The plight of a people

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

LAST year, six-year-old Maroof Ahmad's mother, Hanifa Bi, died during an encounter between Indian soldiers and terrorists near his summer home on the Hil Kaka ridge. She was one of five Gujjar people killed in the bitter combat last summer. Ahmad still winces every time he hears an explosion, which is very often, since work is under way to build a road from Bufliaz, where his winter home is situated, to Hil Kaka. But this summer, since the terrorists have been thrown out of the area, you would expect Ahmad to feel a little more comfortable about the future.

But he is not any happier - and the future does not look that great either. Forbidden by the Army from making their way up the mountains into Hil Kaka, the Gujjar people of Bufliaz are suffering appalling hardship. Children like Ahmad do not have a school to go to, and many people, unused to the heat, are suffering from a variety of stomach disorders and fevers. The community's buffaloes are pining, and the animals, which used to yield upwards of five litres of milk each a day, now give just one litre. Fights with neighbours growing corn, whose fields are overrun by the Gujjars' herds, have become common.

In April, when the Army launched Operation Sarp Vinash, it wanted no civilians to come in the way of the fighting. The Northern Command managed to get the Jammu and Kashmir government to cough up Rs.6 crores to provide compensation to the Gujjar people affected, and the individual share was seemingly a generous amount. Each of the 120 Gujjar families which made their way to the Hil Kaka pastures was to be given Rs.1,200 a month for sustenance in lieu of lost yield from animals. Besides, they were to be given Rs.375 for each kanal of land (roughly one-fifth of an acre) on which they grew crops like maize, and another Rs.200 for each kanal of pasture land to which they had traditional rights.

But in practice, things have not quite worked out. For one, it is not clear how the figures were arrived at. Besides, the funds have been slow in coming. Most families have only received Rs.4,800 as a one-time payment as sustenance allowance, not the promised land compensation. This hardly meets even the minimum requirement to keep their buffaloes alive. A bundle of fodder costs Rs.20, and three bundles a day, Gujjars say, constitute the starvation diet for one buffalo. That alone means a monthly expenditure of Rs.1,800 - and the families own an average of 10 animals. Then, the Gujjars have to rent sheds from the permanent residents of Bufliaz to house their herds.

"On top of it all," says Mohammad Farooq, "our animals are falling sick because of the heat, and treating them costs more money. Many of them have already lost a lot of weight, and they will be useless in a year."

Human beings do not fare much better. Most Gujjar families meet a substantial part of their grain needs by growing corn on small patches of land near their high pastures. This year they are buying food from the market in Surankote, and the shopkeepers are showing no mercy. There is no public distribution network worth speaking of here, and the Jammu and Kashmir government has not responded to the crisis by setting up such a network. The community's 100-odd children were taught by a single, part-time teacher in the summer. There is no doctor available. Next year the Gujjars will suffer even more, since they will have lost a year's cash income from the sale of milk and butter, and from the collection of valuable mountain herbs and morels.

Khadim Husain, the head of one of the largest of the 50-odd Gujjar khumbas, or clans, cannot recollect when things have been so bad. "We have climbed into these pastures for seven generations," he says, "but now I feel our way of life may be coming to an end."

He says the Army's rationale for closing the high pastures is ridiculous. "All that has happened is that the terrorists have left one place and gone to another," he says. "Will they close that area as well? Will they close Srinagar, where there are so many terrorists? Unlike those people, we have never supported the terrorists, but now we are being punished for our loyalty to India."

If the government is serious about the rehabilitation of the Gujjar people, there are many things it can do. It can set up a mechanism for milk procurement, supplemented by facilities to improve the quality of their livestock and the provision of good-quality fodder. That will give at least some Gujjars a real reason not to head into the high mountains. This, in turn, will help the environment, which is under serious stress from the growth of both human and livestock population. It will also help reduce Jammu and Kashmir's dependence on milk imports, which it resorts to despite the fact that it has the highest livestock-to-population ratio in India. And, of course, it will help meet the Army's objectives.

Sadly, it is easier just to spend a few million rupees and solve nothing.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment