‘Worried & Confused’: 15 Lakh Bakarwals Begin Migrating to Kashmir
“We are scared as now whenever we cross villages, people look at us and start murmuring things,” Yasser says.
"The only thing the authorities told us is that we should maintain social distancing and not stop for rest in villages. We are scared as now whenever we cross villages, people look at us and start murmuring things. At two places I was stopped and asked questions too. A few days ago, we heard some Gujjar Bakarwals were beaten up by locals in Udhampur," 22-year-old Yasser is amongst the thousands of Gujjar Bakarwals, a Muslim nomadic tribe, that have just begun to migrate to Kashmir with their cattle.
While the lockdown has been extended, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has allowed for the migration of the tribe where they embark on a journey covering hundreds of kilometers to preserve their cattle, which is their source of livelihood. Of the 30 lakh Gujjar Bakarwals in the state, at least 15 lakh begin to migrate by the end of April, president of Gujjar Bakarwal State Youth Welfare Conference Zahid Parwaz Choudhary said.
The tribals delayed their movement by two weeks in anticipation that the lockdown may end on 14 April, but after they heard about the news of extension they've begun to move. However the movement has not been smooth, they've been facing one issue after the other.
The procedures for seeking permission have changed, they’re not being allowed to take milch animals, cows and buffaloes, with them, (something they could till last year) and are worried about supply of food and security over a journey that will last for a few months.
'Worried About Security'
22-year-old Yasser Chowdhary left his home in Ramkot tehsil of Kathua district on 15 April, he has covered about 50 kilometers and is in Udhampur district right now. His destination is Madhwa tehsil in Kishtwar district.
"There are a lot of people here. From where I sit I can see at least 10-15 deras, there are at least a few hundred people," Yasser says. Along with two members of a family, and two aajdhi's (helpers), they have goats, sheeps and horses.
Listing the struggles they're facing, he says, "No facilities are being provided to us. Everything is shut, like shops which sold milk or ration to us. Now that we are seeing how strict things are, without the presence or reassurance of anyone in the administration we do not know how long our food will last us. There is only so much we can carry."
Nazakat Khatana, president of the Gujjar Bakarwal Desh Tehreek-E-Insaaf, said ration is running out. "I've visited a number of Gujjar Bakarwals who have set up their deras in different areas. All of them are worried that the government is not arranging facilities for them. The shops that would be open are shut. The people who would give them milk are all gone. The routes which they would generally take are also closed."
"We are also not being given any masks or told to keep clean. The only thing the authorities told us that we should maintain social distancing and not stop for rest in the villages that we used to on the way. We are scared as now whenever we cross villages, people look at us and start murmuring things. At two places I was stopped and asked questions too. A few days ago, we heard some gujjar bakarwals were beaten up by locals in Udhampur. We do not have a choice, we have to go to colder climates or our cattle will die. If they die, we lose our source of livelihood. We have nothing else but these sheeps, goats and horses and in the heat of Jammu they will fall sick and die."
Changes in Procedure
Till last year the Jammu and Kashmir government only asked for the mattoo, which is a list of all the cattle one has and a tax charged on it from the concerned district forest officer.
"Till last year this mattoo was not a problem. This year when people tried to get it, the official said that their notepad had gotten over. So right here around me there are people who are traveling without a mattoo. How can the government not arrange a notepad, don't they know this is the time every year that the community migrates? If these people are caught ahead it is going to be a big problem," Yasser said.
While this incident may not be true for Jammu as a whole, this was for the first time ever that three more steps were added in getting relevant permissions. Till last year the tribal department secretary would send the letter to the divisional commissioner, who would grant permission and pass it to all district magistrates. But this year the person has to approach the sarpanch, lambardar, tehsildar and then police stations, Khatana explained.
Khatana said that these added steps have delayed the procedure. "I do not understand why the government had to introduce these changes this year. When there is a lockdown, they expect us to go to three more authorities to get permission. Most Gujjar Bakarwals do not have vehicles and even if they do, they need passes to step out or they will get harassed by the cops on the way."
'No Cows or Vehicles'
A big change this year is not allowing cows or buffaloes to go along with the Gujjar Bakarwals.
"We have no idea why this was needed at all. Maybe they are worried that the animals would be used for wrong purposes once they go to Kashmir. However we only carry cows and buffaloes which give milk. It is economical for us. The same cow that costs Rs 15,000 here, costs Rs 40,000 in Kashmir," Shafqat Chowdhary who is from Kathua said.
While he has gone ahead with some of the cattle, he is expecting that his family will be able to bring the remaining cattle from Kathua once this problem is resolved.
The J&K Advisory Board for Development of Gujjars and Bakerwals have written to the district magistrates of Jammu, Samba, Kathua, Udhampur, Kishtwar, Doda, Poonch, Rajouri, Reasi and Ramban. They've written that while it has been found that the officials of the Forest Department have not included the pet Animals ike Buffalo/Cows (milch animals) in the prescribed format by the forest department, this has created a lot of inconvenience to the migratory population.
“It is therefore requested that necessary directions maybe issued (...) for inclusion of buffalo/cows in the permit as per past practice after proper verification so that issue is resolved and inconvenience to the migratory families is mitigated.”
While the government is yet to respond to the request, the government has also disallowed movement of any vehicles.
"These cars are needed as many of the Gujjar Bakarwals are old. They have to travel about 300 kilometers on an average. Many have to travel longer distances and the terrain is not easy. To add to that the (bachdas) kids of the cows and buffaloes need to be picked up. Who will pick them and walk the entire stretch? Even the bigger cows and buffaloes are taken in cars while following strict rules of movement and only after seeking permission. Due to this many tribals are stuck and confused," Nazakat said.
Zahid also adds that said including vehicles would also help social distancing. "If vehicles are added, then it means that cattle and a few people will be on the vehicle. This will help them while ensuring the safety of the Gujjar Bakarwals as well."
The Quint reached out to Jammu divisional commissioner Sanjeev Verma who said, "The movement is smooth, as usual, some of the groups have started to migrate. Administarion is extending full support and assistance for sanctioning permissions and ensuring safe and secure movement for the Gujjars and Bakarwals." However Verma is yet to respond to a list of pointed queries regarding safety, ration and cattle raised by the Gujjar Bakarwals. This copy will be updated if and when he responds.
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