Hounded by the Forest Department, the Gujjars (forest dwellers) residing in the Rajaji National Park (RNP) today narrated their woes to the Chairman of National Commission for Minorities Wajahat Habibullah, demanding a life of dignity for their future generations and also according Scheduled Tribe (ST) on them.
He is here in Doon on the invitation of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), an NGO engaged in the welfare of the members of nomadic tribe. Around 180 Gujjars who have been residing in Uttarakhand for several decades said they were at the receiving end of the high-handed attitude of the officials of the Forest Department, “Though the Rajaji National Park has only been proposed, the officials have used this excuse to hound us out of the forest. Those of us who were pushed out of the park and made to settle at Gaindi Katha and Pathri areas were never given entitlement rights.
Now in the name of expansion of the airport, move is afoot to again move us out,” charged Talib Hussain, who resides in Mohand (Rajaji National Park).
Besides the Gujjars made a strong pitch for according them the status of Scheduled Tribes, as is the case with the Gujjars residing in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir, “We belong to the same family of Gujjars. While the governments of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir have already accorded them the status of ST, successive governments in Uttarakhand have failed to do so,” said Qasim, a Gujjar.
While recalling the role played by the forest dwellers in protecting the forest wealth, the chairman said the Forest Dwellers Act was especially passed by Parliament to provide protection to the communities living in the forests. “More than the Forest Department, it is the members of these communities who have protected the forest for centuries and should be given their due,” he said.
In fact the Chairman said a pubic hearing would be held with the officials from Dehradun being invited to Delhi and the Gujjars, while still in Dehradun linked up through video conferencing.
“We will hold a public hearing shortly to thrash out matters. The commission would take cognizance of the complaints lodged by the Gujjars against the Forest Department,” said the Chairman.
Earlier, the Chairperson of RLEK, Avdhash Kaushal, said the though the National Human Rights Commission in it’s order has stated that the Gujjars cannot be forced to leave the forest, they continue to be harassed by the authorities.