Good as gold

The Bhairu Lok Abhyaranya Dakav in Bhanwta, near Sariska, Rajasthan, is a sanctuary with a difference. It is a sanctuary declared, protected and managed by the people. "We call it the sonchidi, since it is as precious as a sone ki chidiya (the golden bird)," says Kanhaiyalal Gujjar, a member of the gram sabha (village council) in Bhanwta village.

The sonchidi is a 1,200 ha patch of forested land jointly belonging to 5 villages. The forests have always been zealously guarded by the villagers. "But," says Kanhaiyalal, "as the pressures on it were increasing, we decided that protection would have to be more stringent if it was to survive."

The gram sabha took over the onus of protecting the forest 8 years ago. Hunting and felling of trees were banned. Offenders were fined, ranging from Rs 11 to 101, depending on the crime. Two years ago the villagers built a small check-dam within the forest. Local enthusiasts volunteered their labour. Technical assistance was provided by the Tarun Bharat Sangh, an NGO based in Alwar, Rajasthan.

Inspired by the yatra, the villagers decided in February 1995 to formally declare it the country's first "people's sanctuary", naming it after Bhairu devta, the village deity.

An Abhyaranya Mandal (sanctuary committee) has been set up with members representing the 5 villages. Says a proud Panchuramji, "Even the forest department is impressed. Have you seen such a people's sanctuary elsewhere?" Adds Ramkishan Gujjar, a member of the Mandal, "Our jungle is now even better than the one in Sariska. We have 2 leopards, and I have seen leopard cubs. Soon, we will have the tiger too."

Elaborate rules ban outsiders from entering the 1,200 ha sanctuary. Hunting and grazing of camels and goats is prohibited within the abhyaranya. The livestock population of each of the 5 villages is to be controlled.

Wood can be brought out only with permission from the gram sabha and the Mandal. No fishing is permitted in the Bhairu and Sankda dams in the forest. Birds visiting these 2 dams cannot be touched. Each Mandal member takes turns as a van sanrakshak (forest guard). The Mandal has also decided to have an annual census of all the animals in the area.

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