Rajasthan’s Wildlife Board Rezones Protected Forest to Allow Mining of Unique Sandstone
The Rajasthan wildlife board, headed by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, cleared a proposal last Friday to shift Bharatpur’s Bandh Baretha wildlife sanctuary southwestward to exclude three forest blocks “damaged irreparably” by illegal “rampant mining.” This loss of about 7 sq km will be compensated by adding 198 sq km of forest area to the sanctuary.
The state is framing the decision as a conservation effort. “The decision to exclude the mining areas was taken at the highest level and it created an opportunity to help conservation,” a senior Rajasthan forest official told Indian Express.“In rationalising, now we are adding good strategic forests nearly 30 times the degraded area.
But the move comes after pressure from Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation, to free the raw material needed for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
The rezoning will allow mining of the unique pink Bansi Paharpur sandstone that has been in demand for the construction of the temple. According to locals and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) officials, pink sandstone, to date illegally mined, from the hills has been regularly supplied to Ayodhya for the construction of the Ram temple.
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The 198.3-sq-km Bandh Baretha wildlife sanctuary was notified in 1985, but sandstone mines have been operational in the area since the 1960s. However, even after the notification, illegal operations continued, as Bansi Paharpur sandstone is lucrative and fetches prices considerably higher than the red sandstone of Dholpur. Since the early 1990s—when stockpiling of stones began in Ayodhya—an assembly of artisans have been working with pink sandstone blocks, sourced from Bansi Paharpur mines, at the VHP’s workshop in Karsevak Puram. But last September, the Bharatpur administration seized trucks loaded with illegally mined pink sandstone.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad then approached the Bharatpur district administration over a delay in the supply of stones in September-October 2020 and asked the government to cooperate with the supply of the unique pink sandstone. “We wanted the Congress government in Rajasthan to understand that building the temple is the nation’s work,” Sharad Sharma, VHP’s regional spokesperson in Ayodhya, told Indian Express last November. “A solution has been found every time an obstruction came in its way.”
VHP officials said all past state governments have cooperated in ensuring an uninterrupted supply of building material for the Ram temple. “The Rajasthan government never created hurdles in the supply of the stone,” senior VHP leader Triloki Nath Pandey said in Ayodhya, reported Economic Times. “However, there was some technical problem regarding Forest and Wildlife Act at Bansi Paharpur in Bharatpur district, which the Rajasthan government is taking steps to denotify.”
Following this intervention by the VHP, the Rajasthan mining department in October applied to denotify the 5.56-sq km in Bansi Paharpur as a matter of “highest priority.”. The state forest department sought technical evaluation of the mining areas in question and a team of scientists from the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India surveyed the land in December.
After observing that “heavy demand had led to rampant mining” and the “devastation has caused near irreparable damage to the area,” the report recommended “southwestward shifting” of the sanctuary boundary. The forest department survey also found that there were no animals or forests in the area. “We are trying to denotify the area of sanctuary to permit mining,” Bharatpur district collector Nathmal Didel told Hindustan Times. “If the mining is legalised, it would not only generate revenue but also create employment,” he said.
The mining department will be applying for leases to mine these blocks once the rezoning is completed.