WHEN Ramesh Bhatti, a senior functionary and board member of Gujarat based NGO Sahjeevan, requested me to accompany a youth group from the Kashmiri Chopan community to attend a national conclave of pastoralists in Kutch between Jan 19 to 21st, I was a bit confused for a few days. The organisers of the event wanted the presence of both young men and women to participate in the conclave but the problem with Kashmiri Chopans (Shepherd community) a majority of the women are illiterate and would not travel all the way from Kashmir to Kutch even with their husbands, brothers or parents. However, Basharat, a young social activist known to me who belongs to the Chopan community said that his sister would tag along for the meeting as well. So Basharat Chopan and his sister Uzma came with me to Bhuj city in Kutch Gujarat on January 18th. A group of four people were also invited to the same event who assisted me to prepare the Kashmiri vegetarian dishes during the food festival which was part of this 5 days cultural event.
Basharat belongs to Chopan community from Watrihail Budgam and has done Post Graduation in Rural Development. His sister Uzma completed her graduation only last year. Another chopan activist Tariq Ahmad Chopan who is pursuing PhD in History from Kashmir University with special thrust on Chopans also decided to come at the eleventh hour. The decision to take these young Chopans to Bhuj Kutch in Gujarat was a great idea and I am grateful to Centre for Pastoralism (CFP) and Sahjeevan for holding an event for the young pastoralists who have the potential to lead their communities in future.
The pastoralist communities across India are a vast tribe who face tremendous challenges but there are only a few NGOs who work for them especially for their better education, health and livelihood. Uzma, Basharat and Tariq who had become pessimistic due to official apathy of Govt towards Chopans in Kashmir found a ray of hope. Earlier, they used to be reluctant to even reveal to people in Kashmir that they were from the Chopan tribe but when they met other youth from 16 states from the same communities, they became optimistic and were inspired to work for the welfare of the community. Same was the case with Bakerwal youth who had come from Samba and other areas of Jammu. In fact, the Bakerwals or Gujjars have been given Scheduled Tribe (ST) status by Govt in 1992 , the poor 2.50 lakh Chopans continue to suffer. The Govt instead granted ST status to the affluent Pahadi tribe and this disadvantaged group was bypassed.
Uzma felt overwhelmed
Uzma, who had hardly gone out of Kashmir, was overwhelmed to see how the pastoral communities had been organised in different states. When she met women from Rabari,Maldhari and other pastoralist groups living in Gujarat,Maharashtra and Telegnaga it boosted her morale to work for the community. Infact the women from these communities were not educated and Uzma being an educated young lady from Chopan community can do a lot of work for her tribe in future.
Uzma along with her brother Basharat and PHD scholar Tariq even assisted our volunteers as well who had set up a Kashmiri veg food stall. The Chopan group got so much love and respect from the organisers namely Centre for Pastoralism, Living and Learning Design Centre -LLDC, Shrujan Trust, Living Lightly and Sahjeevan during the two days conclave. Infact Uzma was asked to formally welcome Mr Parshottam Rupala, the Union Minister of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying, who was the chief guest during the conclave and this was a great honour for the Kashmiri Chopan community.
Issues discussed during Conclave
During the two days conclave, lots of issues faced by Pastoralist communities were discussed and brainstormed by the younger generation. The main issues raised by young pastoralists was Govt’s failure to give the grazing rights to pastoralists across all the states. The participants from J&K,Himachal Pradesh , Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Telangana and other states said that Forest Department officials were disrespecting the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Many wanted better health facilities for their animals and mobile veterinary clinics. Some groups discussed livelihood and processing of milk,milk products and wool. Pastoral Culture,ethics,traditions and its erosion was also discussed in detail. Some pastoral groups from Maharashtra and MP raised issues of dacoits looting their livestock at gunpoint and wanted better security from Govt. The Union Minister listened to these grievances and assured the group members that he would try to address them. In Fact a followup meeting was held in New Delhi on Jan 28th wherein many organisations including CFP and Sahjeevan participated.
In addition to the youth conclave of pastoralist communities, there was a beautiful exhibition held between 19-23rd January 2023. The LLDC Museum hosted the ‘Living Lightly- Journeys with Pastoralists’ exhibition and event. The exhibition holds space for conversations amongst pastoral communities across geographies, conversations between pastoralists and citizens at large, and engaged dialogues about pastoralism in India. The multimedia exhibition was accompanied by film screenings, Pastoral food festival, Pastoral crafts, workshops and immersive experiences. Sushma Ayengar who heads the Living Lightly organisation has been holding these exhibitions for last many years
A 32 member National Pastoralist Youth Federation was set up during the conclave and both Uzma and Basharat have been included as the members of this national level group. In a place like Jammu & Kashmir where almost 6000 plus sheep are slaughtered daily for local consumption , is it an irony that we still import mutton from states like Rajasthan ? We have such a huge market for the sheep and dairy sector which still is unexplored. The Chopan community on the other hand is like those landless labourers who work in farms but don’t own any land. Chopans take care of sheep but they don’t own them. The sheep belong to farmers who pay some amount to the chopans for a season. The policies of Govt must focus on empowering the youth from this community by providing them subsidies to set up sheep farms. Under Tribal Sub Plan (TSP) , Chopans of Kashmir must also get their due share and the community must be included under the ST category by Govt of India.
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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