21 April 2014

Cattle in Rajasthan © Prashanth Vishwanathan / Greenpeace


As we traverse across the length and breadth of India, we commonly come across numerous signs and sites that depict a peaceful coexistence between humans and biodiversity. A part of this is possible due to traditional tolerance towards the wild and the rest is the result of conscious efforts of native people living around these sites to protect nature for its sustainable use and ecological value.

Yet, these are officially designated protected areas which gain all the limelight, ignoring the fact that the oldest form of conservation in the world is what these communities have been practicing traditionally. For a plethora of reasons, Rajasthan has perhaps one of India's most widespread traditions of community conservation. Since the arrival of humans on this land, there has been a need of carefully using relatively scarce natural resources like water and forests and there were strong cultural traditions espousing respect and tolerance for wildlife by the "Bishnoi" communities which were (and remain) inspiring.

Several kinds of sacred spaces, mostly on forest and pasture land, have characterized the state. "Mandir" or "Dev-vans" or "Banis" have been associated with particular temples and deities, more often than not strictly protected. Then there are the "orans", sacred pastures and woodlands used primarily for grazing with the protected tree species like "Khejadi" (which enriches soil nitrogen and provides fodder, and during draught and famine, the bark of this tree is mixed with flour for human consumption). One statewide survey by the NGO CECOEDECON has listed around 690 sacred groves in the state, but according to some sources, this figure is an understatement.

Apart from that, there are single trees like Banyan and Peepal with which the communities have built up strong religious ties and devise strategies for their protection. Harboring a wintering population of several thousand Demoiselle Cranes is another pleasing sight in Khichan Village of Rajasthan. The cranes (locally called Kuraj) congregate in large enclosed areas twice a day to feed on grains spread out for them by the villagers and then move out to surrounding fields and wetlands for other food. Similarly, when it comes to water conservation, there are traditional methods devised for the purpose. Several hundred villages have ensured their own local water security through "Johads" (check dams) and water harvesting measures and regeneration and protection of catchment forests to safeguard these measures.

In Alwar, an NGO named Tarun Bharat Sangh has taken an important step towards it. The NGO works for ecological research and management of natural resources. About 80 villages around the Arvari river have come together to form the Arvari Sansad (Arvari Parliament), realizing that water, forests and wildlife along the river cannot be saved by a handful of people. These villages hold regular meetings to discuss issues related to water and wildlife conservation. Not only do these communities play a major role in conservation of water and wildlife, but they also contribute to protection and regeneration of forests, all of which has been facilitated by an NGO named Seva Mandir. The community in many of these villages has also been able to persuade their own members to vacate encroachments on common land, in some cases by providing alternatives. A special award, instituted by the Umed Mal Lodha Memorial Trust, is given to the villages with the best natural resource management and conservation record.

Another traditional system of conservation by communities is related to orans. Orans actually are sacred patches of pasturelands devoted to a deity or temple. Historically, orans were developed by local rulers or landlords to protect common lands of the villages. The local king or the "Jagirdar" of the area, therefore, used to allot some portion of common lands to a temple. Orans are important components in the recharge of the aquifers in the desert where every single drop of water is precious. Those failing to obey the rules were punished by making them contribute grains towards the local "chabutara" and were also fined a sum of money. But due to inclusion of politics in the traditional Panchayats, the system has fallen resulting in degradation of the environment.

In most cases, there are customary or new rules set by the community on its own or by consulting the NGOs and government agencies. These rules are often unwritten but not necessarily any less effective than the formal written rules. It appears that more successful initiatives have been those started by the villagers or local communities themselves. For instance, in 1992, the Sacred Grove Conservation Program launched by the Udaipur forest division has been very successful.

Externally driven projects, community initiatives have simply not been able to sustain themselves after the project period, often because they are dependent on external funds and motivators depending on those funds. But with the coming age, seeing partnership of local communities with NGOs, it is expected that humans can maintain better coordination with nature.

Anshul Sinha is an online volunteer with Greenpeace India.