Footnotes from the Field

Research begins as a social, intellectual, and imaginative activity. It has become disciplined and institutionalized with certain approaches empowered over others and accorded legitimacy, but it begins with human curiosity and a desire to solve problems. It is at its core an activity of hope

(Tuhiwai Smith 2012:203)

As usual, time in India is elastic – a month flies by with a snap, but some weekends in the beating sun seem to stretch beyond days. Though I expected it, it took me a painfully long time to actually ‘go do some work’. What that really means, is it took me three and a half weeks to do something besides just read (which I love, don’t get me wrong). Now, I’ve met about 12 different Van Gujjar families spread out around Ramgarh Range, Mohand Range, and even a few whom successfully made forest rights claims under India’s Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA), and are living within Rajaji National Park.

Helping Chopra Ji decipher some colonial-era documents to serve as proof of his family’s historical use of the jungle for FRA claims. His extended family of 8 households are the only ones in Mohand Range filing for claims.

Van Gujjars live in deras, or a small group of huts where an extended family will all stay, usually informally headed by the eldest male. Deras have always been spread out among the jungle, and this pattern seems to generally continue when families buy land in Ramgarh Range closer to the city of Dehradun. Without a bounded geography of say, a village, I started to wonder what part of ‘field research’ counted as ‘the field’? A lot of Van Gujjar men will come to offices in Dehradun to renew permits, and complete paperwork formalities. Today, some of their children commute for construction or other day labour jobs. There isn’t an objective place where reading or office life stops, and ‘the field’ of environmental anthropology begins. There is an evasive fluidity of ‘the field’ which can be frustrating at times, but can also prove to be fruitful in its unpredictability.

A thappar, or traidtional hut, made with mud and bhabhar grass for thatch.


I was lucky to visit a family deep within the Uttar Pradesh jungle with the NGO RLEK, who shared so much with me. But the best unpredicted occurrence was meeting Mangal, a colleague’s research assistant and friend, whose social capital and kindness has opened many doors for me. With his help, I was able to meet families with diverse experiences of pastoralism, forced eviction, and engaging with the state and forest department. Much like the fluidity in determining ‘the field’, there is a fluidity of desires, beliefs, needs and opinions among each dera, where some stories feed into one another, and some completely contradict each other. Older uncles reminisce about a livelihood in the jungle and migrating to the Himalayas, which they long to return to, while others told me this way of life was over, and that everything these days is becoming one and the same with the city. And of course, most families pursue both these paths at once: using a bit of the jungle if possible, keeping some buffaloes, but living nearby a road and sending their kids for school or work.

Salehman’s older cousins go to a government school, but it’s very far away so they have to board there. For now Salehman accompanies his dad around the jungle.

Despite this flexibility, in the last three decades, the debate surrounding the Van Gujjars has remained hugely polarized between ardent conservationists and retired forest guards, versus anthropological activists and supporters of the FRA. A middle-ground, opinion, solution, or program is never truly pursued, which seems ironic given the diversity of Van Gujjar experiences. Unfortunately, syncretic solutions to complex problems never sell as well to the general public or funders. For example, conservationists in India believe that forest-dwelling people are the only problem, they must be evicted, nature should be human-free, and that land is being degraded and wildlife killed. On the other end of the scale are NGOs, human rights groups, and many activists supporting the implementation of forest rights and the ability to continue living in the forest. ‘Rehabilitation’ of Van Gujjars to ‘colonies’ was supported by the government and forest department only to be able to evict people from parks and tiger reserves, and the implementation of proper services in colonies in the name of development was never completed. At the same time, I worry that if people conversely manage to carve out some claim to forest rights through the FRA and remain in the jungle, it can absolve the government’s responsibility to provide much needed services like schools and clinics. You have rights to use the forest, what more do you want?


Leaving the jungle and joining city life, or staying in the jungle, are two very simplified options that do not encompass the myriad of ways families have already diversified their livelihoods: milk production, migrating, in school, in wage labour, some with land, some in the jungle, with or without permits and rights on paper…life happens anyways. Fluidity and flexibility has always been a cornerstone to pastoralist ways of life. Unfortunately, policy diktats, especially from India’s current government, are not open to such interpretations, and prefer to use methods like Supreme Court rulings to force orders.

Though the FRA is a monumental step forward in legislation for adivasis and forest-dwellers, even if it is implemented, followed through, and recognised by authorities, it will only serve as a baseline for environmental justice. This is because the FRA only recognises pre-existing traditional use of forest, and doesn’t allow for new claims to territory, or claims to basic services Indian citizens are supposed to already have (but pastoralists rarely do) such as free primary schooling. What will come after the FRA (or in the lapses of its misuse) is impossible to predict. Untangling the web of whom to speak to and meet across Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh is tricky, but I hope to make enough connections and listen to enough stories to build at least one corner of the puzzle. I want to end in the (paraphrased) words of Mangal, who always manages to slip in reflective anecdotes during our interviews:

“You only get a degree from education. The rest, and the most important thing, is what your family teaches you, your morals, your values, your curiosity…with a degree, you’d ultimately become a doctor or an engineer, but this doesn’t make you a human being. Humans are made from talking, like talking to you, or to another person. It depends on my judgement what I take from you, sitting and speaking with others. And this is something school can never truly teach you”

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