In June 2020, a proposal was forwarded by District Magistrate to Government of Uttar Pradesh to declare the Tiger Reserve in the Shivalik forest range in Western Uttar Pradesh. If approved, this would be the fourth Tiger Reserve in the state.
The proposed Tiger Reserve would be located in the foothills of the Shivalik range on the Delhi to Dehradun route in the Saharanpur circle. This range is in close proximity to the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand and covers over an area of about 332 km². The state currently has three Tiger Reserves — Philibhit and Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Amangarh Tiger Reserve in the Bijnor district of Western Uttar Pradesh. This stands as an appreciated motive of the administration towards the wildlife protection-conservation and a step forward in creating a suitable niche for tigers and the growth of their species.
Need for the Tiger Reserve
In the recent past with the combined efforts of the Forest Department and technical support from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a special six-month camera trap survey was conducted in the forest surroundings. Results concluded that the region has a population of over 50 leopards, different herbivorous animals, civets, snakes and species of birds. Besides already existing research, the Shivalik Forest range holds huge potential for paleontological research. In the month of May, during the camera trap survey for the development of tiger reserve, the forest department made a discovery of the 5 million old fossils in the Shivalik forest range. The presence of the local forest tribe also helped the officials to discover more in this region. Later during the testing of the fossil sample by the scientist at the Wadia Institute, located in Dehradun, it was concluded the fossil is dating back to 5-8 million years. It is one of the world’s oldest fossil remains of an elephant. This suggests presence of the Stegodon (the extinct subfamily of big elephants) in the area. Even today the Shivalik Range is known for the movement of elephants as it is close to the Rajaji National Park which is known for Asiatic elephants.
As we move forward with more discoveries and research opportunities, it appears to build the proposal of the tiger reserve stronger. With this, an important question arises — what will happen to the existing inhabitants of the forest, The Van Gujjars? Will they be forced out of their natural habitat? Or will the government rehabilitate them by providing land as done for the Van Gujjars in the Rajaji National Park?
Before jumping to any conclusion, we need to understand the life and difficulties of this community and the future this new proposal anticipates for them.
Who are the Van Gujjars?
Van Gujjars are transhumant pastoralists that live in the forest; their livelihood depends on the cattle. They adapt cattle grazing by seasonal movements in keeping with climatic variations prevailing between different altitudes of the mountain region and the Tarai region of the Himalayas. The Van Gujjars spend autumn in the foothills of the Shiwalik range and move up in the summer and rainy season to the higher alpine regions of the Himalayas i.e. Uttarkashi, Gangotri areas. The Villages of Van Gujjars or the place they reside in is known as khaoul, which is a cluster of Deras (House). Each Dera is comprised of one or two families.
Plight of van Gujjars of Shiwalik Forest Range
The Van Gujjars of Shiwalk Forest Range are the migrants of Kashmir and are living here for more than six generations. Inside the Shiwalik forest, in the Saharanpur division where the Tiger Reserve is proposed, two Khaouls of Van Gujjars will be adversely affected. The two Khaouls are Khujnawar and Sansera khaouli, they come under the Gram Panchayat of Kothdi Bahlalpur.
To know more about the condition of the community, the one-to-one interviews were conducted in the Sansera Khaouli. These were focused on understanding the response and concerns of the community about the proposed Tiger reserve.
A majority of 59 people of five different eras were comprehensively interviewed on various aspects of their life and day to day difficulties faced by them. A dera (house) usually comprises of two to three families living under one roof, which headed by the oldest member of the Dera (house), it is quite intriguing to see both patriarchal and matriarchal institutions co-existing, bringing forth the intersectional aspects of the community\tribe.
Covid impact – Livestock bearing
The covid 19 induced nationwide lockdowns put Van Gujjars  on a vulnerable stand. They suffered a plethora of problems ranging from their migrations, transportation, food rations, livestock bearing. During the months of March to April, the Van Gujjars were supposed to migrate to the upper alpine region of the Himalayas for better grazing grounds and to do away with the scorching heat of the Tarari region. But due to nationwide imposed lockdown, their movement was hindered and they were rendered to suffer without any proper fodder for the animals, and preparations of the summer season- food rations etc. Thus, the community suffered a major loss of livestock. Many deras loss the full capacity of cattle. As the van Gujjar are known for their nature as pasture tribes, no other options for them was left for them.
In this context, the government-oriented proposal for a tiger reserve was put forward which left their very existence out of the picture.
Education, Health, jobs and Basic amenities- electricity, water
While each dera member is provided with government-issued identification cards such as Aadhar and Voter card, the state fails to provide basic amenities to them. While interviewing the people from the community , it is clear that most families are,
- Depend on livestock breeding as a way of living.
- Those who lost their cattle are working as daily wage labours.
- Without a proper mode of livelihood, people are unable to avail even basic daily necessities.
At the same time, each dera is situated 1 to 2 km away from each other and they do not have an electricity connection and no source of clean water. The community is dependent on the seasonal river for water and that is used for every purpose from drinking to bathing.
In recent times, through an initiative by the panchayat, they were provided with a solar panel which can be used to light up the deras at night. However, the condition gets worse when it comes to education and healthcare. In the past, the government established a primary school in the forest for the education of the children from the community, but that too failed as the teachers refused to come and teach in the remote location. The nearest government primary school is inaccessible due to lack of connectivity. As a result, there is a significant decline in the enrollment of the children from the community. This creates a big question mark on the future of these children.
Similarly, the healthcare infrastructure is also in dire conditions, the nearest community health centre is around 18 km away from the Khaoul. Without proper road or connectivity, access to healthcare facilities is a challenge for the community.
Real-time monitoring of human-wildlife conflict
The Van Gujjars, for ages, have resided peacefully with the wildlife and promoted various conservational benefits for the wildlife and the mountain terrain area. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 gives them the right to manage, reside, and protect the area. The proposal of the tiger reserve is in direct conflict with the 2008 Act and the residents of the region. In addition, the tiger reserve should not be created without the complete permission of the local populace. Even though they are forest dwellers, they are not categorised as scheduled tribes in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand as they do in Kashmir. The administration has been in discussion and debate with the local tribe for evacuating the land and moving out to the urban and rural spaces. In response, organisations like the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Van Gujjar Yuva Sangathan, and local politicians are advocating for their rights and representation. Mostly, they are advocating for allowing the Van Gujjars to continue their residence on that land. On the other hand, the administration is promoting the construction of the reserve as soon as possible. The survey and interviews, however, have different facts to present—as quoted in the table below, it is quite intriguing that there is rarely a human-animal conflict and no major harm or cattle loss has been reported in recent times. This shows that the van Gujjars and wildlife can coexist together, However, Van Gujjars have been peacefully living with these animals for ages. So, who is really harming the forest: the forest department, the government or the local residents? After all, local communities have famously done more for the environment than government policies.
Fear among them: The fear of losing their territorial area is still a widespread concern among them. A section of the community agrees to go leave the forest if the government and the authorities promise to provide them with land and a state-sponsored resettlement program. A large section of the community lives in the fear that they will be forced out as happened to the Van Gujjars of Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand. When the first attempt to relocate the van Gujjars of Rajaji National Park took place in 1985, 2 years after the establishment of the National park in 1985 community members were harassed several times to vacate the park. In 2008, the High Court of Uttarakhand (Nainital High Court) served a contempt notice to the director of the Rajaji National Park for evicting the community.
Again in 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court termed the settlement of the Van Gujjars in Rajaji National Park illegal and ordered eviction without rehabilitation. This decision started a wave of protests. Although in September 2018, the Supreme Court stayed the order of the high court. However, to date, the Van Gujjars of Rajaji National Park continue to fight against the forest department to get access to resources in the park. Many were, in fact, forcefully evicted by the government without any consideration for the rehabilitation of the community.
These past experiences have raised questions on the future of the Van Gujjar community of Shivalik forest Range. Will the Proposed Shivalik Tiger reserve consider making a constructive policy for the rehabilitation of the Van Gujjars? Or will the Government and authorities will work on providing the basic amenities to the community?
Kumar, Anuj. “Uttar Pradesh Mulling over Proposal to Turn Shivalik Forest into Tiger Reserve.” The Hindu. The Hindu, July 2, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/uttar-pradesh-mulling-over-proposal-to-turn-shivalik-forest-into-tiger-reserve/article31968322.ece.
“Muslim Van Gujjars of Saharanpur – A Pasmanda Tribal Community.” Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes, March 3, 2017. https://www.dalitcamera.com/muslim-van-gujjars-saharanpur-pasmanda-tribal-community/.
Outlook. “Scouting for New Tiger Reserve, UP Officials Discover 5 Mn Yr Old ”Habitat” of Elephants (IANS Special).” https://www.outlookindia.com/. outlookindia.com, June 19, 2020. https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/scouting-for-new-tiger-reserve-up-officials-discover-5-mn-yr-old-habitat-of-elephants-ians-special/1871360.
Sandeep Rai / Jul 30, 2020. “Global Tiger Day: India Post Releases Special Cover on Shivalik Forest Division, Including Wetland, in Saharanpur: Meerut News – Times of India.” The Times of India. TOI. Accessed March 30, 2021. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/meerut/global-tiger-day-india-post-releases-special-cover-on-shivalik-forest-division-including-wetland-in-saharanpur/articleshow/77247832.cms.
“Shivalik Forest Awaits Tiger’s Roar, Will Be UP’s Fourth Tiger Reserve,” June 26, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/shivalik-forest-awaits-tiger-s-roar-will-be-up-s-third-tiger-reserve/story-1LadebuH7l97vVfTyjyPQM.html.
Think Act Rise Foundation Through … vs the State Of Uttarakhand And Others on 17 August 2020 (HIGH COURT OF UTTARAKHAND August 17, 2020).
“Van Gujjars Demand for Forest Rights, Local Representatives Offer Support.” SabrangIndia. Accessed March 30, 2021. https://www.sabrangindia.in/article/van-gujjars-demand-forest-rights-local-representatives-offer-support.
“Van Gujjars in Uttarakhand Fight for Legal Recognition of Forest Rights.” RSS. Accessed March 30, 2021. Here