Why the Sariska Siege Never Ends

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The boundaries of Sariska Tiger Reserve are nowhere demarcated on the ground. This perfectly suits the mining mafia and land sharks while keeping the poor villager on tenterhooks

By Jay Mazoomdaar

Convenient limits: The Sariska forest staff keep altering the reserve boundaries at will. An uprooted old stone pillar

BY THE time you read this, Rajasthan’s Sariska Tiger Reserve may have reached a flashpoint yet again. By 14 May, more than 4,000 police personnel were deployed in the area. The Sariska administration has already shifted base to Alwar. The tiger reserve is now an open territory with villagers and forces moving freely inside the restricted zones.

Barely six weeks after the last stand-off was resolved on 5 April, villagers are back camping on the roads, with a set of demands, including implementation of the assurances offered by the Alwar district administration last month. This time, the agitators have the backing of Kirori Singh Bainsla, the champion of the Gujjar cause.

Over the past six years, villages are being shifted out from the core areas of Sariska at a painfully slow pace. Although the present agitation demands an inquiry into corrupt practices that deny compensation to the poor and favour the influential, it is not against village relocation.

Even outside the core area, no blacktop road is allowed inside the reserve. Access is also restricted. Registry of property deals is not allowed without a no objection certificate (NOC) from the Forest Department. Villagers cannot avail of bank loans, secure electricity connections or ration cards. Mining or industry is obviously forbidden. But the agitation is not really about rewriting the laws.

The core issue that has kept this standoff alive for more than two decades is the absence of demarcated forest boundaries on the ground. The ambiguity, allege villagers, suits everyone. The rich get to mine what is actually forestland. Forest officials get away with harassing villagers who are, in fact, outside their jurisdiction.

Sariska became a tiger reserve in 1978. A local NGO filed a PIL against illegal mining in 1991 and the Supreme Court formed a fact-finding committee under the chairmanship of retired judge ML Jain. Based on a “traced map provided by the Forest Department,” the Jain Committee held in 1993 that Sariska was spread over 1,145 sq km and 262 mines were shut down within that area.

Convenient limits: The Sariska forest staff keep altering the reserve boundaries at will. A new one built right inside Kalwar village

In 1994, the apex court wanted to double-check and asked the Centre to spell out the actual expanse of the tiger reserve. The Project Tiger directorate and the forest management at Sariska submitted affidavits, providing a block-wise area statement that claimed 866 sq km within the tiger reserve. Thus, Sariska was geographically defined and the SC banned mining within its boundaries. Illegal mining, however, continued in violation of the order till the SC’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) intervened in 2006 and shut down a dozen mines.

However, the disputes continued because the 866 sq km of the tiger reserve was never demarcated on ground, even after the CEC’s order in 2006. As a result, a number of illegal mines operate legally on paper because forest officials have reasons to mark these patches of forestland as revenue areas in the absence of any ground demarcation. For example, a section of the agitators claimed that the so-called legal mines in Palpur village actually exist on forestland that the Forest Department has kept out of the tiger reserve by citing inappropriate notifications.

To make up for these lucrative concessions, revenue villages are arbitrarily included in the tiger reserve so that the total area adds up to 866 sq km. This has been impinging on the basic rights of villagers, fuelling anger. What complicates the issue further is the involvement in the ongoing agitation of a section of mine owners who allege their legal mines were wrongly shut down and claim a ground demarcation of the reserve boundary would revive their business.

Yet, nobody in the government is willing to bell the cat by settling the boundaries once and for all. The state Forest, Revenue and Mining Departments have been engaged in a prolonged blame game and it is not difficult to see why.

The records included in the area statement submitted to the SC in 1994 do not tally with the map furnished with it. The discrepancies were so glaring that the surveyor was constrained to add a facesaver comment on the map: “Prepared by me as per the direction of FD (Forest Department), PT (Project Tiger), Sariska.”

There is clear evidence of the Sariska staff uprooting old boundary pillars of the reserve and altering the boundary limits

In July 2008, a note prepared by the district administration claimed that Sariska’s limits were already demarcated on ground. But only a month ago, the Forest Department approached the Survey of India (SoI) to undertake the demarcation work. In August 2008, the then principal chief conservator of forests of Rajasthan explained in a letter to SoI that “the exact boundary, including the location of pillars, is not known”. The SoI eventually backed out of the job because the Forest Department failed to provide reliable maps and records.

Back in 1999, the Sariska management wrote to the chief wildlife warden that a number of land records of the forest were missing. Copies of such records are maintained separately with the Revenue and Forest Departments. Yet, the forest bosses borrowed the said records from the Revenue Department, which in 2003 claimed the documents were never returned.

Consider the example of Kalwar village. After a prolonged legal battle, it became clear in 2003 that the Forest Department did not include the forest area of Kalwar in the tiger reserve as per the 1968 notification, but claimed the revenue village as part of Sariska. The Forest Department appealed against the tehsildar’s report to the court of divisional commissioner, Jaipur. The appeal was rejected in August 2009. The forest bosses knew better than to move a higher court.

The forest boundary along Kalwar has not been redrawn, though. Interestingly, the correction may bring a number of mines that were shut down in Kalwar back in business while shutting down a cluster of operational mines in neighbouring Palpur.

Meanwhile, land sharks have sensed the opportunity. “Big buyers are influential people and know which villages would eventually be marked outside Sariska. But they push us to sell our land cheap because the Forest Department has created the impression that our villages come within the reserve. They also offer to buy encroached land at a throwaway price because they can easily get such plots regularised,” explains a villager, whose family was recently forced to sell land in Raika village to an IAS officer who has already purchased 80 bighas with the “actual ground possession” of 145 bighas.

With too many interests at play and some serious mining fortunes at stake, the Forest Department, it seems, has thrown caution to the wind. There is clear evidence of the Sariska staff uprooting old boundary pillars of the reserve and hastily planting new ones right inside villages. Here and there, uprooted stone pillars have not even been removed from the spot.

Understandably, the villagers are belligerent. A revenue official was nearly assaulted last week for “toeing the forest line” at a public meeting in Kushalgarh. Agitators are also demanding action (in fact, nothing short of jail terms) against the forest officers who “allowed mining for constructing anicuts and repairing roads in the core area while showing us the rulebook for every petty offence”.

Agitators claim, they are not against “following the forest laws or even moving out” if their villages came within the reserve after the ground demarcation. “But we will no longer be taken for a ride,” said one, “We must know where we stand.” After 34 years at Sariska, no prize for guessing why even that is such a big ask.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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