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municipal authorities and the district administration at Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan seem to have woken up from a long slumber. The past two months saw hectic activity, with the authorities taking punitivemeasures against the illegal commercial activities going on right on the edge of the protected forest. Twenty-five structures were demolished last week because they were being used for commercial activities on agricultural land, without obtaining the requisite clearance.
It is long known that commercial activities in Ranthambore have sneaked right up to the supposedly inviolate forest. There are allegations that in certain cases, the structures may be well be inside the protected forest. A drive down the road adjacent to the forest boundary proves this. Hotels, resorts, farmhouses, shops and eateries are located a few metres from the forest. A few efforts have been made to handle this problem. In one such effort, in December 2002, the state government issued orders to prohibit change of land use (from agriculture to commercial) within the 500 metres of the forest. Within a few months, the powers that be got this this directive relaxed to accommodate a few hotels as "very very special case".
This time the district administration has taken bold action against the offenders. The demolition drive has rid the area of illegal constructions and instilled a fear of the law among hoteliers and property owners. Many have voluntarily removed encroachments. Besides those whose buildings and been demolished, notices have been issued to many others. Officials say this will be an ongoing operation.
The demolitions have raised some questions. Certain people whose properties were demolished have alleged they are being singled out and targeted. They point at other properties that do not have the requisite permission for change of land use, but have been left out of the drive. The authorities say that they will not spare anyone, however powerful they may be, and that they are carrying out further investigations. It is of utmost importance that their motives and actions are as above board as they are firm.
This may provide a vital impetus for similar action around other protected areas where commercial activities undermine forest and wildlife conservation -- or public good, for that matter. But such action is rooted in local politics. Only time will tell if the politics of other areas affords such measures.