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"Oran of Rajasthan needs protection but not like forests"

The Rajasthan state government issued a notification on February 1, 2024, proposing the classification of Oran, a region traditionally

By Ground report
New Update
"Oran of Rajasthan needs protection but not like forests"

The Rajasthan state government issued a notification on February 1, 2024, proposing the classification of Oran, a region traditionally held sacred by local communities, as a deemed forest. This decision follows a Supreme Court order to confer deemed forest status on lands such as Oran, Dev-Van, and Rundh, with objections invited until March 3, 2024.

In western Rajasthan, near Jaisalmer, a community-led struggle is unfolding to protect a 600-year-old sacred grove known as Oran. The grove, revered for its ecological richness and cultural significance, is currently threatened by the installation of high-tension power lines.

Despite the district administration’s assurance that the power lines do not infringe upon the Oran, locals remain vigilant in safeguarding this vital habitat, which sustains a diverse array of plant and animal life, as well as serving as a crucial grazing area for livestock. The roots of this conflict trace back to 2004 when the government’s reclamation of land led to the exclusion of part of the Oran from official records. This historical oversight continues to fuel disputes to this day.

Oran is not like a regular forest

Accoridng to the Down to Earth report, The notification has sparked concern among forest-dependent communities, particularly in western Rajasthan. Sumer Singh, a resident of Savta village in Jaisalmer and a member of the Gauchar Oran Patrakshak Sangh Rajasthan, expressed the community’s deep-seated connection to Oran, citing its cultural and religious importance.

He highlighted the reliance of the community on the forest for cattle grazing, pastures, and other livelihood necessities, with approximately 5,000 camels and 50,000 sheep depending on the Degre Oran in their village alone.

Locals rely on Oran for necessities like gum, wood, and wild vegetables. But fears abound that making Oran a forest may cut their access to these crucial resources, impacting their livestock and homes near the forest.

Uprooting trees in the Oran area. Photo credit: Sumer Singh Bhati/Mongabay

Singh said, "If the state forest department takes over Oran, the people from his community will need to vacate the land." He also mentioned that community members perform ritual prayers, funerals, and religious programs at this Oran.

The Supreme Court’s 1996 order in the Godavarman case directed state governments to identify and protect deemed forests. However, Gupta noted that the current list of deemed forests provided by the Rajasthan government is incomplete, urging for a more detailed submission. The case is scheduled for a hearing on March 11, 2024.

In a written demand to the District Collector, villagers argued that Oran land primarily exists in desert areas, making the dictionary definition of a forest irrelevant. They appreciated the Supreme Court's forest conservation intentions but believed Oran didn't meet the criteria.

Section 2 provisions prohibit any non-forestry activities like mining, deforestation, quarrying, or infrastructure construction on forest land without Central Government permission. However, the move allows individuals or communities to visit the forest for grazing or worship.

A history of conservation

The Orans of Rajasthan, known for their rich biodiversity and essential water sources, are considered lifelines in the arid landscape. These ecological havens, numbering around 25,000, are crucial for the local ecology and agriculture-livestock development, with the Samvata Oran being among the largest.

Historically, the Orans have been protected by local communities. For instance, the Shri Degarai Mata temple, entrusted with the care of the Samvata Oran over six centuries ago, has upheld a strict policy against tree felling and cultivation, allowing only animal grazing.

This conservation effort has led to the flourishing of indigenous flora such as khejri, kumat, babul, ker, and rohira trees, alongside grasses like sevan, motha, and saanthi. The diverse plant life supports an array of fauna, including blackbuck, blue bull, jackals, and even sightings of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard.

Oran near Samvata in Jaisalmer. Photo credit: Parth Jagani/mongabay

The Oran matches its ecological value with its economic importance, providing fodder for over 5,000 camels, 20,000 sheep, and 10,000 goats belonging to local herders. However, people dispute the size of the Oran. Locals claim that the Shri Degarai Mata temple trust has traditionally managed the entire 60,000 bighas (approximately ( 9,600 ) hectares), but the government's reclamation in 2004 acknowledged only 27,000 bighas (approximately ( 4,320 ) hectares) as Oran.

The government’s silence on the remaining 33,000 bighas has led to a longstanding conflict, with fears that development projects, particularly solar and wind energy, may encroach upon and ultimately destroy the Oran. This tension underscores the delicate balance between development and conservation, with local communities advocating for the protection of their environmental heritage.

Rajasthan villagers oppose land development

Villagers in Rajasthan have formed "Team Oran" to oppose development activities that threaten their traditional lands. Led by community leader Sumer Singh Bhati, the group has organized Oran Yatras to highlight the importance of Orans, which are sacred grazing grounds for thousands of cattle.

Last summer, villagers marched to the District Collector's office carrying an earthen pot filled with soil stained with the blood of deer killed near Degrai Oran due to a nearby solar plant. They delivered a memorandum urging government officials to protect the Orans and the wildlife inhabiting them.

Sand mining in Oran Luni River. ©KRAPAVIS/fao.org.

Bhati emphasized the need for sustainable development, expressing concern over the destruction caused by projects like wind farming. These initiatives, while touted as sustainable, disrupt the ecological balance of the Orans and render the land uncultivable. Additionally, windmills pose a threat to endangered bird species.

The encroachment of power companies on Oran lands has disrupted the peaceful existence of villagers and threatened the delicate relationship between nature and the community. Villagers are calling for the reclaiming of Orans, their sole means of survival in the harsh desert environment, and resisting the practice of sacrificing land for development, which puts both communities and wildlife at risk.

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