MAC: Mines and Communities

The Van Rawats of Pithoragarh: Victims of lopsided development

Published by MAC on 2003-06-15

The Van Rawats of Pithoragarh: Victims of lopsided development in India

By R Uma Maheshwari

(InfoChange News & Features, June 2003)

The nomadic, hunter-gatherer Van Rawats are being pushed out of their traditional forest lands in the name of 'development'. But no one seems to be fighting for their rights, despite the fact that they are among the poorest, most vulnerable tribes in the country.

The Van Rawats, also known as Rajbars or Van Rajis, are an indigenous, ethnic minority community (scheduled tribe, previously primitive tribe) presently inhabiting around 11 villages in the districts of Pithoragarh, Champawat and Udham Singh Nagar in Uttaranchal. And some pockets of western Nepal. This community is the smallest of the other scheduled tribes of the central Himalayan region -- the Tharus, Boksas, Jaunsaris and Bhotiyas.

Although the Van Rawats were declared a scheduled tribe in 1967, they were included under primitive tribes in 1975. A few years later, the state government once again included them in the scheduled tribe category, though the reason for this shift is unknown.

The community is marked by the highest percentage of illiteracy (16.66% among females, and 35.06% among males), and a very low resistance to disease. Almost the entire population falls below the poverty line, with an estimated average annual family income of just Rs 6,274.60. Most Van Rawats manage only one square meal a day. That's when they find work as casual labourers, or work on other people's farms. Government interventions in health and education have all but failed, as the policies adopted a top-down approach, with hardly any community involvement.

The percentage of Van Rawats to the total tribal population in the central Himalayas is a mere 0.20%. Their economy is dependent mostly on wage labour (50.46%), and on the forests, access to which is decreasing at a sustained rate of 27.78% every year. 11.38% of Van Rawats are landless (they were traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers), while many have marginal land holdings. The community is also marked by a low sex ratio of 818 females to 1,000 males, and a high infant mortality rate.

No health profile of the community exists with the concerned department. There are no primary healthcare centres in any of the villages. And there is the absurd state-imposed 'ban' on family planning, in view of the reported 'extinction' or decline in population of the community. This is a contentious issue -- the fundamental rights of a community versus the policy-makers' concerns over the 'extinction of tribes'. The ban clearly infringes on the personal choice of the community, specifically of women.

The area inhabited by the Van Rawats is topographically one of the most vulnerable zones in the country, with the occurrence of landslides every monsoon (when many deaths are reported), difficult terrain and little access to good roads. The valleys support mixed vegetation. People grow vegetables like brinjals, potatoes (in a few pockets), radish, gourds, pumpkins and fruits such as mangoes (again, limited), guavas, pears, even oranges, in small patches in their fields. Crops such as wheat (in limited areas), maize, paddy and mustard are also grown.

Four 'mega' development projects are slated for the area (specifically the Askot Dharchula belt) -- the Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary, the Pancheshwar dam, the National Hydel Power Corporation (NHPC)-Daewoo Dhauli Ganga powerplant and a copper mining project.

It is an irony that in the midst of this 'happening' economic zone (at least from the point of view of the government) lives an indigenous community that has been the subject of some of the most recent research, yet is the poorest and the most vulnerable of all the marginalised communities.

Although this study was carried out in 2000, almost the entire economic profile of the Van Rawats has remained unchanged. We toured nine villages inhabited by the Van Rawats in the tehsils of Dharchula, Kanalichina and Didihat at altitudes ranging between 2,000 to 5,500 feet above sea level.

The highest village was Kuta-Chaurani in the Gangdhura ridge. It's a steep uphill climb from the village of Devisuna to Kuta on an unmotorable road. This presents a challenge to the villagers especially when it comes to administering to the sick, and accessing schools and other basic amenities.

Over the last two years a significant and interesting development has occurred following the formation of the state of Uttaranchal in 2000. A separate Uttaranchal assembly constituency, Dharchula (located on the borders of India and Nepal) has been reserved for scheduled tribes.

Dharchula is dominated by Bhotiyas, a traditionally progressive and relatively better-off (economically) community, with many of its members in the bureaucracy. (There is an incipient conflict between the Bhotiyas and the other upper castes -- the Brahmins and the Thakurs.) Gagan Singh, a Van Rawat and an independent candidate from the village of Kimkhola, was elected to the Uttaranchal assembly from this constituency.

The inclusion of a representative from the Van Rawat community to a democratic institution, and the democratic political process itself, is an historic first, considering the hitherto fringe existence of the community. Historic both in the sense of a marginalised tribe member being supported by the Brahmin and Thakur communities, and in terms of Singh's inclusion in political democracy. Whether or not this will bring about radical change in the lives of the Van Rawats remains to be seen.

Until the early '60s, the Van Rawats remained 'hidden' (except to forest department officials; incidentally, many Van Rawats lived in cave dwellings prior to moving into forest clearings) to the political/economic mainstream. In the social context, those inhabiting villages around Askot (Jamtadi) Didihat (Kuta Chaurani, Jauljivi), Kimkhola, Ganagaon and Chiphaltara have had a long tradition of barter and mutual give-and-take.

Perhaps purely out of social choice, or pressure depending on the way one wants to perceive it, the Van Rawats remained `invisible traders'; the other castes did not force them to transform. They depended on the forests, and also managed to practise some shifting cultivation.

Although providing them with equal opportunities may have been the state's original intention, many years down the line the lopsidedness of these intentions is evident from the lack of funds, and budgets, and also a certain sense of self-pity -- a result of years of being perceived as `different' and `downtrodden'.

The inclusion of a Van Rawat in local self-governance has not improved their lot. Although Saruli Devi, a woman and a Van Rawat, is a village development council (VDC) member in the gram panchayat of Chaurani village, this has made little difference to the condition of the Van Rawats. This village in fact recorded a number of suicides (of Van Rawats unable to repay loans to the tribal welfare department), and hunger deaths among children. There is no primary health centre, and the school is located some distance away forcing most children to stay at home.

There is a direct conflict of interests between the Van Rawats, other traditional forest-dependent communities and the government (in the name of conservation). In fact, the Van Rawats have a history of conflict with the forest department.

In 1963, some members of the community were arrested and jailed in Dharchula, at the additional district magistrate's court, for "illegally occupying forest land". The Van Rawats insisted on staying where they were. In 1967, they were declared a scheduled tribe, and by 1974 the land they occupied was legally sanctioned by the Uttar Pradesh government, making them Bhumidars (landholders). But the conflict remains unresolved, for 'settling' them on lands that can be 'legally' reclaimed by the forest department limits the community's access to the forests.

In this context comes the Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary plan, which has 599.93 sq km earmarked for it. The area encompasses 289.433 sq km of reserved forest, 85 sq km of agricultural land and 225.5 sq km of civil panchayat forests. According to a census conducted in 1984-85 by the forest department, the area supports leopards, mountain goats, barking deer, bears, etc. No actual records are available about the number of musk deer present in the forests, although the sanctuary is named after this species! About 35,000-40,000 people inhabiting the Munsiyari, Didihat, Dharchula tehsils, particularly the Van Rawats whose villages lie along the entire Gangdhura ridge, will be affected. There are restrictions on traditional forest activities such as gathering fuelwood, fodder grass, medicinal herbs, and porcupine-hunting within the sanctuary.

The NHPC-Daewoo Dhauli Ganga Hydel Power Project, a South Korean MNC collaboration, on a 10-year contract, will provide electricity to a number of villages in this belt. Local people have also been promised jobs. Roads have been widened to bring in heavy machinery. Many people believe this has worsened the problem of landslides, since dynamite is often used.

There are also complaints of sexual exploitation and an increase in the sex trade in these parts, with foreigners coming into the area to work.

By its very proportions, the project is unsuitable for the area and its topography. Although it will provide electricity to villages in the foothills, remote areas will not benefit, as they do not have the infrastructure to receive the electricity.

There have been many public discussions by local groups regarding the proposed exploitation of copper through underground tunnel mining at Askot. The government has decided to issue a licence to a private entrepreneur from India, in collaboration with a Canadian firm. But no one is clear about the extent of land to be used or the modalities of compensatory packages for people whose lands are covered by the project. Perhaps the worst aspect is the clandestine way in which this private commercial exploitation of the area was planned. It was left to a local rights group to begin discussions with the local people, and plan their move.

The state's early intervention in the lives of these nomadic hunter-gatherers was the building of houses under the Indira Awas Yojana, some 30 years ago. This scheme, although limited and repeatedly altered - has been more consistent than the others. The community receives a certain amount annually, by way of loans for repairs and renovations. Yet not all of them benefit from the scheme. Some still live in temporary thatched-roofed huts.

The situation here is such that people who have moved from their initial settlements cannot claim grants for houses on their new dwelling grounds. For instance, the three families who moved from Kuta Chaurani to Nimar now live in small huts. Nimar is not mentioned in the records of the social welfare office. As a result, the people here do not figure anywhere in the social welfare schemes.

Movement has long been part of the Van Rawats' history and culture. Today, however, 'movement' means for them means dislocation and dispossession.

(R Uma Maheshwari is a researcher and freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. The research for this article was supported by CARESS (Centre for Action Research on Environment Science and Society), Chennai.)

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