How Can Uttarakhand’s Van Raji People Be Saved Without ‘Imposing’?

Non-adivasis call their language ‘Junglee’, impose colonial values on them, and deny them access to their own land.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
A Van-Raji family in rocky habitats. Image used for representational purposes.
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“We eat the whole bat except for its head. The oil from burning of bat flesh is rubbed on children’s chests during cough and cold.” Gopal Singh Rajwar showed me limestone caves colonised by bats, on the forest’s edge.

Gopal is amongst the last 1000 individuals of the Van-Raji tribe that is listed amongst the 18 most threatened human groups in India.

Van-Rajis have mostly settled in villages of Kumaon Himalayas, in Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand. A few of them live in Western Nepal too. Mostly, they are cave-dwellers. In Askot Wildlife Sanctuary in Pithoragarh are the Raji villages of Kimkhola and Bhagtirwa.

Gopal in his abandoned ancestral cave. 
Gopal in his abandoned ancestral cave. 
Credit: Eva Badola 

Malnutrition & High Infant Mortality Among Rajis

A Raji woman in village Kimkhola, after much persuasion, unveiled a few wild plants that are used as food and medicine — for example, bark-juice of mountain ebony treats stomach disorders.

A close-ended cave adorned with limestone deposits. 
A close-ended cave adorned with limestone deposits. 
Credit: Eva Badola

Rajis have admirable knowledge about wild plants and animals, but the tribe appears unwilling to share their indigenous knowledge. “What is in it for us for revealing our knowledge,” the women rhetorically ask. “Even now no tribal health clinic exists in and around our villages to address our health issues.” The tribe suffers from severe malnutrition and high infant mortality, which explains their low population.

Unfortunately, Rajis have had to start visiting allopathic clinics for quick relief. Dr. Naveen Chandra Joshi, Project Scientist at Wildlife Institute of India explains: “Rajis have lived in forests and caves, hence they have developed a lifestyle in close proximity to nature. Settling them outside their native forests shook their beliefs and ethnic practices”.

How To Protect A Severely Endangered Language?

A Van Raji man ash roasts yams in his kitchen. 
A Van Raji man ash roasts yams in his kitchen. 
Credit: Eva Badola  

The tribe’s language, Raji, is declared ‘severely endangered’ by UNESCO for having a minuscule number of speakers. Dr Kavita Rastogi, Professor and Head of the Linguistic Department of Lucknow University explains: “The tribe borrows many words from other languages — Hindi, Kumaoni and Nepali. Elders discourage children to speak Raji in order to survive, and be incorporated into the mainstream.”

Dr Rastogi mentions how the non-adivasis around them ridicule their language as ‘Junglee’, imposing ‘colonial’ values on them and patronising them as inferior.

Here is an anecdote by Bhanu Raj Singh Pal, the erstwhile King of Askot: “With the falling dusk, shy Rajis quietly pick the bag of grains from farmers’ doorsteps, keeping their hand-made wooden bowls in return.”To sight such a wooden bowl, I met an old Van Raji man, Madan, at Bhagtirwa village. “I used to craft pieces with Sal and Pine woods but I stopped crafting as my son did not inherit my art practice as he did not see any livelihood potential,” he sighed.

In his empty house stood a solitary wooden box, the remains of his wood craft.

Meagre Earnings, Alcoholism Among Raji Men

Van Rajis are socio-politically disadvantaged and have below poverty level status, consequently putting them into Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).

Dr Pankaj Tewari, Executive Director of NGO Aarohi says, “Inhibitions bar Rajis from fighting for their indigenous rights but Raji women, through confidence-building, are coming out to share their problems.” Kamla Devi, a Raji woman, narrated the story of the Rajis’ abject earnings: “Seventy for a bundle of wood in the local market, fifty for breaking rock and thirty rupees for quarrying a sand bag.” To worsen matters, the male members of the Raji families often squander away their meagre earnings on liquor.

“Alcoholism is growing among Raji men, though brewing liquor is taboo for us,” says Dharmendra Singh Goyal, a field staff of NGO ARPAN (Association for Rural Planning and Action). “Livelihood stresses are crushing them for meagre wages,” he adds.
A Van Raji woman on her way to sell fuelwood.
A Van Raji woman on her way to sell fuelwood.
Credit: Eva Badola 

The ‘King’ Of Forests Barely Have Life Essentials Today

The tribe that once claimed to be the ‘King of Forests’ is struggling for the bare essentials today.

Rajis live in the higher altitudes of the mountainous Kimkhola, near a reserved forest, while the non-adivasis enjoy lower altitudes with easy access to village forest, road and water supply. The formation of the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 evicted Rajis from their native forest, forcing them into settlements at the edge of Kimkhola’s reserved forest area in rough and unregistered land. The tribe was barred from using forest produce in their native land, while the non-adivasis denied them using the village forest. Consequently, they became more and more impoverished, until the Forest Rights Act, 2006, India, was introduced. The act enables them to extract minor forest products from the reserved forest, but timber is still off-limits.

“We are in dire need of timber to repair our homes,” Jayanti Devi says, standing outside her decaying wooden-beam house in Kimkhola. 

Only a few Rajis have got concrete roof structures under the government’s rural scheme — ‘Indira Awas Yojna 2010-11’. Most other houses have heavy leakages and look dilapidated.

Rajis have often been chased out of the forest by foresters. “We are prohibited from accessing timber from the reserved forest and the non-adivasis are practising superiority over us, to keep us from the village forest. Where should we go,” Jayanti questions.

In 2012, the Forest Rights Act was amended, allowing forest dwellers to extract timber for livelihood under the village council’s supervision. But no initiative has been taken by the Kimkhola village council to allocate essential timber to Rajis.

Van Rajis have been recorded as having the lowest literacy rate among the tribes of Uttarakhand; no wonder then that they are poorly informed of their rights. Dr Joshi says, “Grant them their due forest rights; they will connect better to their original habitats — make them partners and not intruders in conservation.”

A young Raji lad in front of his poorly earth-plastered house. 
A young Raji lad in front of his poorly earth-plastered house. 
Credit: Eva Badola

Why Govt’s Traditional Livelihood Schemes Are Unsuitable For Rajis

Rajis are being introduced to broad umbrella government schemes like fish-rearing, poultry and agriculture. But as traditional foresters, Rajis have no inherent aptitude for learning these mainstream skills.

Dr Joshi suggests “Supporting them in wood crafting and carpentry.” Dr Tewari emphasised on extensive plantations in Raji hamlets for generating bio-resources.

Dr Rastogi, also the founder of SEL, the Society for Endangered and Lesser-known Languages says, “When I write Raji language on the blackboard, it surprises the adivasis that their dialect can be written.” She suggests: “Introducing Raji language at the primary level will build their confidence and stronger connections to ancient lineages.”

A decade — 2022 to 2032 — attributed to empowering indigenous languages, is a long time to reinvent the Van Rajis’ livelihood, language and culture.

(Eva Badola is a London-based independent explorator’ and writer, who focuses on climate change and social injustices issues. She is the lead author of a book titled Stories of Success: Narratives from a Sacred Land’. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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