Community-managed sacred groves, vital biodiversity reserves, face extinction
By Adnan Faisal and Showvik Das Tamal
Awalk through the mustard fields of
the village Pagdandi, and one
finds oneself in a lush green grove. The air is laden withe aroma of
wet soil, and trees of khair, ber, ket and date flourish. One cannot believe that while a stream runs through the grove, there are parts of Rajasthan adjacent to this very spot where there is very little
rain and no water. This forest if one of the 25,000 Orans or ʻDev vanʼ in Rajasthan.
Sacred community forests
The Chursiddhi Oran, one of the many Orans in Siliser Cheend, near Bakhatpura village of Alwar acts as a micro bio-diversity reserve and is a community managed ecosystem. These local forests vary in size from a hunded to five hundred bighas, and usually contain a source of water. Each Oran is associated with a deity, hence the name ʻdev vanʼ or abode of God.
These community managed groves epitomise a centuries old tradition of forest and water conservation.
Nanak Ram Gujjar (72) of Bhakhatpura describes a seven member elected committee, traditionally known as Thain, that makes rules and regulations to regulate the management and use of natural resources from the Oran. It is mandatory for all villagers to follow collective decisions.
A Saint (Mahatma), usually from
another village, is entrusted with the
responsibility of guarding and preserving
the Oran, and enforcing the rules laid
down by the Thain. His primary duty
however is to take care of the shrine of the deity of that particular Oran.
Orans have a series of water
harvesting structures made by the
community. An upstream dam of loose boulders, some earthen johads or bunds, and finally a masonry check dam are used to obstruct the rapid runoff after rainfall. As the area is usually dry
sloping land prone to soil erosion, these bunds and check dams also help prevent soil loss. In turn, the increased percolation allows the recharge of the water table, and provides surface water which is used for agriculture or livestock needs. The ample soil moisture
encourages plant growth and provides subsistence for fauna, and livelihood needs of the local livestock dependent communities.
Orans are a source of fodder, fuel,timber, berries, roots and medicinal herbs. Grazing of livestock is done in turns and in certain seasons, and minor forest produce can be collected only with permission and not for commercial purposes.
However, it is unfortunate that these Dev vans are facing a threat. The traditional practice of conserving Orans is in danger as many Orans have degraded, shrunk, dried up or been diverted for non forest uses. The Chursiddhi Oran is one of the few revived by collective efforts of community and with help from KRAPAVIS (Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sangathan), an NGO led by
Singh explains that legally Orans
were once categorized as cultivable
wasteland. Since the 1950ʼs these were
divided into protected forest land and
revenue land. Now, Orans are classified
as being revenue land and communities have no ownership over them. Now, this land is often diverted by the government for mining or other nonforest purposes without consulting the
communities dependent on these groves, rendering them devoid of
access to natural resources and pushing towards further marginalization.
The Rajasthan Forest Policy, 2010 for the first time included a section on Orans. It recognizes Orans as community managed systems which would be provided necessary legal and
financial support. It also envisages the preparation of a district-wise database and inventory of Orans. So effectively, communities have now acquired a bargaining power and a voice to prevent
any future diversion of these sacred groves in arbitrary manner.
However, the ownership comple - xities have not been addressed and the land continues to be government owned. Further, the policy allows formation of a committee consisting of local members or temple trustees for managing the Orans. This would institutionalize the committee as a body parallel to Panchayati Raj Institutions or PRIs which can give rise to conflicts. At the moment, Panchayat agrees to decisions of the committee in matters of Oran. This is also because of the fact that Thain also have representatives
The committee mentioned is not mandated to be elected and therefore runs the risk of domination by socially dominating castes. In Chursiddhji Oran managed by two major castes Meena and Gujjar, conflicts have recently arisen. Notwithstanding these concerns, the Rajasthan Forest Policy has gives.
Further legislation and regulations to facilitate independent and fearless management of Orans are required. Orans are sacred and integral to the way of life of these communities.
Their significance can only be understood by witnessing the landscape itself, and the close relationship its communities have with it.