Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Communities: With or Againts DNP?

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Culture grows from the earth. The ancient societies of Bolor and Dardistan, cognisant of the dearth of natural resources and agricultural land, practiced polyandry – a single wife for all the brothers. That kept human population in check. The advent of Islam in this area in the 14th century altered everything. Polyandry became taboo. One husband to a woman became the rule and where the man could afford, he was permitted to take up to four wives. Population exploded multiplying the pressure on the good earth. Food requirements increased, forests were felled – both for fuel and to make way for agriculture, more and more land came under the primitive plough and farmed terraces went marching ever higher up the slopes from the villages. On the other hand, increasing livestock forced shepherds to seek summer pastures in areas too remote for their forefathers.

The Settlement Record of 1919 states, for instance, that the villagers of Dhappa and Katicho on the east fringe of Deosai pastured their livestock during the summer months in the valleys leading up to the plateau. The record is unequivocal about them remaining out of the bounds of the plateau itself. Between that time and today, as populations, both human and livestock, expanded, these communities are known to have encroached upon the plateau.

Similarly, elders at Bubind village on the western edge of the plateau recall a time when at least one group from the village went a day’s march over a low pass into the Nakh Pulda valley that leads to Bara Pani. And this only in bad years when sufficient forage was not available in the nearer valleys. Owing to its plentiful water, lush cover of grasses and flowers and an abundant supply of Salix bushes to be used as fuel, Nakh Pulda, whose name means ‘Wide Valley’ in Balti, had long been a favourite summer pasture with the Gujjars as well. There was enough room for everyone to share the bounty of the valley without conflict.

In 2002 the Gujjars reported that they were beginning to feel unwelcome because of growing resentment from the people of Bubind. For its part, the Bubind community began asserting its ‘ownership’ over Nakh Pulda and felt that as outsiders the Gujjars had no right to be there. As for the Gujjars, they took it as their inalienable right to take advantage of Deosai, because their ancestors had done so for countless generations. Rather than make this a cause for conflict, it needs be understood that as time passes, more and more Gujjar families take to a sedentary life style. It has happened in the recent past. There are examples of families swapping their livestock for agricultural land in Punjab and becoming bound to the land for the sake of better health care and education for their children. As time goes by, the Gujjars unacceptable to the people of Bubind will go the same way: their next generation, educated and urbane, will sit in front of computer monitors instead of driving cattle over the high passes to the summer pastures.

Across the plateau, in Shila and Dhappa, there are similar memories of a time when plentiful summer pasturage was available for the entire livestock of the village barely a day’s march in any one of the several minor river valleys around the villages. It is still a part of living memory that it was rarely necessary to enter Deosai in search of pasturage. Indeed, this is confirmed by the Settlement Record of 1919. But in the 1980s, growing population began to force these communities deeper into Deosai.

Meanwhile, in 1992 along came a bunch of people from distant Islamabad asking to see the bears. Used to the steady and scarcely significant trickle of mountain-walkers in their area, the people, whether they were from Satpara or Chillim, Khirim or Dhappa, were by and large sympathetic to outsiders. They pointed them in the direction of the best places to see the bears – but it was another matter that none were to be seen. They even told them how their elders chanced upon bears romping by the side of the jeep road as they travelled between Chillim and Skardu only a decade or two earlier.

Before the end of 1993 and the declaration of DNP, the communities had come to recognise HWF as an NGO. They had heard of interventions by such organisations as AKRSP and NORAD and knew the benefits to be reaped of such an association. But in their perception there was no difference between a development NGO and another engaged in conservation work. This misconception and the impression given by two members of the HWF field staff in the early years fouled the air somewhat. As time went by, the communities began to accuse the NGO of having gone back on its promises. Indeed, in the early years individuals went so far as to contend that pledges of schools and water supply schemes were made, at different times, by none other than Zakaria and Rahman themselves.

The one positive idea that percolated to the communities concerned the advantages to be accrued from the setting up of the national park. The entry fees collected at the check posts and sitting in the bank were to be parcelled out amongst the communities that lived around the Deosai. There was also the possibility of jobs, first with HWF and subsequently pensionable positions with DNP. There was moreover the chance of being selected for training as eco-tourist guides and of setting up eating places and doss-houses by the roads leading into the national park.

Not long after the establishment of the check post and the commencement of entry fee collection, bickering broke out over the division of the spoils. The demand of each community being the maximum share of the purse. Adding to the suspicion of the communities, was the crop of local politicians who thought it worth their while to add their little bit to DNP. With absolutely no understanding of the issues and little better to do, they went about assuring the communities, especially those in the west (Khirim, Bubind and Chillim) that each one of them from Bunji in the north to Minimarg in the south (both way too far from Deosai) stood to gain from the business of the park.

An overall comparison of the attitudes of the various stakeholder communities is not devoid of interest. While those on the Astore side are generally supportive of the idea of a national park and actually believe that with its establishment they stand to gain in the long run, the five villages of Satpara are a thorn in the side of park management. In over a decade since the initiation of the conservation project, they displayed exasperating deviousness to defeat the establishment of the check post. Over the years the check post had to be thrice shifted because it was, first, at a spot frequented by the women of the village, then it fell in an area that was to be inundated once the level of the lake rose subsequent to the building of the dam. It could have stayed at the place designated thereafter had the community not objected to the construction of quarters for the check post staff. Moved yet again to the vicinity of the southernmost village of Satpara, there ensued renewed bickering over the women being exposed to outsiders.

HWF went gamely along with each contention the community raised in order to keep an unwilling ally on board. But with the taking over of park management by the Wildlife Department things changed. The Divisional Forest Officer now in-charge was not so yielding and fed up with the daily squabbling about the Satpara women being inconvenienced on account of the check post, moved it into Deosai proper. That it was this same community creating problems over the division of gate money makes it seem unlikely that there can be people with such insatiable appetite for discord.

Where Is The Gate Money? 

Gate money collected at the rate of Rs 20 for local and US$ 4 for foreign tourists still sits in a bank account accruing interest without being disbursed to the communities that have rights over Deosai. Since the several communities around the plateau each claim the major chunk of these monies, no distribution has so far taken place. In 2010, DNP authorities requested the Deputy Commissioners of Skardu and Astore to resolve the issue. However, until November 2011, no information was forthcoming. It seems that this thorny issue will continue to remain unresolved for some time. Meanwhile, from the season beginning in 2012, the government has approved a proposal to double the entry fees for both categories of tourists.

Deosai National Park stumbles along. With HWF funding running out, the government took over the park in 2003. Though there is funding (Rs 30 million) in place and, pending a regular appointment, a Divisional Forest Officer as ad-hoc Project Director in the driving seat, yet even as the snows melted on Deosai in the spring of 2004, things were scarcely under control. Twenty posts for park rangers were advertised and candidates interviewed in March 2004. Once again the old dispute of distribution cropped up between the several villages and the vacancies could not be filled. As of late 2011, there are no rangers. Instead DNP now works with twelve regular game watches and another seven contract watchers.

Rather than take a stand, the Project Director preferred to dither and hiring was put off indefinitely. As the HWF staff withdrew from Deosai in November 2004, the Project Director did not fill the gap with the men he had on his rolls. To complicate matters, there was little snow and Deosai remained open to traffic until well into November. With the checks removed, it became a free-for-all. Reports from Skardu show that several parties went into the plateau to return with sacks full of dynamited fish. The stock improved over ten years of hard, thankless work in the face of the worst possible conditions went up in a few puffs of smoke.

The failure of the Wildlife Department as an institution as well as the unyielding attitude of the communities were central in this bleak scenario. That having been said, there was still room for hope. Changing times changed the mind-set of these two protagonists of the great game of Deosai National Park. It was imperative, for the sake of the Park’s success, that the Wildlife Department become more participatory, that there was fellow-feeling and a sense of belonging to a common heritage shared by the communities and the Department, rather than the latter being looked upon as an alien foisted upon the communities to harm their interests.

Time was when man had an equitable relationship with nature. It is important to return to that stage of intellectual development. The communities who claim Deosai as their own have to learn to cherish and value the plateau and all the wildlife it harbours. They have to learn that they are not its conquerors who can plunder its wealth and move on leaving behind a dead world. It has to be understood and appreciated that as a microcosm of the greater world, whatever Deosai possesses is the common heritage of all mankind. Above all, this notion has to be understood and appreciated: that man does not own the earth he walks upon; he is just a small part of it.

Nature is remarkably resilient. The last known illegal bear hunt took place in November 2003 and the miscreants were not tried and brought to book. At the same time, the census of 2010 showed between sixty to sixty-five bears of various ages. There has been no reported case of poaching of any kind, whether for birds or for fish. Park authorities caution against a false sense of security, however: there may have been a case or two undetected. For the moment, the odds for Deosai National Park are about evenly stacked.

One day when man has more sense, accusing fingers might be pointed at us who were incapable of preserving wild species that, if they were lost, we had no power to create anew. Conversely, it might be said of a few good men who went into the Wilderness of the Giant to see the bears come out of hibernation, that they cared and undertook a task far too demanding for their capacity and yet made something of it. That they stayed and made a heroic effort to preserve and build upon for future generations what little they found there. It is up to the rest of us to make it possible that their dream and their work should not be in vain.

Excerpted from DEOSAI: THE LAND OF THE GIANT by Salman Rashid, with photographs by Nadeem Khawar, (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2013), pp. 176. Price Rs 2,000

Related: Deosai Truths - Book Review by F. S. Aijazuddin, Special Deosai talk on BBC Radio

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 21 April 2014 at 17:55, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

Dards on the Indian side are followers of Animistic Buddhism and did not embrace Islam, however they are of the same origin in Pakistan and India.

At 23 April 2014 at 23:25, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting.. Thanks


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days