At a height of 10,000 feet surrounded by mountains lies Padri in Jammu, a lush green grassland with traces of snow. Tourists are generally unaware of this area and visit the place under recommendations of locals from Bhaderwah, the nearest town and 40 km from Padri. This region in Jammu is gaining traction among tourists from northern Indian states.
After a short stroll in Padri, one stumbles upon the graves on the slope of a hill guarded by barbed wire. The graveyard belongs to the members of the Gujjar-Bakerwal, a nomadic community in Jammu and Kashmir, who put up their huts in Padri during their seasonal migration. They bury the dead, most of whom died owing to the absence of proper medical care, in the graveyard.
While the area buzzes with tourists during the summer, it is deserted during the winter as it receives heavy snowfall. Gujjars move to the lush green meadows in mountainous regions during the summers and come back to the plains of Jammu and Punjab during the winter season. During the move, many get injured and even contract diseases.
Gujjars, despite constituting nearly 12 lakh (as per 2011 census) of the total population of J&K, have not been able to become a vote bank due to their migratory nature. This has led to them being neglected by almost all the political parties in the state. They don't receive medical attention at their halt points during migration leading to many deaths in the community.
Many attempts have been made to make Gujjars settle in parts of the state, but they refuse to shun their nomadic nature.
Rehman Ali, 59, a nomadic Gujjar who had come to Padri during seasonal migration, said an ailing member of the community is sometimes taken on a cot for several kilometres for treatment. He revealed that he has witnessed the deaths of many owing to the shortage of healthcare facilities while adding that they can avail proper facilities after reaching the Jammu mainland in winters.
Unseasonal snowfall and heavy rains put the lives of nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals at high risk. The tribal community has to travel through mountain ranges of Pir Panjal, Shivalik and even Zojila pass in north-western Himalaya, usually with the whole family and livestock. It is during this time that Gujjars face an acute shortage of medicines, food and blankets as well as fodder for their livestock.
Not only health but even the education of nomadic Gujjar children is affected as they are usually on the move.
The state government had set up mobile schools for Gujjars in which a teacher who belongs to the community would travel with the tribe and teach the children. However, according to a study conducted by the University of Jammu, these mobile schools exist only on paper.
Gujjars are considered to be the first line of defence for the country as they are the ones who inform the Indian Army and other security forces about the movement of terrorists entering India from Pakistan through Pir Panjal.