Down to Earth - - CONSERVATION -

“We would have re­spected the move if the in­ter­ven­tions did not cross the vil­lage bound­ary.The of­fi­cials have no idea which tree va­ri­eties are grown here, and wor­shiped by us. They have lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of the un­writ­ten rules of the forests. Con­ser­va­tion of groves should be best left in the hands of the lo­cal com­mu­nity.” The for­est depart­ment, which is cur­rently preparing a de­tail man­age­ment plan, is re­port­edly mov­ing for­ward with a one-size-fits-all ap­proach. But this is un­likely to work.Other tribal res­i­dents say it is an in­fringe­ment of their sa­cred space.

“It seems the for­est depart­ment has failed to dis­tin­guish be­tween shrines and sa­cred groves. Pro­vi­sion of lakh for each grove seems like a re­li­gious do­na­tion, and worse, only a few sa­cred groves have been iden­ti­fied,” says Mihir Jena, a re­searcher work­ing on grove con­ser­va­tion in Ko­ra­put dis­trict.

Sa­cred groves are an in­te­gral way of life for the 9.6 mil­lion tribal peo­ple in Odisha. Such is their sanc­tity for the groves that they pro­hibit hu­man in­ter­fer­ence, es­pe­cially of out­siders, fear­ing that any kind of dis­tur­bance in the area might of­fend the pre­sid­ing gods,lead­ing to deaths,diseases or calami­ties. Sisa says that the for­est depart­ment has in­cor­po­rated churches and many tem­ples of Lord Shiva and Par­vati in the list of sa­cred groves. “The gov­ern­ment should re­strict its de­vel­op­men­tal ac­tiv­i­ties to build­ing schools and com­mu­nity halls in vil­lages or pro­vid­ing other ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture,”Sisa adds.

The gov­ern­ment has also not clar­i­fied on the grove area that it in­tends to pro­tect.The area of sa­cred groves varies from less than 10 sq m to three hectares (ha), but most groves are less than one ha in size. Some of the cho­sen groves are as small as 7 sq m—the av­er­age size of a kitchen in a lower mid­dle-class fam­ily.So mo­ti­vat­ing vil­lage peo­ple to give their con­sent to the plan will not be a cake­walk, es­pe­cially when the work in­volves gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials ven­tur­ing into forests that are out of bounds,and are pro­tected fiercely by the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Miss­ing cu­rios­ity

The gov­ern­ment has not recog­nised the strong emo­tional and spir­i­tual con­nect the sa­cred groves have with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. “A lakh of ru­pees holds lit­tle value to tribal com­mu­ni­ties com­pared to their age-old tra­di­tions in­ter­twined around sa­cred groves,” says He­mant Ku­mar Sa­hoo, a Bhubaneswar-based re­searcher.

Tribal com­mu­ni­ties, who are the most im­por­tant stake­hold­ers of sa­cred groves, were not con­sulted by the gov­ern­ment on the pro­gramme.All in­ter­ven­tions are be­ing planned through com­mit­tees of the Joint For­est Man­age­ment (jfm) pro­gramme.The com­mit­tee will de­cide on how the lakh grant is spent. “Se­lect­ing a few vil­lagers might in­fuse bad blood in the com­mu­nity.It could lead to the with­drawal of com­mu­nity sup­port; pro­tec­tion of sa­cred groves may be left to th­ese com­mit­tees. If that hap­pens, it will spell doom for the groves,” says Y Giri Rao, di­rec­tor of Va­sund­hara, a Bhubaneswar-based re­search group on work­ing on nat­u­ral re­sources.

Best left sa­cred

The state gov­ern­ment im­ple­mented this pro­gramme af­ter ad­mit­ting that green cover sur­round­ing the sa­cred groves had been de­creas­ing. Al­though there has been no sur­vey to es­tab­lish this, for­est depart­ment of­fi­cials say that the forests around the groves are los­ing





den­sity and needs in­ter­ven­tion. “If the gov­ern­ment really wants to do some­thing to save th­ese groves, the For­est Rights Act, 2006, pro­vides the per­fect op­por­tu­nity. Sa­cred groves can be left to trib­als with the recog­ni­tion of com­mu­nity for­est rights,”says Sa­hoo.

The state gov­ern­ment could also take a leaf out of the Odisha Forestry Sec­tor De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (ofsdp),in which

to con­serve each of the 138 iden­ti­fied groves. ofsdp has four ma­jor com­po­nents: gps de­mar­ca­tion and map­ping of groves,bio­di­ver­sity study,planned lim­ited in­ter­ven­tion,and an in­ven­tive grant to­wards pro­tec­tion and main­te­nance of the grove and its bio­di­ver­sity.

For­est of­fi­cials, who are aware of the in­her­ent short­com­ings of the project, are them­selves ap­pre­hen­sive of the project’s suc­cess. They have re­fused to be quoted. They also hinted that the gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing the pro­gramme afresh.

Mean­while, the tribal peo­ple help­lessly wait on the dark side of the time­less re­la­tion­ship be­tween the State and re­li­gion, sa­cred groves in this case. How the Odisha gov­ern­ment will de­liver its ‘gift’ or ‘do­na­tion’ re­mains, maybe, even be­yond God’s imag­i­na­tion.

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