Van Gujjars, a nomadic Muslim tribe in Uttarakhand, will now guard the forest areas in the state from where they were uprooted during the past two decades on the suspicion of being poachers.
Thanks to a new initiative by the Central government that seeks to set up a Corbett tiger force which will have 30 per cent reservation for Gujjars and other local communities living in the Corbett National Park.
"The move will restore some pride of Gujjars. They can tell the world that they were not the actual poachers," said Avadhash Kaushal, chairperson of RLEK, a Dehradun based NGO which had been fighting for the rights of Gujjars.
Kaushal severely criticised the forest department for suspecting the role of Gujjars, who are traditionally vegetarians, in umpteen poaching incidents that take place in the Corbett National Park and other wildlife sanctuaries in the hill state.
With Uttarakhand cabinet recently giving its consent, the new tiger force is expected to come into effect when the Corbett National Park celebrates its platinum jubilee this year.
Corbett tiger force will have three platoons headed by additional conservator of forest (ACF). The platoons will also be headed by a ranger, Secretary Forests M H Khan said.
There will be a total of 90 forest guards with nearly 27 posts being reserved for Van Gujjars and other forest dwellers. The forest guards will also enjoy police powers, he said.
The Centre will spend Rs four crore per year on the force that will be deployed exclusively for the security of Corbett Park and will never be used for other para military activities.
Meanwhile, Kaushal has alleged that Van Gujjars were not being given the ownership of the land where they are being rehabilitated in Haridwar district.
"We are getting hundreds of complaints where Gujjars have been denied the right of ownership after they were forcibly uprooted from the forest areas," Kaushal said.