Sunday, Jul 03, 2022
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Forest Dwellers Of J&K And The Long Wait For Justice 

With no access to the majority of forest areas, and shrinking of grazing lands, nomadic herders like Gujjars and Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir are finding themselves locked in conflict with local communities.

Gujjars and Bakarwals, the traditional forest dwellers in Jammu and Kashmir
Gujjars and Bakarwals, the traditional forest dwellers in Jammu and Kashmir Getty Images

When the state of Jammu and Kashmir was dismantled in August 2019, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had projected the region's biggest ethnic and tribal groups — Gujjars and Bakarwals — as among the biggest beneficiaries of the government’s move. But more than two years later, the most marginalized and vulnerable population in the Union Territory seems to have little joy to share. Due to poor implementation of the two legislations — The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, also called Forest Rights Act, and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act — traditional forest dwellers continue to bear the brunt of anti-encroachment drives undertaken by the police, wildlife, forest, and authorities.  The J&K High Court has also been found indifferent to these two legislations in some instances.

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The police cases have been piling up against poor communities, and the government functionaries continue to have the same hostile attitude towards them. With no access to the majority of forest areas, and shrinking of grazing lands, the nomadic herders are finding themselves locked in conflict with local communities. It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to migrate through traditional routes due to stiff opposition from local residents. On highways, they face a double threat. While traveling with cattle herds poses a greater risk to their lives and livestock due to vehicular traffic, the community members are frequently booked on charges of bovine smuggling. They are also targeted by cow vigilante groups. Following the Kathua rape case, the twin communities have seen boycott calls against them and a growing number of attacks, especially in districts like Kathua, Samba, Udhampur, Jammu and Rajouri. The gradual decline of the local handicraft industry has denied remunerative prices for the wool of sheep and goats. 

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As a result, many nomadic tribal families have abandoned traditional pastoralist life only to become homeless daily wage labourers. As per Census 2011, only 17.8 percent of the population from the tribal communities of Gujjars and Bakarwals can read and write to some extent. Notably, the Gujjars and Bakarwals were notified as Scheduled Tribe in the year 1991. The fruits of reservation, however, are being enjoyed by a minuscule section that is already settled and affluent. One now needs a time-bound and effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act. 

The tribes also feel that they need an alternative and sustainable development model. A complex web of factors — climate change, urbanization and armed conflict — has affected their simple way of life. With the extension of central laws to Jammu and Kashmir, they say, government functionaries need to be more sensitive towards them.

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