Interview: ‘If people come together, nobody can dare grab our pasturelands’

Interview: ‘If people come together, nobody can dare grab our pasturelands’

Interview: ‘If people come together, nobody can dare grab our pasturelands’

A former Rajasthan minister is spearheading a movement to protect pasturelands, with his first project to build a 40 km boundary wall in Bikaner progressing well

Bikaner, Rajasthan: Popularly known as magare ka sher, Devi Singh Bhati is Rajasthan’s former irrigation minister and seven-time MLA from Kolayat Assembly constituency in Bikaner. A grassroots leader closely associated with the people, he is particularly known for his contribution towards pastureland (gochar) conservation.

Once a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bhati today identifies himself as an independent. Bhati spoke to 101Reporters about his work to protect pasturelands.

Can you throw some light on the history of pastureland conservation?

Pasturelands have always been an important part of our tradition, community and economy. Our village system was based on the concept of zero-economy (being able to carry on livelihood without money). Drinking water used to come from rainwater collected in ponds. As far as cattle grazing was concerned, we had separate pasturelands for cows and other animals such as camels, sheep, goats etc. And we always had the tradition of maintaining permanent pastures, protecting them through generations. But with changing times, those lands were used for different purposes, which became a cause for concern.

How have things changed since you began working in this field?

At the time of Independence, social order in our country was in tatters. The governments held the keys to society, which had lost control over many systems. Over time, the society weakened. For example, as per the revenue records, Bikaner had over 6,880 hectares of land protected for grazing. Every day, thousands of cattle, deer and reptiles used to graze there. Moreover, there were lakhs of trees on those lands. But with time, pasturelands were encroached upon.

Both land grab and illegal tenancy  increased rapidly over the last 15 to 20 years. Today, it is a very serious issue. Who will take the responsibility to free these pasturelands? That is why I came up with the idea of constructing a 40 km boundary wall around the pastureland in Bikaner last year. But it was not an easy task. To begin with, around 70 lakh bricks were needed for construction. As we did not have the necessary resources, the only way forward was public participation.

The first task was to generate awareness among the public regarding pasturelands. Within 15 minutes of announcement of the initiative, around Rs 50 lakh was collected as people realised that this was for the greater good. We need Rs 5 crore to complete the construction. Surely, construction has picked up pace as more and more people from all walks of life have joined our movement. What began as a result of public participation, continued on its own. There was no support from either the State or Central governments. As of now, the wall is 13 km long and runs along Murlidhar Vyas Nagar in Bikaner. It will extend to the national highway towards Jaisalmer.

Speaking of encroachment on pasturelands, can public participation help stem it? If yes, what is the way forward?

As per the Supreme Court’s direction, the condition of areas where rainwater flows should be brought back to the state it was in 1947. But the issue is who will enforce these directives. Measures like the master plan and green belt have been ineffective. Governments only have their eyes on vote banks and power. In such a situation, only public pressure works. If society comes together, what can we not achieve? It is foolish to expect anything from those in power. Consider the case of Jaisalmer, where 27,316 hectares of pastureland were encroached. But once people stepped up pressure, all of them were cleared.

What are the major reasons for encroachment in these districts? Can it be addressed at panchayat/block level?

Those who encroach on lands don’t think beyond their own needs. They see unclaimed land and grab it. Any legislation to curb encroachment of pastureland is ineffective. But yes, if people come together, nobody can dare grab our pasturelands.

What is your opinion on the State government’s recent initiative to provide land deeds to those who have lived on pasturelands for more than 30 years?

I reiterate that such legislations have political motives behind them. Such vote-centric initiatives are the very reason why ideas like master plan and green belt have failed. The culture of freebies has been going on forever. Laws that hand over land deeds to those encroaching on pasturelands have no meaning. When the State government promised such land deeds, we protested. Ultimately, they did fall back. 

The wall before, during and after construction (Photos sourced by Sumit Sharma)

How did the encroachers react to the newly-built boundary wall in Bikaner? Did they voluntarily leave or did they stake claim to the land on the basis of the Rajasthan government’s land deed announcement?

As soon as we launched work on pastureland conservation, the encroachers began to leave on their own. Some of them even helped us financially! All this was possible only because of public pressure. The encroachers realised they had done something illegal. Even after the Rajasthan government announced the distribution of land deeds, nobody raised an issue.

While the problem of pasturelands assumes significance with regards to environment, biodiversity and livestock, how does better rural planning help curb encroachments?

Pasturelands play a crucial environmental role. It is a natural conservation site of flora and fauna. However, the rising population and residential expansion in villages are putting pressure on it. Earlier, settlements used to be mostly along the riverbanks. After a certain point, people couldn’t continue living there, and a village came up a few km away. Now, even that is not possible. Due to an ever-increasing population, cities like Delhi and Mumbai face such a situation. Those in power don’t realise the problems such expansion would create. No matter how many attempts are made to provide facilities, the system collapses during monsoon. Now they are trying something with pasturelands as well. If these attempts succeed, the biodiversity and natural cycle here will be disrupted. In such a situation, people in villages need to step up. Decisions at policy level are required too.

Do you feel pastureland conservation will attract mainstream political attention?

It is not a question of attracting political attention, but rather leaders showing political will to work towards pastureland conservation. 

What are the challenges you face? Can you elaborate on the cost and funding of the wall and the progress made so far?

This pastureland has attracted the attention of both urban development authority and encroachers as it lies close to the city. When we started out, we faced bureaucratic hurdles in clearing encroachments (orders to remove encroachments were given from 2018, but no action was taken due to political pressure). But public participation made everything easy. When they saw that people were empowered and that wall construction had begun, the encroachers moved out voluntarily. As for the cost, Rs 20 lakh is required to construct one km of the wall. We also have set up rows of grass along with three ponds.

What inspired you to build this wall and what message do you intend to convey? Who else helped you with the initiative?

A: Due to the proximity of pasturelands to residential areas, the worry of encroachment is always there. A genuine interest to protect these lands is my biggest inspiration. The task required both hard work and financial support. But people not only offered money, but also were ready to work under scorching sun for hours and hours to make this wall a reality.

Do you feel your model of pastureland conservation can be replicated elsewhere?

A: Definitely. In fact, it has been done. The main thing is people need to be awakened for such initiatives to succeed. And it can be done only by someone who has a strong bond with the land. It was successful in Bikaner because people got together when I gave the call. If the will is there, where can’t this model be recreated? And the model is not mine, but one that was created by our ancestors. I have only made a slight change by connecting it with the people. Our model has been replicated in Osian, Chhapar, Jaisalmer and Toliyasar. I believe more work needs to be done towards pastureland conservation.  

Edited by Sharad Akavoor


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