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Cheated Gujjars line up back-to-roots crusade

Dehra Dun, Dec. 31: The Van Gujjars have threatened to return to their roots, their forest dwellings in the Himalayas.

“Come March 15 and we’ll start our ‘back to forests’ agitation. We are disenchanted by the Uttaranchal government’s failure to implement its promises,” said Ghulam Hussain, a leader of the nomadic community.

Hussain was among the first to move to a resettlement colony set up by the Uttar Pradesh government at Pathri near Hardwar 10 years ago. Today, he is a disillusioned man. “We were promised good houses, cattle sheds, agricultural land, water and electricity but after so many years, we feel cheated by the forest bureaucracy.”

The Van Gujjar leaders living in parts of the proposed Rajaji National Park area of Uttaranchal met over the weekend to chalk out their course of action. “We will offer court arrest if the government stops us from returning to the forests,” said Gujjar activist Feroz, who participated in the Gujjar Sammelan that ended with the announcement of the “return to roots” agitation.

Feroz said the houses provided to 512 Gujjar families in the Pathari colony were in deplorable condition with no cattle sheds, water or electricity. “Most of my buffaloes died during the period and papers of the land allocated to us are yet to be handed over.”

The Gujjars settled outside the park alleged that the forest bureaucracy had taken them for a ride. “The officials are now coercing the Gujjars living in the forests to move into a proposed colony at Gaindi Khatta despite orders from the National Human Rights Commission opposing it,” said Mastuq Lambardar, a community leader. Lambardar referred to a letter dated October 10, 2002 from the inspector-general of forests to the chief secretaries of the states. It clarified that those living in the forests before 1980 could not be evicted.

What piques the Van Gujjars most is that they are being portrayed as “enemies” of the environment. “We have lived in harmony with the forests for ages. We can go into the forests unarmed, without fear of attack from wild animals…. The forest officials carry rifles for protection,” said Rehmat, 80.

“There are 27 villages, railway stations and even an army cantonment in the national park but nobody has dared to talk about evicting them. Why only the poor Gujjars'” he asked.

The Gujjar leaders recalled that the Congress had promised to safeguard the interests of the community in its poll manifesto. “The actions of the forest bureaucracy are in sharp contrast to what the politicians had professed,” says Feroz. On March 10, last year, the state forest and wildlife minister had promised that a part of the proposed park could become the first community-managed bio- reserve.

“But encroachment on our rights to forest wealth continues,” said Talib, a young Gujjar leader.

He wants the state government to appoint members of the community as “honorary forest guards”. “We have been protecting the forests from fire and poaching for centuries,” he added.

The community leaders will meet chief minister N.D. Tiwari and Congress president Sonia Gandhi next month.

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