Best kept sacred

  • 29/04/1998

Best kept sacred WITH changing values, increase in population, development pressures and apathy the part of government departments - many of which did not give the concept due merit - sacred groves are fast deteriorating. If steps are not taken to stop their decline, these microcosms will disappear from the face of earth, leaving it deprived of valuable species of flora and fauna. Conservation policies and plans need to be people-oriented and bottom-up, starting at the local level. Both Union and state governments should accord high priority to identifying and managing these sources of genetic wealth, and act fast.

Unnatural decline
Population pressure, changing values and rapid economic development have contributed to the decline of sacred groves

SACRED groves are under siege. Researchers agree that the pace of deterioration has increased, though they cannot quantify the extent of degradation. It is regrettable that the government has not even commissioned a survey of sacred groves in India.

Of the many factors responsible for degradation of sacred groves, the most important is change in values at the local level, accompanied by poverty and lack of access to alternative resources. The case of the sacred groves near Askot wildlife sanctuary in Pithoragarh district in Uttar Pradesh is a good example. People here have no option but to meet their daily fuel and fodder requirements from these groves. If this continues, these forests may not be able to recover (see box:Dwindling Woods).

Tradition versus economic values

Changing beliefs: A G Raddi, former principal conservator of forests, Maharashtra, says that sacred groves are declining because social values have changed and people have become less religious. "Only the sacred groves in remote and inaccessible areas survive." This is a result of urbanisation, says Raddi. "Besides, for the villager, economics is more easy to understand than ecology."

The Bishnois of Rajasthan have been widely acknowledged for their eco-piety. The incident where 363 women laid down their lives to protect the khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria) might go down in history. "Unfortunately, the concept is not as it used to be even in Khejarli village, where the incident occurred," says P S Ramakrishnan, professor of ecological sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

The invisible hand: Another major factor playing a key role in the decline of sacred groves is the expansion of the market economy. The market economy places a heavy demand on resources like timber. However, economic development is not the villain it is made out to be. The case of the sacred groves of Himachal Pradesh shows that development, tradition and conservation of biological diversity are not incompatible (see box: The forests of the gods).

The World Wide Fund for Nature-India and the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISC), Bangalore, conducted a survey in 13 states of India in 1997 to get an idea of people's perceptions of sacred groves. While the data is still being analysed, preliminary results indicate that cultural change has affected tradition, but sacred sites have been revived in areas where religious beliefs are still strong. Moreover, people's perceptions of 'sacred' are site- specific. Therefore, management strategies should also be site-specific.

Development pressures: Sacred groves are often sacrificed for the sake of development activities like construction of dams, canals, roads and railways. Archana Godbole of the Applied Environment Research Foundation (AERF), a Pune-based non-governmental organisation (NCO), cites two examples from Ramagiri district where 'development' is threatening groves - Kulye and Masrang.

The sacred groyes of Kulye, spread over 8.91 hectares (ha), are threatened by the construction of a small dam on the Gadgadi river near Kulycyillage. A canal that will provide water to far-off villages passes almost through the centre of the grove. The grove has been divided into two unequal parts and the smaller one is severely degraded. Managed as village common land, villagers mainly used this grow to collect left filter in January and February. Clearing of the grove has encouraged flegal felling of trees.

Masrang, a sacred grove near Sangameshwar, is a 6.5-ha grove on private land. The grove has two wells, providing water throughout the year. The villagers of Masrang observe the taboos and restrictions associated with the grove. They say that the grove is beneficial in many respects - it recharges aquifers and groundwater, and provides food and shelter to wild animals. They believe that the sacred trees harbour ancestral as well as evil spirits. In village Raghav, five kilometres away, a dam is being budt and about 350 villag who will be displaced are being rehabilitated at this site. The owners of the land will be compensated by the government. The government apparently considers the grove non-agricultural wasteland.

Conflicts of interests

Religious differences: Another threat to sacred groves is the identification of pagan deities and 'spirits' with Hindu gods. This' has resulted in clearance of groves and installation of temples on those sites. This is has happened in Karnataka in Uttara Kannada district, where the Karikaran temple was constructed and at Talacauvery in Coorg district. M A Kalam of the department of anthropology at Chennai University says that this is a problem faced by groves in many parts of India, including Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu.

Tradition versus bureaucracy: The traditional institution of sacred groves has no legal meaning. "Traditions are either ignored or described in negative terms by the government, which feels that traditions arc a direct obstacle to development," says Godbole of the AERF. In the name of 'social forestry' the department of forests chooses to cut down native vegetation and plant exotic species like Acacia auriculiformis and Gliricidia sapium for fuelwood. In MadhyaPradesh, development programmes that provide employment to local people, including women, have created problems for sacred groves.

Development versus conservation: A number of sacred groves are on the village commons and are seriously threatened by encroachment. Being common land, it is often allotted as compensation by the government since accession is easy.

Moreover, government programmes to conserve biodiversity in general and sacred groves in particular rarely involve the local people. These people are the most dependent on local resources, yet they are not even consulted in developing any conservation programme.

Individuals versus community: Village communities are generally small, poor and illiterate. They face formidable foes in businessmen and politicians who have money and muscle power, before which they are helpless. However, collective action by local people can work wonders, as the case of Thalthare-Shettali in Somvarpet taluka in Coorg shows.

Encroachment has been a major problem in devarakadus (sacred groves) of Coorg since 1888. In 1904, before devarakadus were handed over to the revenue department by the forest department, they covered an area of 6,280 ha. Some go years later, when the land was handed back to the forest department, their extent had shrunk to 2,551 ha. This included 143 ha of land that had been encroached upon. Since 1905, more than 3,848 ha have been lost, out of which 459 ha were lost in less than two decades between 1965 and 1985. Most encroachers grow cash crops like coffee and cardamom.

The Thalthare-Shettalli community requested 10 villagers who had encroached on the grove to vacate the land to no, avail. An eviction notice issued by the deputy commissioner was stayed by an order from the Karnataka Appellate Tribunal. Since no further action was taken, some villagers removed the fence erected by the encroachers and partially destroyed their crop. Though arrested for arson, they were supported by other villagers who then socially boycotted the encroachers. Finally, nine of them moved out, though the tenth, who enjoyed political patronage, did not.

Dying wisdoin: Sacred groves have been protected by traditional methods of conservation. Modern conservation approaches are too broad-based and area-specific, ignoring the role of local communities. They emphasise regional and global perspectives, than on traditional conservation practices. This conflict has further contributed to the decline of sacred groves.