Rights of Pastoralist communities under FRA

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Bakerwals and Chopans are the traditional pastoralist communities of Jammu & Kashmir. Prior to 1990 when armed militancy had not erupted these people would travel across nook and corner of J&K to explore almost meadowincluding those in Ladakh during summer months to feed their sheep and goats. Due to heavy military presence in border areas from year 1990 onwards several traditional travel routes and meadows became inaccessible to these people.
Around May every year the Bakerwals would start their journey from Rajouri area which happens to be the native place of these herdsmen. From Rajouri the Bakerwals cross the mighty PirPanjaal pass (3485 metres) via Pir Ki Gali. It takes them more than a month to reach various meadows in North , East , West and South of Kashmir valley. Bakerwals would go several locations in Gurez sector near the Line of Control (LoC) in large numbers prior to 1990 as the area has very high quality green fodder. After the onset of militancy in Kashmir and subsequent increased military concentration in these areas increased plus heavy exchange of firing on the LoCseveral pastures were either fenced or were closed down due to security point of view..
The chopan also called Pohul in Kashmiri lives a laborious lifestyle. This pastoralist community usually own no livestock of their own like Bakerwals. They take care of sheep belonging to local farmers. It is not uncommon to see these shepherds dotted across the hilly range lands of Jammu & Kashmir. In the summer months they negotiate the treacherous mountain pathways to reach high alpine meadows also called Bahaks. In these bahaks Chopan’s graze the sheep from June till the onset of autumn. The farmers pay them to look after their sheep for a season which lasts for 5 to 6 months. Some Chopans who have grazing land around their villages continue the activity after their return from Bahak until late autumn.
The Chopans are socially, educationally and economically an underdeveloped community. In spite of being a pastoralist community and tribals in real sense Chopans were never included under the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category by the Government of India. Kashmiri Chopans are similar to the Changpa community of Ladakh or Gadis of Himachal or Uttarakhand but Changpas and Gaddis have been given ST status long back and Chopans continue to be discriminated against. J&K Legislative Assembly in year 2000 passed a resolution for the inclusion of Chopan community under ST category but Govt of India never took that resolution seriously. Recently when this author met with Lt Governor Manoj Sinha I brought this issue into his notice. He assured me that he would take up the matter with the Govt of India.
Rights of Pastoralist communities
After remaining in a state of suspended animation for 4 years the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) last year brought back the Model Guidelines for Conservation, Management and sustainable use of Community Forest Resources (CFR Guideline) under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). A committee headed by NC Saxena, former member of the Planning Commission & National Advisory Council (NAC) in February last year was asked to examine and recommend CFR Guidelines under FRA.
The CFR right under the FRA empowers Gram Sabhas to conserve and manage their forest. As per section 3 (1) (i) of FRA the Gram Sabhas have rights to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage any community forest resource that they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use. The Tribal Affairs Ministry had also created two more committees, headed by its former secretary Hrusikesh Panda along with the committee on CFR guidelines. One of the committees has been asked to look into the recognition and vesting process of habitat rights of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) and the second will submit a report on the seasonal resource access to nomadic and pastoralist communities which includes the Chopans of Kashmir.
Repairing of Hutments
The Bakerwals and Chopans lead a very tough life. With no means to buy even the durable tents, they often take shelter under trees or tarpaulins/polythene during rains while on the way to highland pastures. As they are neither recognized as farmers they miss out on the subsidy schemes announced by the government. Farmers are provided subsidies for buying cattle , sheep , water motors , spray pumps , gensetsetc but there is nothing for the shepherds especially the Chopans or even Bakerwals. Every year there is heavy snowfall in pasturelands which are located at 3000 to 3500 meters above sea level. The hutments made of wooden logs , rocks and mud locally called Kothas get damaged every year. Some weak structures even get collapsed. These poor shepherds are not even allowed to repair these mud and log huts ? Isn’t this injustice ? On the other hand several illegal Kothas (Dokes) have come up during the last several years in several range lands of PirPanjal forest division. Recently Forest Department in a written response under RTI Act said that there are 736 registered Kothas (dokes) in Doodh Ganga forest range of PirPanjal forest division in Budgam district but locals allege that this number is much higher on the ground as many illegal constructions have been allowed during COVID 19 pandemic and 2019 summer lockdown.There are apprehensions that under the garb of Forest Rights Act (FRA) the newly constructed illegal Kothas can be regularized to benefit some well off people. These are the challenges which need to be addressed. The census report of the Kothas needs to be made public
Bakerwals and Chopans have the rights on grazing their animals in meadows and rangelands. They can now repair their Kothas(dokes) as well under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) after following the due process of law. The Forest Department needs to ensure that FRA is not misused to create new hutments as the law has been enacted for people belonging to disadvantaged communities living near forests.
(The author is Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement.)