- In western Rajasthan, near Jaisalmer, locals are battling with the administration to save a 600-year-old sacred grove, as high-tension power lines are being laid in the area.
- The Oran (sacred grove) is an oasis of life with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, and small water bodies, and serves as a grazing ground for camels, sheep and goats of local herders. Cutting of trees, however, is strictly prohibited by the locals.
- The district administration maintains that the power lines being laid are not in the Oran land.
- The genesis of this problem — and there have been similar battles earlier — goes back to 2004 when the government reclaimed this land and a portion of the Oran was left out in the official revenue department records.
For centuries, the trees in Oran, or sacred grove, near the Samvata village in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer, have stood tall and untouched. Not a branch was cut, “not even for datoon (twig to clean teeth),” said a villager, Sumer Singh Bhati.
Spread across a massive expanse, this patch of vegetation with trees, bushes, and grasslands has supported a rich variety of flora and fauna. The Oran has been the perfect grazing ground for camels, sheep, and goats, thereby also supporting the livelihood of local herders.
A few weeks ago, however, excavators started making an appearance and trees began to be uprooted. For a solar power plant, someone was told.
Aghast, the locals raised the alarm and approached the district administration. It brought the excavation work to a halt. Still, as electrical lines continue to be laid in the area, the locals are bracing themselves for a long fight for the sake of this patch of greenery that they deeply revere and feel obliged to protect.
A history of conservation
The significance of Orans, which are rich in biodiversity and usually have water bodies like ponds within, is that they are akin to oases in the dry state of Rajasthan. There are an estimated 25,000 Orans in the state, as per the NGO Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sansthan, an organisation for the development of ecology and agriculture-livestock. The Samvata Oran is one of the biggest.
Locals say that about 610 years ago, the then king of Jaisalmer had entrusted the responsibility of this Oran to the priests of the local Shri Degarai Mata temple. Since then, the temple had ensured that cutting of trees was forbidden and cultivation not allowed. Only the grazing of animals was permitted.
The Samvata Oran. Image from Google Maps
As a result, it has become a thriving patch of different local species of trees, like khejri (Prosopis cineraria), kumat (Acacia senegal), babul (Acacia nilotica), ker (Capparis decidua), and rohira (Tecomella undulata). There are different grass varieties, like sevan (Lasiurus scindicus), motha (Cyperus rotundus), and saanthi.
Consequently, this Oran supports a variety of wildlife, like blackbuck, blue bull, jackals and even the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB) has been spotted here.
While there’s no doubt about its ecological and economic significance—the Oran supports more than 5,000 camels, 20,000 sheep and 10,000 goats of local herders with fodder—its size has been the bone of contention between locals and officials.
Locals vs. administration
“The Oran is 60,000 bighas in size and has been under the care and protection of the Shri Degarai Mata temple trust for more than 600 years,” Bhati, a camel herder and resident of the Samvata village, told Mongabay India. “But when the government reclaimed this land some years back (in 2004), it identified only 27,000 bighas as Oran.”
Bigha is a traditional unit for land measurement in India. In Rajasthan, 1 hectare is 6.25 bighas.
This “silence of the government agencies over the rest of the 33,000 bighas, despite locals having a solid record for the entire 60,000 as Oran is a battle that has been raging between the two for all these years,” said conservationist Sumit Dookia.
As a result, development projects—mostly solar and wind energy projects—have become a source of nervousness and anger amongst the locals who fear that the Oran would be destroyed by “encroachment.”
“This area is identified as a renewable energy site,” said Dookia, adding that there are several windmills south and east of the Oran, “whereas the northern side is now under solar power sites.”
There are 12 villages on the Oran fringes in Samvata. Most of the inhabitants are camel, sheep and goat herders , who are heavily dependent on the Oran for fodder for their animals. “We have always revered the Oran; it nurtures us and is our source of life,” Bhati, who has 300 camels, said. “Almost 5,000 camels and other animals graze here; if the Oran is destroyed, what will happen to us? Where will we go to feed our animals?”
Others echo similar sentiments. “The Oran feeds us by feeding our animals, providing them with water in the harshest of summers, and has never let them go hungry even in the worst of famines,” said Gopal, a sheep herder of a nearby village. “When we saw the excavators uprooting trees of the Oran for what we came to know was a solar power plant, we were shocked. The work has stopped now, but we are still wary of the ways of the powerful.”
Oran or solar power plant?
For an outsider, this juxtaposition of a thriving local ecology versus clean energy projects may appear confusing. Parth Jagani of the Ecology Rural Development & Sustainability (ERDS) Foundation in Jaisalmer however, said that often green energy is “disguised” and that “one doesn’t know what the cost of the power generated is.”
“In 2010, 1,138 bighas of land was acquired in Nokh village near Jaisalmer by a private company to set up a solar power plant,” Jagani told Mongabay-India. “The villagers were promised a bright future. But the project collapsed.” The fiscal status of the project, he said, collapsed; as a result, the locals did not benefit, and the plant was under-utilised.
“And at what cost? Ecologically, that land was devastated. To install a solar plate, you need to dig seven-eight feet for the concrete base of the pillar and this makes the land around uncultivable,” said Jagani.
In the Oran near Samvata, high-tension electricity pillions have been installed and overhead electricity lines are being laid in between, which, locals say, is “very close the temple” and therefore encroaches the Oran land.
Chanan Singh of the Shri Degarai Mata temple committee said, “We have met the district collector regarding this issue. Our demand since 2004 has been the same—the entire 60,000 bighas should be declared as Oran so that, as per the Supreme Court order, it will be considered a Deemed Forest and will get the protection against any such activity.”
When contacted, Namit Mehta, the district commissioner of Jaisalmer, refuted the claims of any construction or uprooting of trees in the Oran. “There is some confusion over the Oran land. A local delegation did come to meet me and I have assured them that the electricity lines which are being laid are not on the Oran land,” Mehta told Mongabay-India.
Elaborating more on this, he went on to say that a “765 MW power grid has been installed near a village” and that “electricity lines are just being laid between the power grids by the Power Corporation of India.”
The locals, are, however, not convinced and see this is as a ploy for encroachment. Bhati said that in 2016, the revenue department had allotted a part of the non-official Oran land for a wind energy project through which windmills were to be set up.
“At that time, all of us from the 12 villages stood up against that decision and approached the district administration to stop the Oran and the ecology it supports from being impacted. It was an andolan, a stir. They finally agreed,” Bhati said, “We didn’t agree back then, we won’t give in now — despite the pressure being high on us.”
Despite repeated attempts, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited was not available for comments.
Another point to be considered, said Dookia, is that since there are records of the critically endangered GIB being spotted in the Oran in winters — two GIBs were spotted here in November 2019 — electrical lines must be underground in that area and not overhead as are being laid. In February this year, the Supreme Court had asked the Rajasthan state government to consider laying underground cables as overhead power transmission lines have been the cause of many GIB collision-deaths.
The Jaisalmer district commissioner, however, reiterated that none of the activities was in the Oran, and hence was not a “forest department-related issue, otherwise, permissions (for the said work) would not have been given”. This, said the locals, was precisely the point: to declare this unrecorded Oran land as a Deemed Forest. A deemed forest has land rights with the revenue department but is managed by the forest department and this, said Dookia, in addition to a “clear boundary and a buffer area, with no power transmission lines inside and surrounding areas, since it’s a GIB habitat” would be the ideal case scenario to conserve the ecology of this area.
“We are not against any solar power or other development project,” Bhati said at the end, “All we are saying is that develop these projects far from us. This Oran is a forest and our life source.”
Banner image: A camel grazing in the Oran. Photo by Parth Jagani.