As in all pastoral societies, village commons occupy a pivotal place in the lives of Rajasthan’s livestock-dependent communities too. Locally called orans, these are lands where herders have been grazing their cows, sheep, and goats for centuries. Usually featuring a temple and a waterbody, these community-conserved pastures are rich in biodiversity.
The Rajasthan orans are home to the endangered great Indian bustard (GIB), chinkara, and the Indian desert fox. The lands are under threat now as they are sought to be used for generating “green energy”, solar in particular.
With high solar radiation, Rajasthan’s Thar desert is considered ideal for solar power. According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Rajasthan has the highest installed solar capacity in the country, of 7,737.95 megawatts. But solar installations and plans for future expansion come at the cost of existing village commons.
On December 11, 2022, people from Jaisalmer marched through 40 villages, covering almost 300 kilometres, demanding protection for the orans. The Oran Bachao Yatra ended on December 19 when the protesters submitted a letter to the Jaisalmer District Collector with a demand to recognise orans in revenue records as village commons and to protect them as deemed forests, as the Supreme Court had ordered in 2018. Almost four years after the Supreme Court directive, not a single oran has been declared a deemed forest.
The letter pointed out the importance of orans, which are oases of traditional flora and fauna. Named after deities, they are considered sacred by the local people and protected as such. In recent years, villagers have been actively involved in safeguarding the critically endangered GIB, locally called godawan, which is also the State bird of Rajasthan. There are only about 150 GIBs left in the wild now: many of them have died after hitting the power lines that criss-cross the landscape.
Experts say that in the last few years, orans have either been handed over to green energy companies or been encroached upon by power grids and lines installed by these companies. The power lines have caused the death of not only GIBs but also of the laggar falcon and other such endangered species.
But the local administration does not seem to be bothered. Sumer Singh, a herder and one of the leaders of the march, sounded sceptical. “They give assurances but nothing happens,” he said. This is the seventh time that they have submitted a letter to the Collector’s office since 2020, but to no avail.
“Although the orans are rich in biodiversity, many of the them are classified as “wasteland” in revenue records.”
“Development should happen but not like this. Trees are cut overnight. Some of these trees are hundreds of years old. What will happen to us? This is our livelihood,” Singh added.
Tina Dabi, District Collector of Jaisalmer, neither answered calls nor responded to messages seeking an interview about the protest march and the people’s demands.
“The richest biodiversity in the deserts is in the orans,” M.R. Baloch, Director, Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI), told Frontline. AFRI is a Jodhpur-based autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Many of the orans, however, are classified as “wasteland” in revenue records, according to the Wasteland Atlas prepared by the Union Ministry of Rural Development.
At present, solar and wind power projects do not require environmental clearance under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, unlike other developmental projects involving highways, hydropower and the like.
This is why the Supreme Court had intervened in 2018: its order recognised the ecological importance of desert ecosystems and of orans in particular, which were to be brought under the tag of “deemed forest”. As per the Supreme Court order, the Rajasthan government was supposed to form an expert committee comprising representatives from AFRI, Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), and other relevant bodies and departments “to identify areas which are representative of various types of desert ecosystems”.
Bega Ram Jat, Chief Conservator of Forests, Rajasthan, confirmed that the committee had been formed and that they were in the process of drawing up a list of orans. “As of now, we have listed almost 50,000 hectares of land in Jaisalmer as orans,” said Ganesh Verma, Divisional Forest Officer, Jaisalmer. He explained that once the list was finalised and the lands were notified as deemed forests, the forest department would take possession of them. But there would be no restriction on grazing, he clarified, adding that they were consulting local people for listing orans.
Sumer Singh disputed this statement. “This is the first time I am hearing about the forest department preparing a list of orans. They have not spoken to any of us who protested,” he said.
Communities and civil society groups are leading parallel efforts to conserve the orans. Sumit Dookia, scientific adviser to the Ecology, Rural Development & Sustainability (ERDS) Foundation, a Rajasthan-based grassroots-level conservation organisation, said that they had identified around 130 orans in consultation with local people.
The Supreme Court-ordered list though is long overdue. The report on orans was supposed to be finalised within six months of the date of the order, by January 2019.
“In the last three years, because of agitations, the local administration is trying to be careful with land allotment [to renewable energy companies],” said Parth Jagani, district coordinator from Jaisalmer for the ERDS Foundation. But powers lines are still being drawn across orans and trees being cut.
In July 2021, when villagers from Bikaner staged a dharna protesting against plans to lay power lines across pastures, they were lathi-charged by the police. A core demand of the dharna was the settlement of community land rights over the pastureland. Just a few days before this, the Rajasthan High Court had ordered the cancellation of around 900 acres of land allotted to Adani Renewable Energy Park Rajasthan Ltd in Nedan village near Pokhran.
The company had been allotted around 3,800 acres in 2018. The land, with a water tank and a school, supported grazing and was also used for agriculture. The affected people went to court demanding a return of their community land. The court recognised that since the land hosted public utilities, it could not be used for a solar park.
It also directed the State government to survey the entire stretch and cancel allotments where the land is used for public purposes. Located at a distance of about 70 km from Desert National Park, this land had been marked by the Wildlife Institute of India as a “potential area” for the conservation of GIBs.
Sujan Singh Salkha, a herder from Sam village near Desert National Park, explained that while work undertaken by a wind power company on an oran in their area had come to a halt, the core issue of oran protection remained unresolved. “The company has already developed some part of the land. If they take it over entirely, what will happen to our cattle and the wild birds and animals?” he asked.
Rishika Pardikar is a wildlife and climate change reporter based in Bengaluru.
- Rajasthan’s village commons or orans are threatened by green energy projects
- The Rajasthan orans are home to the endangered great Indian bustard (GIB), chinkara, and the Indian desert fox.
- They are central to the lives of the herding communities.
- In 2018, the Supreme Court recognised the ecological importance of desert ecosystems and of orans in particular, which were to be brought under the tag of “deemed forest”.
- Almost four years after the Supreme Court directive, not a single oran has been declared a deemed forest.
- From December 11-19, people from Jaisalmer marched in Oran Bachao Yatra to protest against the destruction of orans.
- But the local administration does not seem to be too bothered.