New Delhi: Twenty-seven years after the Supreme Court first directed states to identify and classify unique ecologies as “forests”, the Rajasthan government finally notified its sacred groves, known as Orans, as “deemed forest”, on February 1, 2024.

Orans are a vital part of community life in Rajasthan--community forests that are sometimes centuries old, traditionally seen as sacred, preserved and managed by rural communities, with local laws and rules governing their use. Pastoralists take their livestock to the Orans for grazing; these also serve as places for the communities to congregate for social events and festivals. They are also the natural habitat for the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB).

For years, the Rajasthan government has allotted Orans to numerous development projects, as we explain below, without much oversight. A legal loophole had allowed authorities to categorise Orans as wasteland, enabling their decimation.

While conservationists and environmentalists welcomed the added layer of protection to the Orans, several legal and environmental experts cautioned that the new categorisation may not be enough to safeguard the groves. This is because the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act of 2023--a legal tool that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government brought in to regulate chopping of forestlands for non-forestry purposes--has diluted the restrictions on clearing deemed forests.

“Deemed forest status doesn’t mean protection. Even earlier, FCA [Forest Conservation Act] laws didn’t act as a barrier but more as a speed breaker,” said environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, adding that the dilutions in the amended FCA allowed for faster and easier diversions.

The FCA of 1980 had certain restrictive provisions, wherein the Centre’s approval was required to convert the status of forest to non-forest land. But in the amended FCA, the clearance of deemed, unclassed and private forests can be done by the state government itself.

Experts say that the new amendment would exclude deemed, unclassed and private forests from requiring forest clearance, i.e., that the government can divert these forests for non-forest purposes without following the pre-existing process. In a Supreme Court case where the constitutionality of these amendments has been challenged, the Court noted in an interim order that deemed forests as per the 1996 Godavarman case should be protected.

Communities that have been protecting Orans for generations are unhappy. They believe that changing the Orans’ status to deemed forests will put them under the authority of the forest department and will restrict their access to the groves. Villagers from Jaisalmer, who had been protesting against the diversion of Orans’ to development projects, have now added the new “deemed forest” categorisation to their ongoing protest. The protestors have threatened to boycott the 2024 Lok Sabha polls if the decision is not reversed.

Sumer Singh Bhati, from the Sanwata village in Jaisalmer, is the head of the Shri Degrai Ushtra Conservation Institute, which works for saving Orans in the region. He has been spearheading the “Oran nahi toh vote nahi”(No Oran, no vote) movement.

A collage of images shows people holding up signs that say “Oran nahi toh vote nahi”(No Oran, no vote). Communities that have been protecting Orans for generations believe that changing the Orans’ status to deemed forests will put them under the authority of the forest department and will restrict their access to the groves. Photo by special arrangement

Prakriti Srivastava, a retired Indian Forest Service officer, said that the Orans should have been notified as a “forest” when the Supreme Court first ordered the states to identify such ecologies, in the landmark T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad V. Union Of India & Others judgement in 1996. It would have brought areas like Orans, that did not follow the dictionary meaning of forest, under the scope of the FCA of 1980, and provided them some protection.
She questioned the 27-year delay that led to a massive loss of biodiversity because the Orans were not recognised.

This reporter reached out to Arindam Tomar, the additional principal chief conservator of forests, Rajasthan, regarding the locals’ concerns on access to the Orans and the future of the groves. Further, emails were sent to the inspector general of forests, Ramesh Pandey, the additional director general of forests, Satya Prakash Yadav, and the head of the media cell, Tanmay Kumar, of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change regarding the protection of Orans from diversions after the change in its status. We will update this story when we receive their response.

Orans as wastelands

Orans are community-conserved green spaces that include indigenous trees, such as Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) and Rohida (Tecomella undulata), and are usually dedicated to local deities.

They were on the verge of destruction as revenue records marked them as a culturable wasteland--government land that could be brought under cultivation. This made it easier for Orans to be allotted for non-forest activities. There have been many instances of the indiscriminate cutting of trees for renewable energy projects in Rajasthan without any accountability to the communities that are bound to the Orans.

These communities had been demanding the identification and correct categorisation of Orans for years. In 2018, the SC passed an order in an interlocutory application stemming from the 1996 judgement, to allay the communities’ concerns. The Court had asked Rajasthan to classify Orans, and other habitats representing desert ecosystems, as deemed forests.

The Rajasthan government took no action till February this year. The recent notification was in response to an order by the apex court, on January 10, where the SC asked the state to highlight the “steps being taken for identification and survey of Orans, De-Vans, Rundhs among others such groves as forest land”.

The Court also added that “it would be compelled to take such steps as may be found necessary” if the state did not comply by the next hearing. The SC’s order was in response to another appeal made in the apex court in 2022, in the form of an interlocutory application by Aman Singh, the founder of KRAPAVIS, a grassroots organisation that works on the conservation of Orans in Rajasthan.

As per KRAPAVIS’ estimates, around 600,000 hectares of land is currently covered by Orans in Rajasthan, while the notification covered groves occupying a little over 400,000 hectares of land. According to Singh, only 5,000 or so Orans had been notified out of the total 25,000 recorded in the public domain. Still, he was hopeful about the Orans’ future as he was in talks with the forest department regarding their conservation.

“I am pleased this happened because it would mean that you can’t change the category of Orans [to wastelands] in records,” he told IndiaSpend.

Conflicts over Orans

The Orans were designated as culturable wastelands during colonial times. Locals had been unaware of this status till 1999, when for the first time, solar companies started cutting down the trees, affecting 36,000 bighas or 9,116 hectares of Oran land near the Degrai Mata Mandir in Jaisalmer.

The wasteland category is not exempted from diversion for development projects. Thus, the diversion of Orans did not require much scrutiny as allotments were done based on the status of the land in written records of the revenue department, without any on-ground surveys.

As per the Land Conflict Watch database that maps and analyses ongoing land conflicts in India, there were numerous cases, mostly in western rural Rajasthan, that resulted in the disappearance of Orans over the years.

For instance in 2011, in Kanoi village, huge tracts of land including Orans were allotted to Vish Wind infrastructure for windmill projects because they were categorised as wastelands. The Kanoi Orans were a lifeline of the GIBs and other important species like Indian gazelle, desert fox and steppe eagles. In Dawara village of Jaisalmer, over 150 sacred trees, part of the Oran ecosystem, were reportedly cut because of the wrong categorisation. This led to the allotment of land to an Adani Group company for a solar project in 2021.

Despite protests and legal cases, there were very few examples where the green projects were halted. Pooja Chandran, a legal researcher at the Foundation for Ecological Security, said, “The courts follow what is in records that might not represent the actual use of land. If the judge is willing to go beyond the written words, then some relief might be possible.” She added that the communities needed more legal recourse. The categorisation of Orans as deemed forests could have been beneficial if not for the amended FCA.

Bhati, from Sanwata village, said that he was “not too glad about this decision because when these lands come under the forest department, what is the guarantee that they will not be given to the companies for non-forestry purposes like solar and wind projects?”

Locals have been protesting because they feared that the forest department might restrict their access to the Orans’ grazing areas. Despite assurances from forest officials that grazing would be allowed, the communities remain sceptical.

The lost Orans

Srivastava, the former IFS officer, said that the state government should have prepared the inventory of all the Orans in the state, as per the Godavarman judgement, by 1997. Not doing so was contempt of court. “They were sleeping all this while. Can you imagine how much area would have been diverted in the meantime, and how much Orans have been lost?”

In 2011, the Supreme Court had expanded on its 1996 judgement and directed the Union government, the Forest Survey of India, states and Union territories to prepare geo-referenced maps of every type of forest in the country, for the FCA 1980. This order, too, was not complied with.

The SC order in 2018--to categorise Orans and similar such habitats, irrespective of their size, as deemed forest--was more direct.

Now, when the demand has finally been fulfilled, the amendment of FCA has made the law toothless. Srivastava told IndiaSpend that in certain cases, diversions of Orans will not even require forest clearance, due to blanket exemption for specific purposes under the amended FCA.

“It could be easily used for non-forest purposes if it fell 100 km away from the international border, or alongside a rail line or a public road which provides access to public utilities or habitations, and 10 hectares for security requirements as per the new Act.”

Back in Jaisalmer, Bhati is worried. “We want the Orans to be identified and protected and not to come under the forest department," he told IndiaSpend. "Their deemed forest status would not just stop communities from accessing and conserving them, but would also not stop them from being given to companies for non-forest purposes.”