Staring at Uncertain Future: Pensive Pastoralists Back to Business

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This year, there was a delay in the migration of Gujjar and Bakarwal community in Jammu and Kashmir. But after cleared for the summer movement, the gypsies of J&K look uncertain about the problems that lay ahead in the journey.

Swati Joshi

FOLLOWING the long-established tradition, Gujjars and Bakarwals start summer seasonal tribal migration in the first week of April every year to reach their destinations within 40-45 days of foot journey.

But due to COVID lockdown and the hate-campaign, they started their journey quite late this year.

“We’re already late this year due to the situation,” says 24-year-old Jaheen, who belongs to a Muslim nomadic tribe that has already embarked on their traditional journey.

Due to strict lockdown and fear of catching coronavirus, the tribals had to halt their caravan.

But when the lockdown was extended till May 3, they had no choice but to start the movement to preserve their cattle.

“It’s necessitated that the seasonal migration is allowed for the upper reaches to get adequate green fodder for their livestock [sheep and goat],” the official notification in this regard reads.

The order underlines that the movement of tribals shall only be allowed with “valid permit issued by a competent authority”.

Gujjars and Bakarwals bi-annually migrate to the lower, middle, and higher mountain ranges in the north-western Himalayan mountains, with their cattle, which is their source of livelihood.

These tribal communities constitute around 15 to 20 per cent of the total population of J&K.

Amid lockdown, Jaheen has ration for a few days. After that, he says, he’ll be dependent on external sources.

Almost every shop is closed and he doesn’t know for how many days he will manage with the food he has. The trail which he has been taking for a long time is closed.

Earlier, an advisory was issued for the safety of pastoralists and chopans by the office of the district sheep husbandry officer Bandipora on April 17.

The advisory states that Gujjars and Bakarwals traversing the long distance from different parts of J&K should avoid the intermingling of transit camps. It advises to avoid taking old aged persons, women, and children for the journey. They can join them once the pandemic is over.

The advisory restricts the movement of the nomads through the red zone areas. It promises the establishment of first aid camps from May 15 at various transit routes for the welfare of the livestock.

The government has also reportedly disallowed vehicles and milch animals (cows and buffaloes) to go along with these gypsies.

In response to the issue, the J&K Advisory Board for Development of Gujjars and Bakarwals have written to the district magistrates of Jammu, Samba, Kathua, Udhampur, Kishtwar, Doda, Poonch, Rajouri, Reasi, and Ramban.

The letter states the inconveniences caused by the order and requests the magistrates to include “pet animals in the permit as per past practice after proper verification” to solve the tribal communities’ problems while migrating.

To create awareness about COVID amongst the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, the government made Indian army to distribute pamphlets in bilingual language in remote areas.

Already, Gujjars are facing hate campaign for being the “carriers of coronavirus” pertaining to the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin in March this year.

The congregation is being termed as “a COVID hotspot” as several participants who attended the gathering are tested positive for the virus.

“Whenever we pass through a village, people stare at us and murmur,” complains Jaheen, hoping that the conditions will improve in the coming time.

“The rumor-mongering has affected our business a lot. People don’t want to buy milk from us anymore.”

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