State takes 54 years to prepare working plan for Banni grasslands

The state Forest Department will submit a working plan for the restoration of Banni grasslands in Kutch district, 54 years after it was declared a 'protected' forest. Chief Conservator of Forest (CCF), Working Plan, Satish Srivastav said: "According to the Supreme Court guidelines, any forest area declared 'protected' should have a working plan. It will be ready in a few weeks, after which it would be submitted to the panel of experts from the Government of India and the Government of Gujarat."

* The impasse
Despite being one of the most diverse grasslands in Asia, the impasse over transferring possession of Banni grasslands from the Revenue Department to the Forest Department still stands. Now, the Forest department, as per the Supreme Court guidelines, will submit its working plan to a panel of experts. Kutch Collector R R Varsani said, "Banni is under the control of the Revenue Department, but we are not responsible for its upkeep."
Kutch conservator of forests, R L Meena, said: "Even as the demarcation of fringes comprising non-indigenous ganda bawal (Prosopis Julliflora) was done by the settlement commissioner in 2006, the internal demarcation of hamlets that come under the Revenue Department is yet to be done. We are preparing a working plan for nearly 2.15 lakh hectares of land, where hamlets are spread in Banni."
The working plan focuses on the restoration of wide grasslands, and restoring ganda bawal in some gaps on the fringe areas of Banni, said Meena.

* Plant that changed Banni ecology
Ganda bawal had been introduced to prevent salinity ingress in the area, but it proved to be disastrous after it multiplied and replaced the local vegetation, thus changing the ecology of the area. From 1980 to 1988, salinity increased at an annual rate of 1,432 hectares and ganda bawal expanded at the rate of 2,376 hectares.
Under the Banni Development Plan, contracts to cut down ganda bawal and manufacture charcoal were issued. Section 32 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 empowered the state authorities to regulate licences for cutting trees by private parties, but the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 came in the way. Cutting down trees in even privately owned plots in 'protected' forestland requires the Central government's approval.

* A charcoal hub
In 2008, the Gujarat State Forest Development Corporation (GSFDC) had sent a proposal, suggesting the development of the grassland, which has the potential of producing high-quality wood-charcoal from ganda bawal trees worth over Rs 250 crore per annum.
At present, the locals have been producing charcoal by unscientific means. GSFDC purchases charcoal from them and markets it in several states like Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, where ceramics/ tiles and chemical industries and filtration plants use charcoal.
Before GSFDC's entry in this business, private traders used to exploit Banni locals and purchase charcoal at a low price just Rs 70 per quintal. Now, locals get about Rs 450 per quintal.
Meena said, "We aim to make GSFDC our partner in the working plan, which will help in restoring the grassland that has over 20 species of grass and endangered species."
GSFDC Managing Director H S Singh said, "If the grasslands are restored, conservation of wildlife will be easier, especially that of the endangered species such as Houbara bustard, Chinkara, raptors like Tawny Eagle, Bonnelli's Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Imperial Eagle and Steppe Eagle."

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