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Is there room for India's nomads?

Muslim Van Gujjars have herded water buffalos in the Himalayas for over a thousand years: Their tradition is now being challenged as an intrusion on, rather than a part of, the natural environment.

By Michael BenanavCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2009

Sharafat Kasana takes a break on the back of a buffalo during his tribe’s spring herding migration.

Michael Benanav

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Dehradun, India

It was just before 2 a.m. when Dhumman Kasana knelt and prayed, facing west, toward Mecca. The mud walls of his family's hut glowed in the flicker of a kerosene lamp. Tea brewed over a fire. Milk was being sloshed into butter. Children asleep on the floor were prodded by elder siblings who were packing the burlap bedrolls: Time to get moving.

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Twice Dhumman interrupted his prayers, advising his sons about loading the bullocks with the family's belongings. He closed his devotion by asking Allah to help his family and their 44 water buffaloes on the journey ahead. They travel the same route every April, migrating from the lowland forests of India's Shivalik hills up to their summer meadows in the Himalayas, following in the footsteps of countless ancestors. But Dhumman feared trouble this year. Government agencies in charge of his clan's traditional pastures had threatened to block them from entering, in the name of environmental preservation.

His family is Van Gujjar, a tribe of nomadic buffalo herders who've migrated across north India for at least 1,500 years. Today their population is estimated at between 50,000 and 70,000. Concentrated today in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, they base their livelihood entirely on buffalo milk, which sells for between 14 and 22 rupees (30 to 45 cents) per liter. Though Muslim, they're vegetarian and would never eat or sell their animals for slaughter: They love buffaloes and treat them like kin, even burying them when they die.

"They come when you call their names, and when you give them affection, they return it, almost like people," explains Sharafat, Dhumman's 16-year-old son.

During winter along the border of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the serrated Shivalik hills are covered with leafy trees; Van Gujjar teens scamper barefoot up the highest branches, deftly lopping leaves to feed their herds. By April, the heat rolls in; creeks run dry and leaves wither. The buffaloes need to head for the bugyals, the grassy alpine meadows of the Himalayas. Families, including infants and pregnant women, trek hundreds of kilometers to reach the highlands. When the snows return, the families and their herds descend.

For generations, this has been the cycle of Van Gujjar life. But it may not remain so much longer.

Many Van Gujjar grazing areas have been incorporated into wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, and India has long followed a conservation policy of "no people in parks" (except tourists). Since the creation of Rajaji National Park in 1992, park authorities have pressured the Van Gujjars who winter there to settle in villages and learn to farm. Despite years of protest, 1,390 families have been relocated from Rajaji to settlements, where buffalo herding is impossible and their nomadic culture can't survive.

Dhumman's clan is among the few thousand Van Gujjars who winter just west of Rajaji. But their alpine pasturage, 120 miles farther north and 8,000 feet higher, where Dhumman has spent his 51 summers, has been absorbed into Govind Pashu Vihar National Park. Uttarakhand's forest department, which manages the park, has resisted admitting Van Gujjars. Aside from environmental concerns, they assert that they don't want Uttar Pradesh "outsiders" using state resources. (Uttarakhand was part of Uttar Pradesh until 2000.)

When Dhumman, his wife, Jamila, and their seven children started their migration to high pastures in April, the forest department hadn't yet issued entry permits for the summer territory. Dhumman's family walked north along the Yamuna River, accompanied by the families of his brother and a cousin, on a route followed by hundreds of Van Gujjars. None knew when, or if, permits would be approved. As days passed, bringing them closer to a possible blockade at the park entry, anxieties mounted. To linger too long in one place, they'd run out of fodder for the herds; to move too quickly, entering their pastures without permission, they'd face arrest and fines. In late April, park officials declared, "[T]here is no possibility of allowing these Van Gujjars entry into Govind Pashu Vihar."