Rajasthan’s sacred groves are under threat from rampant green development
The sacred groves or orans, preserved for centuries by the villagers of Rajasthan, have started coming under attack from encroachers and developmental activities, forcing communities to rise up in protest. Barmer: In 2002, villagers from around 10 villages in Rajasthan’s Barmer district were successful in saving three bighas (1 bigha is equal to 0.62 acres) of their sacred land, locally known as oran, from being allotted to a stone mining company by the district administration. The allocation was cancelled after a three-month-long battle which saw the community come together to protest this threat to their source of firewood, water and livestock feed.But that was just the beginning. Over the years, they have had to fight many times to save their oran from encroachers, miners and the government. They continue to fight till today. Orans are groves of trees, with a rich diversity of traditional flora and fauna and water bodies, considered sacred and preserved by the locals in this desert state. Orans, which derives from the Sanskrit word ‘aranya’ meaning ‘forest’ or ‘wilderness’, were often set aside by Rajasthan’s feudal lords for religious purposes. An oran ensures food and fodder for the community and the large herds of camel, sheep and goats in times of famine. Orans are preserved in the name of local deities; they are open to the whole community, irrespective of caste or creed, as long as the villagers follow certain rules governing the use of orans. Tradition dictates that not a single tree or plant from here is cut, for example; only seasonal grazing of livestock is allowed. Wrangling with the bureaucracy But increasingly, these common lands have been allotted by the administration to mining, solar and other industries, to the detriment of the ecological health of the land. Most recently, the villagers in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district are engaged in a movement to protect their sacred land from being allotted to wind and solar energy companies. Residents allege that power companies and the sand mafia have encroached upon the Degrai Mata temple at Devikot in Jaisalmer. Durajan Singh, secretary at Degrai Mata temple and member of Oran Bachao Samiti said that around 60,000 bighas had been set aside for the 610-year-old temple by the former royals of Jaisalmer. The 600-year-old Degrai Mata temple (left) at Devikot in Jaisalmer was bequeathed 60,000 bighas of oran land by the royal family. Unknown to the community, all of it was designated as government revenue land, an error that wasn't (partly) rectified until the turn of the millenium (Picture credit - Mukesh Mathrani)According to Singh, post independence when the land settlement process was initiated, this oran was designated as government revenue land but villagers remained unaware of its status until 1999, when solar companies started cutting down trees to set up power plants.Following protests, the state government agreed to designated 24,000 bighas as Oran land but no decision was taken about the remaining land, despite sustained demands and protests by the locals. Singh said that for the past few years the government has been allotting land to the power companies like Adani Power and ReNew Power from this undesignated 36,000 bighas but now it has started allotments on the registered Oran lands as well. Villagers of more than a dozen villages have been protesting for the past six months against these allotments. Recently, they took out a 60 -kilometre long procession to mark their protest. Sumer Singh Bhati, a local resident and social activist who is actively participating in this oran aandolan (protest) said, “In the last few years, the government has allowed private power companies and sand mining firms to recklessly cut trees and destroy the oran land. If it is not stopped, communities will have to pay the price in times of need,” he said.The villagers now want the government to register the remaining land as protected oran land that can’t be allocated to private or state players. They cite the precedence of the people of Asada village in Barmer sitting in Satyagraha (non-violent protest) in 1952 to save around 800 bighas of oran land, forcing the government to finally recognise and register it as such. They simply want the implementation of the Rajasthan government’s acceptance in 2018 of the recommendation by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) for the inclusion of sacred groves such as Orans and ‘Dev vans’ as forest land.An oasis in the desertAuthor of Oran-Hamara Jeevan and regional director at Nehru Yuva Kendra, an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Dr Bhuvnesh Jain, pointed out that these orans played an important role in biodiversity conservation by preserving the endemic, endangered and economically important plant species.Jain further stated that orans are home to many types of grasses, herbs, medicinal plants, shrubs and trees, which are on the verge of extinction. It is also the habitat of many animals and birds like godawan (great Indian bustard), deer, and jackal. Technically speaking, he said that the Sariska, Ranthambore and Desert National Park are all pasture lands or orans. According to Jain, orans were once considered an important lifeline in the desert. But with passing time and urbanisation, people started ignoring it and its importance has somewhat lessened. But for pastoral communities, orans are still, quite literally, an oasis in the desert. According to Sumer Singh Bhati, a resident of Sanwta village in Jaisalmer who is actively involved in the Oran protection movement, their region has one of highest populations of camels in the state. Over 5,000 camels are dependent on the Degrai Mata temple oran alone. Power infrastructure that now dot these lands sometimes end up being fatal to the livestock and wildlife that roam the orans (Picture credit - Mukesh Mathrani) Malaram Godara, a resident of Araniyala village in Barmer, said that orans are a big source of support during the frequent droughts this part of Rajasthan experiences. He explained that during such situations, people are still able to manage at least drinking water for the community and, more importantly, fodder and water for their thousands of livestock. Mal Singh Jamara’s family has approximately 500 camels, 1000 goats and 130 cows. Despite owning such a large herd, he has never had to worry about droughts in the past as the livestock were guaranteed food at the orans. “But for a few years now, power companies have been disturbing the oran land by cutting down the trees. Our cattle are not even safe from the power lines laid on the ground. In recent months, many endangered animals like the Great Indian Bustard have died due to the high tension lines,” he said. Pradeep Pagariya, an agricultural scientist at Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Barmer, said that the oran was not only vital for the community but is also an important buffer against pollution, the dense green cover helpful in preventing the development of sand storms in the desert. They further play a critical role in maintaining the quality of air and reducing pollutants."But modernisation and mismanagement have resulted in the destruction of this ecosystem," said Narendra Tansukhani, a Barmer-based social activist who participated in the oran aandolan. Preserving the community's heritage and rightsAman Singh, Chief Coordinator of Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sansthan, wrote, “It is a pity that Orans, which are unique examples of Gene Pool Conservation based on the socio-cultural value system i.e., traditional biodiversity conservation methodology has not attracted much attention from scientists, foresters and policymakers.”Tansukhani said that for many years, they have been demanding that these oran lands be declared as heritage sites. Villagers have been sitting in protest and taking out processions in an effort to establish community rights over these lands (Picture credit - Mukesh Mathrani)It is only recently that the Rajasthan government, in a long-overdue action under the Rajasthan Biological Diversity Rules, has initiated the process to declare seven sacred groves of western Rajasthan as heritage sites. Jain, in coordination with Rajasthan’s revenue department, conducted a survey on the oran lands in the Jodhpur region. Data revealed that there is a total of 1,34,749.75 hectares of oran land in 1,759 villages of the Jodhpur division. These lands will now be officially exempt from being allocated for industry and being encroached upon.As such, orans are simply defined in the revenue records as ‘Culturable Waste Land’ which allows the government to distribute these land for other purposes. Therefore it is the need for policy and necessary legislation to legally and constitutionally uphold the community’s right to own and manage these orans, which should be declared as forests or grazing land with the ownership of communities, according to Singh.This article is a part of a 101Reporters' series on The Promise Of Commons. In this series, we will explore how judicious management of shared public resources can help the ecosystem as well as the communities inhabiting it.
Border villages in India, Pak divided by map, united by love
Barmer, Rajasthan: “I pray for peace between the two countries [India and Pakistan] so that people who have blood ties across the border need not suffer the pain of separation,” said Gani Devi, 35, a resident of Barmer in Marwar region of Rajasthan. Originally from Sindh province in Pakistan, Gani got married in 2008 and since then she has never been able to visit Pakistan, where her family lives, due to visa issues. Like Gani, there are scores of women who have to bear the brunt of separation.At a time when both India and Pakistan are engaged in conflict, western Rajasthan, which shares a 1,075 kilometres-long border with Pakistan, sees a different side of Pakistan. Residents of Sindh (Pakistan) and Marwar (India) not only have a shared cultural and social history, but they also have cross-border blood ties.One cannot distinguish between the people from either side on the basis of language, costume and culture as both regions share various cultural similarities. Languages like Sindhi, Dhati and Marwari are spoken on both sides of the border. Sodha Rajputs and Sindhi Muslims live on both sides of the border. Bajra is still the staple food on both sides of the border. The same parched expanse of Thar desert is present on both the sides. Musicians have grown up singing the same songs. Sufism originated from the area and hence, the influence can be seen in their music and folklore.Most of the traditional and religious rituals are similar as well. Often, one can witness the condolence meetings of relatives from the other side of the border.Shankarlal Dhariwal, 75, a veteran journalist, said that while partition has distanced the people physically, blood ties have kept them emotionally, socially and culturally connected, he added.Cross-border marriagesPeople in bordering districts of western Rajasthan such as Barmer, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Pali, Jodhpur, Jalore and Sri Ganganagar have blood ties with people of Mirpur Khas, Tharparkar, Amarkot and Chachro in Sindh province of Pakistan.Every year, about a dozen cross-border marriages take place in the area. Pakistani women have in-laws in this part, while Indian women have their in-laws in Pakistan. It is because Sodha Rajputs prefer marrying within the community. A similar practice has been adopted by other communities like Charan, Mali and Meghwal. Some sections of Sindhi Muslims also follow the same pattern. Wedding processions come in huge numbers and Thar Express, running between India and Pakistan, has been nicknamed as “Marriage Express”. "We prefer to marry within our community. As a large number of our community people are settled in India due to which cross-border marriages are taking place in large numbers," said Peer Dan, 66, a resident of Kharoda village in Pakistan’s Sindh province. His four daughters and three sons have been living in Rajasthan after their wedding.Tirth Dan, who came to India in 2006 and married an Indian girl and settled in Barmer, recently he got Indian citizenship. He said in 2009 his two brothers married women from Jodhpur district and his sister-in-laws moved to Pakistan while his four sisters are in Rajasthan.Religious bondingAkali, a village in Barmer district, is the last village on the Indian side. Locals here worship a local deity known as Jata Mata, but the main temple lies in Pakistan. A large number of followers try every year to get a visa to visit the temple, but it is difficult for them to get the visa. Every year thousands of Pakistani Hindus visit holy places like Haridwar, Kashi, Puskar and Rameswaram. Returning passengers can be seen carrying canisters of the holy Ganga water.Ramesh Maheshwari, a recent visitor to Haridwar, said, “Every Hindu in Pakistan is not lucky enough to get a chance to visit the holy Ganga. I am carrying holy water for those who could not come,” he said.Apart from Hindus, every year thousands of Muslims visit the Dargah Sharif in Ajmer. Hundreds of Charans and Khatri from India visit Hinglaj Mata temple located in Balochistan, Pakistan.Second homePost partition, owing to the religious persecution, a large number of Pakistani migrants came to India and took shelter in Rajasthan. One can say that Marwar is the second home for Pak migrants. Sarwan Kumar, who came from Pakistan in 1971 and settled in India, said the line has divided the landmass and formed two countries but it has failed to weaken the emotional bonding. “On both sides of the border, there are thousands whose parents are living on the other side. People have shifted but one cannot forget their land of birth, it is almost difficult,” said Kumar.Every week, hundreds of people come in Thar Express from Pakistan to meet their relatives. Every Saturday, the Thar Link Express departs from Bhagat Ki Kothi Railway Station, on the outskirts of Jodhpur, and makes a 320-kilometre journey to Munabao in Barmer on the international border. The train then crosses over to Pakistan, where it is known as the Thar Express. This train ran until 1965 and was discontinued due to the 1965 war. However, the rail service was resumed between Indian and Pakistan on this route as Thar Link Express in 2006.Prior to the Indo-Pak war in 1965, the Munabao-Khokhrapar rail link in the Thar Desert was the main trade link between Marwar and Sindh before partition. It provided access to the Karachi port and served as the main trade route for people of Marwar during the British rule. Even after independence, the arrangement continued as people in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra used the route to visit Pakistan. But the rail link was closed during the war in 1965 when Pakistani planes attacked Munabao Junction. Camels were also exported to Pakistan and horses of Sindh breed were imported to India. Sojat's henna, limestone of Jaisalmer, stainless steel utensils of Jodhpur, Bhujia, Papad, Rasgulla, and handicrafts of Barmer were transported to Pakistan through this route. Jodhpur's Mawa Kachori, laddu of Gadara and Ghotua of Jaisalmer are still popular in Pakistan’s Sindh province. Relaxation in norms demandedThough rail service has resumed between the two nations, people on either side are facing numerous hurdles. According to Foreigners Act, foreign nationals, especially Pakistanis, have restricted entry west of National Highway 68 passing through Barmer and Jaisalmer. Despite close blood-ties, people hardly get the visa to meet their relatives. The train also doesn’t halt between Jodhpur and Munabao owing to the restrictions. A native of Munabao has to go to Jodhpur, which is over 300 kilometres away, to catch the train.Since long, people have been demanding a halt for the Thar Link Express in Barmer. Besides, residents also demand relaxation in restrictions of foreign nationals. Bhuwnesh Jain, a social activist, said that a "buffer zone" should be created close to the international border so that people on both sides of the border could meet each other in a controlled manner.
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