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Shrinking pasture land in Raj cause concern; encroachment menace continues to grow

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Such has been the state of affairs here for over three decades, with encroachments on pasture land ever on the rise and cattle herders fighting to protect their animals and the environment.

Rajasthan has 88,56,101 hectares of land (41.8 per cent of the total available land), of which 9,11,233 hectares is permanent pasture land, 70,50,577 hectares is usar (salt) land, and 8,93,691 hectares is marginal land (land of less or no agricultural value). Pastures in villages here are communal and belong to the panchayat, so no individual has a claim over them. On the contrary, while communal grassland is used to feed animals, encroachments have come upon these plots over a period of time, with people clearing the land to build settlements.

How are herders affected?

Satpal Meghwal, a shepherd from Dhandhusar village in Hanumangarh district, spent the last six years fighting to free around 900 bighas of pasture land in Dhandhusar and its adjoining villages. With the land continually being cleared and trees being felled, Meghwal has submitted 12 memoranda from the tehsildar to the district collector, demanding the removal of the encroachments, but to no avail. He now resorted to singing Rajasthani folk songs to raise awareness about the capture of transit or pasture land.

Similarly, Shankar Lal Bawri, a sheep keeper from Sangria, is also disappointed over the shrinking expanse of pasture land.

"Now, even after being forced to wander far and wide, the animals are unable to graze," he told 101Reporters.<br> <br>Who are the encroachers?

According to 55-year-old Dhannaram, who is the secretary of Jhadeli (Nagaur) Best NGO Urmul Khejdi Sansthan, most of the people illegally occupying pasture land and cultivating it for their personal benefits are moneyed and influential. Additionally, sometimes the landless marginalised communities (Dalits and Adivasi) and nomadic tribes construct small kutcha (makeshift) houses on these lands.

In 2019, the local administration demolished over three dozen houses here that belonged to the nomadic Banjara community of Tausar village in Nagaur, in compliance with a high court order. When the community protested, the then revenue minister of Rajasthan, Harish Chowdhary, promised a minimum of 300 square yards of land for housing to compensate for the loss of their homes. However, three-and-a-half years later, the promise remains unfulfilled.

Lakshna Badera, the convener of the SC ST Ekta Manch of Barmer, claimed that in June 2020, the administration demolished 11 houses belonging to Dalit Bhil families in Lambda village, while 60 encroachments by upper-caste members were untouched.

What does the law say?

Surajmal Singh Neemrana, working president of Rajasthan Go Gram Seva Sangh, told 101Reporters: "As per the Rajasthan Land Tenancy Act 1955, Land Revenue Act 1956 and Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act 1994, the responsibility to protect and develop pasture land lies with the gram panchayat. Under rules 136, 169 and 170 of the Panchayati Raj Rules 1996, it’s the duty of every gram panchayat to ensure that the pasture land is not only free from encroachment and safe, but to also ensure that suitable types of shrubs and plants are grown on it."

From time to time, state ministers have assured strict action in this regard, but they fail to follow up at the grassroots

Due to the abundance of livestock in the region, the demand for fodder remains higher than its production. The supply of fodder in the form of savan and dhaman grass has always been available from pastures, but the traditional source of fodder is now shrinking.

Padma Shri Himmat Ram Bhambhu, environmental activist and wildlife conservationist, explained the consequences of this crisis.

"Gochar land in Rajasthan has a special significance due to its biodiversity," he said. "Not only do animals get fodder from these plots, but they also provide various types of trees, plants, shrubs, grasses, herbs, medicines and fuel for cooking. It’s also the natural habitat of many species of wildlife. The shrinking of such transit land will eventually be harmful to human life."

What’s the unwelcomed new government policy?

At the cabinet meeting held in Jaipur on December 15, 2021, Chief Minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot approved a draft policy granting leases to those who have been constructing houses on pasture land for at least 30 years. Following this, on December 27, the government issued a policy that allowed pasture land to be reclassified in the larger public interest, in case any other state land was unavailable. Under this, a 30-year lease of up to 100 sqm per family would be given to people living on pasture land.

With these new rules, those currently classified ‘encroachers’ settled on pasture land would be able to get pattas (land deeds), which has created dissatisfaction across the state. Those against the decision have declared it unfair to issue pattas on pasture land to trespassers — which also goes against past Supreme Court and high court orders to remove encroachments from pasture lands.

"If the government issues pattas without a concrete plan, only influential people will benefit as most poor people do not even have proof of residence," Dhannaram pointed out. "The government should first find out how many people do not have houses in the populated land."

Have there been protests?

Former irrigation minister and veteran leader Devi Singh Bhati began an indefinite protest on January 13, 2022, at Sharah Nathaniya Gochar Bhoomi in Bikaner district. It was on February 24, on the 44th day of the protest, that the government offered him a written assurance of the conservation and development of gochar land, and Bhati ended the dharna.

During the talks that followed, Bhati demanded that no construction work be allowed on grazing land, except for water storage structures. He also demanded that the government make a firm decision only after examining the policy issued on December 27 and amending the Revenue Act. Officials accepted these caveats, and issued a written agreement promising measures for conservation and development of gochar land, removal of encroachments and protection under MGNREGA, effective action to mark government land to be used for pasture in revenue records, etc.

According to the working president of Rajasthan Go Gram Seva Sangh, various cow protection organisations had petitioned the Rajasthan High Court on the basis of eight earlier orders by the Supreme Court and the high courts of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, in an attempt to protect the state’s pasture land from further encroachments.

"We will now collect information about the land of each village and the encroachments on it through Right to Information claims. Wherever there are encroachments, FIRs will be lodged against the officials responsible for the maintenance of public land," Neemrana added.

Environmental activists and cow supporters have banded together and started building boundary walls and fences to protect pasture lands. In Bikaner, a wall is being built to protect 27,000 bighas of pasture land from all sides.

"With public cooperation, our target is to build a 40 km wall at the cost of Rs 5 crore, of which 13 km has already been constructed. This is just the beginning. We will protect grazing land in the entire state like this," promised Bhati.

Neemrana added: "First, we will preserve the transit land that has remained free from encroachment, and then the land occupied by trespassers will be freed."

(The author is a Hanumangarh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

–Ajit Weekly News<br>amarpal/dpb<br>

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