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Ram temple: Rajasthan frees land for sandstone mining

Although on paper no mining was allowed after 2016, illegal operations continued and the Bansi Paharpur sandstone remained available in the grey market.

The boundary reorganisation will allow mining of the unique pink Bansi Paharpur sandstone named after the area — it has been in demand for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. (File)

The standing committee of the Rajasthan wildlife board, headed by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, cleared a proposal last Friday to shift Bharatpur’s Bandh Baretha wildlife sanctuary “southwestward” to exclude three forest blocks “damaged irreparably” by “rampant mining”. This loss of 7 sq km will be compensated by adding 198 sq km of territorial forest to the sanctuary.

The boundary reorganisation will allow mining of the unique pink Bansi Paharpur sandstone named after the area — it has been in demand for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The mining department, it is learned, has been advised to apply for fresh leases to mine these blocks once the reorganisation is completed.

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Although on paper no mining was allowed after 2016, illegal operations continued and the Bansi Paharpur sandstone remained available in the grey market. But supplies took a hit after the Bharatpur administration seized 25 trucks loaded with illegally mined pink sandstone last September.

Following the raid, functionaries of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Ayodhya warned against blocking the supply of the unique pink sandstone.

As reported by The Indian Express earlier, the Rajasthan mining department decided to apply for denotifying the 5.56-sq km in Bansi Paharpur on the Parivesh portal of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as a matter of “highest priority” last October.

“We wanted the Congress government in Rajasthan to understand that building the temple is the nation’s work. A solution has been found every time an obstruction came in its way,” Sharad Sharma, VHP’s regional spokesperson in Ayodhya, told The Indian Express last November.

After the Rajasthan forest establishment top brass visited New Delhi to discuss the matter with the Union Ministry in November, the state forest department sought technical evaluation of the mining areas in question. A team of scientists from the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India conducted a survey in December.

Observing that “heavy demand had led to rampant mining” and the “devastation has caused near irreparable damage to the area,” the report recommended “south-west ward shifting of the sanctuary boundary”.

Accordingly, the state forest department proposed to replace three heavily-mined scattered blocks — Banshi Pahadpur A and B, and Kot — in the north-east with four forest blocks — Mewla, Pahar Tali, Banswari and Jamura Timkoli — in the south-west.

“The decision to exclude the mining areas was taken at the highest level and it created an opportunity to help conservation. We have been struggling to contain mining in Bansi Paharpur for the last 25 years. In rationalising, now we are adding good strategic forests nearly 30 times the degraded area. This will also ensure better connectivity along Ranthambhore, Masalpur and Dholpur where a tigress has been spotted with new-born cubs,” a senior Rajasthan forest official said.

The next step is to place the reorganisation proposal before the full SBWL before sending it to the national board for final approval.

Rajasthan head of forests (HoF) Shruti Sharma, chief wildlife warden (CWLW) ML Meena and Bharatpur deputy conservator of forests (DCF) Mohit Gupta declined comment on the moves.

While the 198.3-sq-km Bandh Baretha wildlife sanctuary was notified in 1985, sandstone mines have been operational in the area since the 1960s. Post-notification, illegal mining thrived as Bansi Paharpur stones fetched prices considerably more than the red sandstone of Dholpur.

Ever since stockpiling of stones began in Ayodhya in the early 1990s, an assembly of artisans has been working on pink sandstone blocks, sourced from Bansi Paharpur mines, at the VHP’s workshop in Karsevakpuram.

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