Ban on grazing hits Raikas community hard
This monsoon, the Raikas, traditional camel breeders in the Kumbalgarh Wild Life Sanctuary in Rajasthan's Pali district, will face an existential crisis again. It will be the third successive season that the pastoral community will have been banned from grazing their camels in Kumbalgarh. Living in the Bali and Desuri tehsils of Pali district, Raikas who also breed sheeps and other cattle have relied on the sanctuary for fodder and livestock for generations. With the ban in, these one-time camel breeders of the maharajas of Rajasthan, Raikas' are facing disappearance now.
In September 2004, following an order issued by the Central Empowered Committee (cec) appointed by the Supreme Court, Rajasthan's forest department banned Raikas from using the forest for grazing camels. Officials believed grazing by the Raikas, who use the forest only during monsoon, could harm the biodiversity of the sanctuary.
Not thought through The move which threatened the community's existence was, however, uncalled for, feel experts. Camel grazing in Kumbalgarh sanctuary can hardly cause harm to the forest, says Anil K Chhangani of the School for Desert Sciences in Jodhpur. "Camels are primarily browsers and not grazers. They play an important role in the regeneration of a number of trees. Further, they are soft-hooved and gentle to the soil surface,' says Chhangani countering the official version. T K Gahlot of the College of Veterinary Animal Sciences, Bikaner, agrees: "Being browsers, camels do not compete with other herbivores for food. They do not ravage a full shrub like goats do. Instead they move from one tree to another taking not more than three to four bites.'
The root of the Raikas' current crisis can be traced back to April 14, 2000, when the Supreme Court (sc) imposed a blanket ban on the removal of any produce from protected areas, including deadwood. sc reinterpreted the rules on utilisation of forest resources in all national parks and sanctuaries. The apex court banned "the removal of dead, diseased, dying or wind-fallen trees, driftwood and grasses, etc, from any national park or game sanctuary'. The court also noted that "in view of this, rights and concessions cannot be enjoyed in the Protected Areas'. Though the court did not specifically mention grazing, cec, which asked states on July 2, 2004 to enforce the sc ban, billed grazing a prohibited activity.
Swift action Just after receiving the cec directive, Rajasthan's forest department banned the Raikas from Kumbalgarh. The ban was a blow to the Raikas who were right-holders to the Kumbalgarh sanctuary. They challenged the cec decision in the apex court in February 2006. They had been using the sanctuary from June to September each year when pasture outside the sanctuary is cultivated.
The 2004 order didn't exactly come as a bolt from the blue. The state government had banned grazing in Kumbalgarh in 1999, too, a year before the sc ruling, following a forest protection committee intervention. The Raikas challenged the order in the Rajasthan High Court, which restored their grazing rights in March 2003. Rajasthan had been issuing grazing permits since 1956 in the forests of the Aravalli hills, on payment of a fee.
No natural justice According to Heera Ram Raika of the Raika Sangharsh Samiti (rss), an organisation formed to combat the cec prohibition, the 2004 ban was imposed ignoring ground realities. "Our relationship with the forest has been one of friendship and respect, where the community does not over-utilise forest resources and helps conserve it by checking forest fires,' he says. Filing the petition in sc, rss said cec's July 2004 directive could not override the high court order which permitted Raikas to graze their animals in the sanctuary. The body claimed it still held the right to use the forest under concession and also sought an interim order legitimising their stand, which it felt would help the community avoid selling off its cattle. The battle is still on.
The Rajasthan forest department's estimates show Kumbalgarh sanctuary has a carrying capacity of 13,415 cattle units. (A cow is equal to one cattle unit; a buffalo two units; sheep 0.25 units each; and a camel is four units). In its reply to the rss petition, the forest department informed the court that 16,821 cattle units were allowed to graze till the cec ban was imposed in 2004. In the affidavit, it said grazing would lead to "detrimental effects' by "reducing availability of forage for wild animals'and would "spread of dispersal weeds and invasive species'.
cec supported the state government's decision. "The Rajasthan forest department has taken an unequivocal stand that grazing particularly by camels should not be allowed within the Kumbalgarh sanctuary as it affects the grass availability for herbivores and regeneration of the area,' it said.
The Raikas' case is still with the Supreme Court, which will have to sift conflicting evidence. A study by Paul Robbins of the University of Arizona, usa, with Chhangani shows human-induced activity, including grazing, helps floral diversity flourish in Kumbalgarh. This is in conflict with the arguments of the forest officials.
Preliminary findings of the study,