Covid-19: Nomadic Van Gujjars fight stigma, face livelihood challenges
In the Gori Range in the state’s Pauri Garhwal district, businesses of around 75 Van Gujjar families, who used to supply milk to dairies in Rishikesh and Dehradun along with individual households, have been hit hard.Updated: May 01, 2020, 15:20 IST
Van Gujjars, or nomadic pastoralists, from Uttarakhand are crying out for help after their traditional milk business has taken a massive hit amid the growing fears over the spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in the hill state.
The crisis deepened after rumours that a large number of Covid-19 cases in Uttarakhand are linked to the community, prompting dairies and individual households in the hill state to stop buying milk from them. These rumours linked them to Islamic group Tablighi Jamaat’s congregation at Nizamuddin in New Delhi between March 13 and 15, which later emerged as a hot spot of the infection.
Their businesses dented, Van Gujjars claim that they are not Jamaat members, and follow Sufi Islam.
In the Gori Range in the state’s Pauri Garhwal district, businesses of around 75 Van Gujjar families, who used to supply milk to dairies in Rishikesh and Dehradun along with individual households, have been hit hard.
“The diary owners have been candid, as they’ve told us that people don’t want to buy milk from us for fear of the spread of the infection,” said Ameer Hamza, a Van Gujjar from the Gori Range. “Overnight, we’ve become untouchables. We’ve been selling milk in Rishikesh for ages, but a killer virus has spelt doom for our thriving business.”
Traditionally, Van Gujjars are a nomadic community. They migrate with their livestock to pastures in the mountains during summer and live in the foothills of the Shivalik range during winter.
Hamza said the ongoing nationwide lockdown restrictions --- enforced on March 25 and set to continue till May 3 to contain the spread of Covid-19 outbreak --- have disrupted their economic activities, as they have not been able to go to the upper reaches of the mountains to collect fodder for their livestock.
“We rear cattle that belong to the Godri breed that is used to grazing in mountains during summer, as fresh grass can be found there. We’re unable to go to the mountains because of the ongoing lockdown restrictions. Villagers have also barred us from bringing fodder for our cattle. We don’t have money to buy fodder, as our businesses have taken a huge beating. In our area, eight cattle have died since the lockdown restrictions were enforced, as the animals had eaten lantana,” he added.
In the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, Van Gujjars are facing similar challenges. The middlemen, who are the conduit to sell milk, have taken advantage of the situation and ensured that there is a 50% drop in the Van Gujjars’ selling prices.
“In the Kumaon region, the middlemen, who would also loan us money, arbitrarily reduced the rates of milk by about 50%, and sometimes more. We’re left with no option, but to sell milk at that reduced price,” said Mohammad Safi, a Van Gujjar from Ramnagar in Nainital district.
“Earlier, the flat rate used to be Rs 40 a litre for milk for those who don’t have taken any loan from a middleman. Similarly, it would be Rs 35 a litre for those who’ve taken a loan. Now, those same prices have been slashed to Rs 20 and Rs 15 per litre on the pretext that Covid-19 positive cases have been traced to some Jamaat attendees belonging to our community in Nainital. We’ve also been deprived of our regular income, as the middlemen are claiming that they aren’t making enough money due to the ongoing lockdown restrictions,” he added.
Safi too stressed the community does not have Jamaat links. “Besides, all the community members of my village have tested Covid-19 negative,” he added.
On Tuesday, Utpal Kumar Singh, chief secretary, Uttarakhand, directed officials to compile a database of the Van Gujjars population in the hill state along with their livestock. “The data must be prepared at the earliest in a bid to make proper arrangements for their ration and fodder for their livestock. The state animal husbandry department would ensure fodder for their cattle. Van Gujjars’ produce can be marketed via ‘Aanchal’ (a brand of Uttarakhand Cooperative Dairy Federation),” said Singh.
The chief secretary pointed out during the meeting that the summer migration of Van Gujjars should be banned because of the pandemic, and forest officials and the departments concerned must conduct awareness campaigns to prevent the spread of the virus among the community. He also suggested that health check-up of Van Gujjars and their livestock should be carried out regularly amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
Safi welcomed the state government move. “It’s heartening to know that the government is willing to buy milk from us and provide fodder for our cattle. However, we’d have been better off, had the government given us some cash incentives. We need to take care of our cattle’s health, as they’re likely to worsen because these animals aren’t used to living in plains during summer,” he said.
“Earlier, I used to do my business through Aanchal. But, middlemen help us with ready cash at short notice, despite exorbitant interest rates. Many of us also don’t have bank accounts,” he added.
Ashok Kumar, director-general of police (law & order), Uttarakhand, said efforts are on to extend all possible help to the hard-pressed Van Gujjars.
“All our superintendents of police have been alerted to extend all possible help and spread awareness among the community members,” said Kumar.