From Tree Martyrs in 1730 to Environmental Offenders Today! Rajasthan's Great Fall

In a poignant reversal of roles, a region once celebrated for its environmental custodianship has now taken first and second positions in offenses such as Noise, Air, and Water pollution, Environment Protection Act transgressions, Forest Act and Wildlife Protection Act violations.
Image- Google Doodle, 26 March 2018
Image- Google Doodle, 26 March 2018

Udaipur- Rajasthan, a state known for the heroic sacrifice of its people to protect trees, is now grappling with a disheartening reality. Despite a historical commitment to environmental conservation, recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for the year 2022 paints a bleak picture. Rajasthan has emerged as a prominent contributor to environmental crimes in various categories, signalling a drastic departure from its once eco-conscious ethos.

The NCRB data reveals a disturbing trend, placing Rajasthan at the forefront of environmental transgressions. The state holds the dubious distinction of securing the first and second positions in multiple categories, including Noise, Air, and Water pollution, as well as violations of key acts like the Forest Act, Wildlife Protection Act, and Environmental Protection Act.

Of the 52,768 environment-related offences recorded nationwide in 2022, Rajasthan accounted for a staggering 9529 cases, underscoring the severity of the situation.

The offences encompass violations under seven critical acts, reflecting a comprehensive disregard for environmental safeguards. These acts include the Forest Act (1927) and the Forest Conservation Act (1980), the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), the Environmental (Protection) Act (1986), the Air and Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (2003), the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules (2000), and the National Green Tribunal Act (2010).

While wildlife offences witnessed an increase in several states, Rajasthan stands out with a concerning 50% surge in such cases compared to 2021. This spike places Rajasthan at the forefront of wildlife crime, constituting 30% of the total cases reported nationwide.

A total of 159 cases has been registered in Rajasthan under the Wildlife Protection act that places the desert state in the top position followed by Uttar Pradesh with 120 cases. No of cases under the Forest act and Forest Conservation act are 219 which is second highest after Uttar Pradesh that registered 1201 cases in the assessment year.

The Mooknayak spoke to Rahul Bhatnagar, a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), who finds the results in the report 'shocking' as he claims the forest cover in the state has increased, according to the recent Forest Survey report.

He contends that these findings stand in stark contrast to the recent Forest Survey report, which indicates an increase in the forest cover in the state. Bhatnagar questions the apparent contradiction, asserting that a rise in green cover should ideally lead to a decline in environment-related crimes, such as wood smuggling, tree felling, and poaching.

Bhatnagar points out that with many welfare schemes by the central and state governments, such as the Ujjwala gas scheme, free rations etc. families, especially forest dwellers, no longer face fuel and food crises.

However, for the increase in water pollution, Bhatnagar attributes it to the fishing contracts that the state has been granting in almost every water body in each tehsil. "Not a single water body has been spared from fishing, including reservoirs and water reserves like Jawai Bandh and Badi. Badi is a Mahasheer ( a fish specie that survives only in clean water) conservation water body; however, fishing continues here unchecked. This has to be strictly stopped since such activities bolster pollution and environmental degradation."

Flocks of winged creatures gathering in the Birds Village of Menar, Udaipur.
Flocks of winged creatures gathering in the Birds Village of Menar, Udaipur.

The Disturbing Realities of Pollution and Resource Exploitation

In the realm of Water and Air pollution Prevention and Control, Rajasthan emerges as the primary culprit, with 32 cases, leaving Tamil Nadu trailing behind at 22. The offenses related to Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) are equally alarming, as Rajasthan claims the fourth position among the 28 states, with a staggering 1818 cases.

The Mooknayak spoke with Dr. Satya Prakash Mehra, the State Coordinator for ICRAF - The World Agroforestry Centre, for insights into these concerning statistics. In contrast to Bhatnagar's response, Mehra asserts that the NCRB data merely reveals half the truth, and the situation is even grimmer. He points to unequal access to natural resources and reckless exploitation, whether in the Aravalis mountain range, or water resources like Chambal in south eastern Rajasthan and Devas, or Mahi rivers in southern area, emphasizing that crimes will continue to escalate without stringent policies in place.

Highlighting Rajasthan's transformation into a mining hub, Mehra criticizes the unchecked exploitation by tycoons and corporates, depleting the region's rich natural resources. Despite 70 percent of the population residing in rural areas, Mehra points out the diversion of water from village rivers to meet the needs of the urban populace.

"The forest dwellers and local communities, who rightfully belong to the jungles, are being pushed out," Mehra laments, drawing attention to the proliferation of legal and illegal land leases. He emphasizes that around 33 thousand mines are yet to undertake eco-restoration, revealing a concerning lack of responsibility in the mining sector.

In the face of rampant exploitation and environmental degradation, Mehra advocates for urgent implementation of comprehensive policies and ecological restoration efforts. The need for accountability and sustainable practices becomes apparent as Rajasthan grapples with the consequences of its environmental choices.

Forest fires have increased tenfold in the past two decades in India.
Forest fires have increased tenfold in the past two decades in India. (File Pic from Udaipur forest area)

Wildlife expert and Conservation Scientist, Dr. Sunil Dubey, dismisses the NCRB data as fake and untrustworthy, asserting that the number of cases reported is significantly higher than what is documented.

According to Dr. Dubey, many cases, especially those related to illegal activities such as smuggling of wood, poaching remain unreported and unregistered. He highlights the pervasive corruption within the system, where large quantities of wood are illicitly taken from forests, with the culprits often escaping consequences by bribing authorities.

As a member of the Core Area Development Committee for Sita Mata Sanctuary, Dr. Dubey provides a concerning insight, stating that at least 1500 fire points exist within the sanctuary. He points out that while the FSI satellite sends daily reports of fires breaking out in forest areas, especially during the summer season, but the NCRB data fails to account for these incidents. This discrepancy raises doubts about the reliability of the data, prompting Dr. Dubey to question its accuracy and trustworthiness.

He underscores the gravity of the forest fire issue, emphasizing its fatal impact on wildlife. Dr. Dubey notes that while some fires may result from accidents, others are intentional acts, both of which pose significant threats to ecosystems. Dr. Dubey raises a crucial point by highlighting that these incidents, whether accidental or intentional, often go unaccounted for in official reports.

The exclusion of such crucial data in official records raises concerns about the comprehensive understanding of the environmental challenges faced by the region.

A memorial Commemorating 363 Bishnois died for saving Green Trees Near Khejarli Village, Jodhpur, Rajasthan,
A memorial Commemorating 363 Bishnois died for saving Green Trees Near Khejarli Village, Jodhpur, Rajasthan,Image source- Wikipedia

Amrita Devi and the Khejarli Massacre

The Khejarli massacre occurred in September 1730 in Rajasthan's Jodhpur village when 363 people from the Bishnoi community were killed while trying to peacefully protect a grove of Khejri trees.  

The then Maharaja of Jodhpur, Abhay Singh, sought to construct a new palace and, in the process, required wood. Sending soldiers to the village to fell khejri trees, a critical resource, proved to be a fateful decision. Led by a woman named Amrita Devi Bishnoi, the villagers refused to surrender their trees. Amrita stated that the Khejri trees were sacred to the Bishnois and her faith prohibited her from allowing the trees to be cut down. Fearlessly, Amrita Devi confronted the soldiers, embracing one of the trees to shield it from the axe. In her impassioned defense, she declared her willingness to sacrifice her life for the tree, considering it her duty as a Bishnoi to protect nature. This act of resistance inspired others in the village, leading to a tragic event where 363 people laid down their lives to safeguard the khejri trees. Maharaja Abhay Singh, moved by remorse, eventually called back the soldiers.

Amrita Devi's legacy endures, inspiring diverse communities. Her village, now known as 'Khejarli,' is a reminder of her sacrifice, where the Bishnoi community gathers annually in September to commemorate her and the other protestors.

In the 1970s, the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand drew inspiration from these conservation martyrs. In 2001, the nation recognized Amrita Devi's invaluable contribution to environmental conservation by establishing the Amrita Devi Bishnoi Wildlife Protection Award, honoring those who follow in her footsteps.

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