several villages and even districts and states, their claims should be facilitated by the Collector as Chair of the District Level FRA Committee. This amendment was made in 2012.
Sandeep Virmani from Sahjeevan explained that the Act recognised that sustainable wealth generation can flourish when land is managed as ‘commons’ and the Act provides Community rights Titles to such communities over the forests. Tushar Dash from Vasundhra, explained that while many tribals have been given their individual and community rights over forests, no pastoralist community has yet been granted title.

Gani bhai, a herder from Kachchh presents his thoughts at a consultation

The Banni pastoralists of Kachchh shared how 46 settlements of 2500 sq km have laid a single claim over the entire grassland. While the village, block and district committees have approved their claim, they are yet to receive their titles. They have already begun preparing their management plans on how to regenerate the neglected landscape.
All the communities agreed to form a fund for working towards their community claims and took a pledge to work together towards their rights. The representatives from the FRA cell of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs asked the organisers to provide a list of pastoral communities across the county, so that they can provide guidelines and instructions to the states to expedite pastoralist rights.

Leaders of herding communities taking an oath to work together to fight for their grazing rights.