Jaipur: A one and a half-page order by the double bench of Rajasthan High Court, Jodhpur, has stalled all business activities around Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan. The order said, “It is hereby directed that all construction activities being undertaken within a distance of 1000 meters from the boundary of the Kumbhalgarh Forest Reserve shall remain stayed. The principal secretary, Department of Tourism and District Collector, Rajsamand and Pali shall be personally responsible for ensuring compliance of this order.”
Justice Vinod Kumar Bharvani and Justice Sandeep Mehta, in the Civil Writ Petition No. 10096/202, issued this order on 18 January 2022. They heard a petition filed before the court by one Ritu Raj Singh. Singh had pointed out that rampant construction activities are being undertaken in the vicinity of Kumbhalgarh forest boundary by breaching the order of the government of Rajasthan.
He cited an order issued by the Department of Forest, Rajasthan, on March 31, 2015. The forest order meant a ban on “All commercial and industrial activities, in a periphery of one kilometer from the protected boundaries of forest which includes Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary.” He contended that activities around the Kumbhalgarh sanctuary breached the forest order.
The court has sought responses from three government offices: collector, Pali, collector, Rajsamand, and additional chief secretary, Tourism of Government of Rajasthan.
The business community feels that this petition by Ritu Raj Singh had a motive against some particular construction activities. Against this, all activities now face the axe as per the court order.
Kumbhalgarh wildlife sanctuary and forest areas around it are located in southern Rajasthan comprising mainly three districts: Pali, Rajsamand, and Udaipur. Close by the forest stand denuded hills of the Aravali system where hundreds of marble mines are in operation. They cover a long stretch of nearly 30 km length and about one km breadth. Several thousand mineworkers are engaged at these sites for a few decades. Some processing plants have assumed shapes of large-scale projects using gang saws to chisel, cut and polish huge marble blocks.
Kumbhalgarh forest’s environs are spread far and wide with steep slopes at numerous places. A train passes through this forest connecting Udaipur with Marwar Junction. Numerous temples draw streams of people, generally on foot as access via road is not available. The famed Ranakpur Jain temple is located at the northern feet of this sanctuary. Nearly forty hotels and several small guest houses are operating to draw an appreciable number of tourists round the year. It happens to be the second-highest hill region in Rajasthan, next to Mount Abu.
All such business enterprises now face an indefinite future. Shatrughan Singh Shekhawat, who dealt with the marble business for a long, said the state authorities ought to realize the ramifications of such a petition and present before the court basic facts as to how development has translated the policies of the government, both centre and state.
The hoteliers have decided to hand over facts to the tourism authorities of Rajasthan about tourism as a sustainable business model at Kumbhalgarh. They argue that a big share of tourism revenue goes to the local tribal people. “The forest department has not cared for decades about stakeholders, whether business or tribals surviving on grass and leaf collection; it is time they present a sustainable model before the court so that both business and conservation go hand in hand, the need of modern-day development,” said Thakur Prahlad Singh, founder member of Tourism & Wildlife Society of India. He has been an award-winning Tour Escort, mainly for French tourists.
Even forest officials are unclear about the logic of the 1,000-meter distance zone from the sanctuary. What kind of construction activity is under the scanner of the court? A retired divisional forest officer questioned. Is the movement of tourists inside a sanctuary not a disturbance to its flora and fauna? Kumbhalgarh was declared a leopard project by the Rajasthan government several years ago. No answer is provided by forest authorities as to what they added to facilitate leopards after such a declaration.
This sanctuary is shorn of prey bases like Sambhar, Spotted Deer among others, so leopards cannot feed adequately. They are forced to move out and prey upon domestic livestock. The Sloth Bear population has increased in this forest. All hoteliers and villagers around this forest acknowledge that their premises are often haunted by both these predators, much to the concern of the local folk.