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Forest Gujjars get quota in tiger force

Lucknow, Jan. 3: Van Gujjars, the mountain gypsies ousted from their camping sites in the Corbett and Rajaji national parks in the mid-nineties, have been granted 30 per cent reservation as forest guards force, while their plains counterparts in Rajasthan are agitating for a state job quota.

Unlike the Gujjars of Rajasthan, who are Hindus, Van Gujjars are Muslims.

The forest dwellers, who are vegetarians, will get 30 per cent reservation in a new tiger protection force being set up to check poaching in the Corbett reserve.

The Van Gujjars, numbering over 25,000 according to estimates by NGOs, resided in the Shivalik mountain range near the Jim Corbett National Park for over a century. Their caravans moving from the Doon Valley to the higher areas of the Himalayas in search of forest patches with their cattle in summer made for a curious sight to the people of Dehra Dun. Their food was mostly honey and fruits collected from the forests and the milk from their cattle.

But in the mid-nineties, the Van Gujjars were given government land near Hardwar and told to give up their forest life on suspicion that they were colluding with poachers to kill tigers.

However, when the central government last year approved the setting up of the Corbett tiger force, it asked forest officials to use the Van Gujjars’ knowledge of the forests effectively as they are familiar with the 520 sqkm Corbett park which now has 112 tigers.

The Uttarakhand cabinet okayed the proposal last week to make provision for the quota.

The tiger force will have a similar role like police with power under Section 197 of the criminal procedure code to register a case after a magisterial inquiry in cases of poaching.

Three platoons will be raised for Corbett, each with 30 personnel. Each platoon will be headed by a ranger, said M.H. Khan, secretary, forests and wildlife, in Dehra Dun today.

Khan said 27 posts would be reserved for the Van Gujjars. The force will employ more Gujjars when Rajaji National Park is included.

The forest and environment ministry has sanctioned a budget of Rs 4 crore a year for the force.

“Immediately, the project will be employed for the security of the Corbett Park but it may later be extended to other forest areas,” said another state forest official.

“This decision will help the Gujjars regain their self-respect after being branded poachers by government officials,” said A. Kaushal of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, an NGO that was fighting for the rights of the Van Gujjars to dwell in the forests.

The Van Gujjars are traditionally vegetarians and they should not have been targeted for the poaching in Corbett, said Shiva Tyagi, another rights activist.

In Rajasthan, the Gujjars, who are farmers, have been agitating for nearly 14 days now over the job quota demand.

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