Too hot to touch in election year, it’s status quo for Banni grassland for now
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Banni, formerly "Asia's largest grassland", is likely to remain unaltered in the near future because it is caught between judicial orders, uncertainty over which department owns it, strong protests by resident maldharis (pastoralists) and the political implications any activity may have in an election year.
A meeting of revenue and forest officers in Chief Secretary A K Joti's office on Tuesday failed to decide on a specific way forward and settle a recent jurisdictional dispute that cropped up between the two departments over the protected forest which, oddly and perhaps uniquely, still belongs to the revenue department.
The indecision was ostensibly because some revenue authorities did not attend the meeting, but interviews with more than half a dozen officers from both departments suggest there may be other factors involved.
Apparently, the government is not interested in touching this sensitive issue because of the Assembly elections due in December.
Several weeks ago, district level officials disagreed over who holds jurisdiction over the 2,497 sq km grassland in Kutch. As part of an approved working plan to regenerate the grassland, forest staff were readying the ground ahead of the monsoon so that grass could be planted. But revenue officials protested.
The disagreement reached the secretary level and, finally, the Chief Secretary's office.
Officials present in the meeting were, by and large, of the view that not much would be done till the Assembly elections or till the next monsoon season, or even till an ongoing district-wide survey and settlement exercise by Kutch district authorities concludes in two years or more, under which the land may finally be transferred to the forest department under due process.
The Banni Grassland was once home to more than 40 different grass species, but these were ravaged and largely overrun by the invasive prosopis juliflora, also called gando baval or "crazy weed" by locals.
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