Chopans of Kashmir 

Shepherd Boy outside a Kotha – Photo by author

Kashmiri Chopans are likely to get recognised as Scheduled Tribes but will these pastoralists be allowed to repair their log-huts this summer?

KASHMIRI shepherds who’re known here as Chopan or Pohul in local Kashmir dialect have started migrating towards the upper reaches or what is called Bahak. This seasonal migration actually begins from May onwards, but for a month or more these pastoralists take care of the sheep in low lying areas.  It is around June the 20th that they reach their final destination where they stay for at least 2 months or more. In their bahaks, Chopans have temporary huts called Kothas which are made of wooden logs , stones and mud. Each chopan family has a separate and designated bahak away from their village, but these bahaks are mostly located within the district itself.

However, this is not the case with other pastoralist groups like Bakerwals from the Gujjar community who travel all the way from Rajouri to Kashmir valley. Some of them move on to far off places like Tulail in Gurez valley or as far as Drass or Zanskar in Ladakh. Similarly, other nomadic shepherds like Gaddis , Gadheras , Baghelas,Lambadis, Dhangars in India, travel a lot in search of fodder for their sheep and goats. These groups are mostly owners of goats and sheep but this is not the case with the chopans of Kashmir.

Unfortunately, Chopans are the most neglected of pastoralist groups in India. Unlike other pastoralist groups, they own no livestock of their own. Instead, they take care of sheep belonging to local farmers who pay them Rs 300 to 350 per sheep for a season which lasts for 5 to 6 months.

While both, Kashmiri Chopans along with Bakerwals are socially, educationally and economically backward only the latter has been brought under the scheduled tribe (ST) category in early 1990s.  Inspite of being tribals in real sense, successive Governments at the center have not given Chopans their due rights. The Kashmiri Chopans are similar to the Dangar or Gavlis of Maharashtra or to the Changpa community of Ladakh or the Gadis of Himachal Pradesh but even as all these castes have been included under the ST category chopans continue to be left at God’s mercy.

While in 2000, the J&K assembly had adopted a resolution for the inclusion of chopans as scheduled tribe group but the J&K Govt could not do proper advocacy with the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs in this regard.

The Ministry brought back the model guidelines for conservation, management and sustainable use of Community Forest Resources (CFR Guideline) under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) last year. A committee headed by N C 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.

A four member committee of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) which looks after PVTGs visited the Kashmir valley around the end of March this year to see implementation of FRA. This author facilitated their meetings in some villages with Chopans and Gujjars communities. The group submitted a detailed report to the Ministry. I have been told that the issue of Chopans was discussed threadbare during the recent meeting on PVTG’s lead by Mr Hrusikesh Panda . The expert committee who visited Kashmir has recommended the  inclusion  of Chopans under the scheduled tribe (ST) category. One of the senior members of the group, V Giri Rao along with his colleague Ramesh Bhatti have been great supporters of Chopans and have recommended that Chopans should be included under the ST category.

While these developments unfold, Chopans continue to lead a tough life. With no means to buy even 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 or scheduled tribes ( STs), they miss out on the subsidy schemes announced by the government. Farmers are provided subsidies for buying cattle, sheep, water motors, spray pumps, gen-sets but there is nothing for these poor shepherds. These poor shepherds are not even allowed to repair their kothas. Isn’t this sheer injustice ?

Several illegal Kothas have come up during the last several years in several bahaks and forests of Pir Panjal forest division. Now, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) these newly constructed Kothas  can be regularized through illegal ways.

These are the challenges which need to be addressed. The census report of the Kothas needs to be made public.

Pal Maidan bahak in Raithan forest range is not a high altitude bahak. The local migratory population from nearby Draggar village have not been allowed to repair their damaged Kothas by the forest department. The forest department officials in the area on the other end claim that there is no official order in this regard from their senior officers so they were helpless. If these tribals or shepherds can’t even collect old fallen timber from the forests how can the Government claim that it has rolled out the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in J&K ? FRA gives the forest dwellers the right to repair their huts as well, but this right is being denied on dubious grounds.

Section 3(1) (d)  of the Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA) says that other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies, grazing (both settled or transhumant) and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities are recognized for individuals and communities. Those shepherds (Chopans) who actually live in villages located outside the forest areas and neither fall under the other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD) community, still have the rights on grazing their animals in bahaks and rangelands. They can now repair their Kothas as well under the FRA after following the due process of law.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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