Rajasthan plans ‘secret fund’ to fight crimes, curb mining in new forest law

The draft of the Rajasthan state forest policy was released on January 1 for public consultation and comments are invited on it by January 15.

Protection of forest area is very crucial for Rajasthan which is India’s largest state with about 10.4 percent of the country’s total area. But Rajasthan has only 4.86 per cent of its area under forest cover (2017) – which the draft said should be a minimum of six percent. Pic: Pixabay

The Rajasthan government has proposed a new draft forest policy which will drive the management and protection of forest in the largest state of India in the next 10 years. The policy aims to have measures to increase forest area under protected area network, control mining activities, strengthen biodiversity conservation, increase afforestation and ensure proper management of grasslands. The draft of the Rajasthan state forest policy was released on January 1 for public consultation and comments are invited on it by January 15.

The draft forest policy proposes to create a “secret fund to deal with organised forest crimes and illegal mining and be used to award whistleblowers/informers.” While promising strict action against illegal mining, it emphasised that mining will be permitted in the forest areas only after proper clearance.

“In case the forest land is used for the purpose of mining, reforestation of such area shall have to be sought from the concerned agency as per the requirements of the area concerned. In general, non-forest activities shall not be permitted on the forest land. Permission for using the forest land for non-forest activities could be granted under unavoidable circumstances only as per the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,” the draft forest policy said.

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Protection of forest area is very crucial for Rajasthan which is India’s largest state with about 10.4 percent of the country’s total area. But Rajasthan has only 4.86 per cent of its area under forest cover (2017) – which the draft said should be a minimum of six percent.

It has four distinct regions – western desert with barren hills, level rocky and sandy plains, Aravalli Hills and south-eastern plateau – and the climate of the state varies from semi-arid to arid.

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The draft said that “plantation of indigenous species and quality afforestation will be ensured for reforestation of all the mined area as well as compensatory afforestation in lieu of change of land use for non-forestry purposes.”

The transition, in terms of impact on biodiversity and wildlife, which a forest can go through due to mining can be significant. In Rajasthan, the Sariska Tiger Reserve is one of the examples of how a forest area was threatened by dozens of mining leases in and around the tiger reserve. Illegal mining in and around Sariska Tiger Reserve has only added to the problem.

The policy noted that apart from persons “indulging in illicit mining in forests, provision for stern action against their abettors will also be made.” It stressed that provision in respect of the “management and treatment of the mining areas in the degraded forests” shall also be included in the working plans to be developed for the management of forests.

“Forest protection remains the backbone of managing the forest real estate. Without appropriate policing, it is difficult to control illegal off take of forest produce (illegal mining, illegal felling, hunting, poaching, and habitat destruction) and encroachments,” it noted.

However, those working on the ground on forest issues said the authorities indulge in doublespeak and their plans are rarely implemented on the ground.

Mangilal Gurjar, a Rajasthan-based environmental activist, said: “mining is prevalent in many areas of the state with the presence of mining lobbies.”

“The government has grand plans but they do nothing when it comes to controlling illegal mining which is destroying our forests,” Gurjar, who works with the Jungle Zameen Jan Andolan, told Mongabay-India.

The draft forest policy notes that it is in line with India’s national forest policy 1998 that mentions that states should have their own forest policies. It said if national level predictions for climate change are taken into account Rajasthan’s vulnerability to even a slight increase in temperature is very high.

Thus, it said, the “role of natural ecosystems becomes important” as Rajasthan’s forests contribute “handsomely in modulating climate, groundwater recharge and sequestering carbon thereby acting as a buffer between human vulnerability and climate distortion.”

However, Mangilal Gurjar said the main threat to forests in Rajasthan other than mining is the developmental projects which take away the forest land and the common land available with communities. “Implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 has also been on paper only. There is never a proper rehabilitation of people who are impacted by such developmental projects,” said Gurjar.

The policy said that to obtain funds from private individuals and organisations for the development of forests of the state, a “Green Rajasthan Fund” will be established and efforts will be made to get income tax exemption on contribution towards it.

The draft forest policy proposes protection of grasslands

The draft noted most of the western desert in Rajasthan is an annual grassland and that for over 50 years they have attempted to plant up the desert with easy to grow tree species.

“The results of which have been mixed. In the next decade, the focus of this department shall be on managing natural grasslands and creating new grasslands. These grasslands will also have an important role in drought-proofing and supplying fodder for livestock to local communities in the pinch period,” said the policy while emphasising that the desert grassland is a climatic climax that houses unique biodiversity and has its own role in climate stabilisation, carbon sequestration and conservation of biodiversity.

It said that nursery techniques for raising carefully selecting local species of grasses and scrub vegetation shall be standardised and “exotic species of trees shall not be planted in the desert anymore, except for technical plantations such as sand dune stabilisation.”

Sumer Singh Bhati, a Rajasthan-based farmer, who is fighting a case in the National Green Tribunal  against a renewable project threatening their pastoral land, said forest departments have neglected grasslands and pastoral lands for years.

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“The developmental projects being taken up by states are threatening our grasslands. Forest department claims a lot of things on paper but in reality, nothing happens,” Singh told Mongabay-India.

At present, the state has three national parks, 27 wildlife sanctuaries and 13 conservation reserves which means that about 2.92 percent of the state’s total area is under the protected area network. The policy notes that in the next 10-year period the department shall move closer to its target of having five percent of its area under the protected areas network but at this “point of time 3.5 percent of Rajasthan geographical area should be attempted to be brought under the protected area network.”

The policy further called for “suitable legislation and regulatory framework” to preserve the landscape and skyline. This approach will certainly help in enhancing tourism in the state, it said.

The draft forest policy called for increasing the forest cover through afforestation, stressed on expanding green spaces in urban areas, integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, measures to check encroachment in forest areas, steps for conservation of medicinal plant species, and efforts to control the invasive species in Rajasthan’s forests areas including tiger reserves.

It said that large scale afforestation work will be taken up with the help of local communities “including the women in the degraded forest areas, which will help in establishing ecological balance, checking desertification and providing employment to local communities, especially the women.”

(This article first appeared on Mongabay)

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