10 years ago, Down To Earth reported on the state of sacred groves in India (see: Down To Earth, January 31, 1994). Patches of forest protected by local communities in the name of a deity that …

-- (Credit: Ruhani Kaur / CSE)The sacred does sell. A community in Mawphlang, Meghalaya is showing the way. It has put up a toll barrier on the road leading to the Ka Law Kyntang or sacred grove. You pay a minor but valuable sum to enter the grove. Close by in Makarwat, which falls in the Maharam kingship in West Khasi hills Meghalaya, the syiem (king) presides over a purposeful gathering of villagers. They are trying to document the medicinal wealth of their sacred groves. Elsewhere in Ahupe village, Pune district, Maharashtra, another group tries to make an inventory of the resources inside the remaining patches of groves in the area. This exercise is repeated today at a few other sacred groves in India. The sacred is rationalised, re-understood and then repackaged as an all-together new reason to protect the grove.

But first question first: do we need to protect sacred groves at all? As an opening gambit, let us place the reasons into two boxes: a conservation box and a social box.

From the early studies of ecologists like Madhav Gadgil and V D Vartak to the analysis of floristic diversity in Meghalaya's groves by the North East Hill University, Shillong, there is remarkable unanimity amongst scholars (but see box: Not so rich or beautiful) on the biodiversity value of these sacred landscapes. Preserving the groves makes ecological sense. Consider the forests patches in Yalong and Raliang sacred groves in Jainitia Hills, Meghalaya. Here, mere 1 hectare (ha) plots contain 123 woody species. Sacred groves recorded in Kerala are similarly rich: they cover just about 0.05 per cent of the state's land area, but contain more than 800 species of angiosperms -- or 20 per cent of the flowering plants recorded in the state. Of this, 150 plants have medicinal value and 40 per cent are rare or endangered. One needs to only think of or look at the contrasting pine plantations, classified as reserved forests by the government, to realise the value of such biodiversity.
Conserve fauna, too? But most mappings of sacred groves concentrate only on the flora. Animals have largely been left out of consideration. This might be because the highly fragmented nature of these forests precludes existence of larger mammal vertebrates (the usual focus of study). For example, in Meghalaya's Jaintia Hills, amphibians, reptiles and rodents proliferate. But to seek the endangered red panda or the numerous ungulates here -- once common -- is asking for too much. The 40 ha of forest patch here is incapable of supporting such life forms, but animal diversity does not end (or begin) with large mammals. Microbial diversity in the subsoil, the molluscs and crustaceans, the amphibians and the insects, matter as much. But their presence or absence in the groves is yet to be 'discovered' or 'documented' in most cases.
The big picture For a composite picture of a grove, one must find all threads that link this ecosystem and also unravel processes that keep it ticking in clockwork precision (or should we say that the clock ticks like the ecosystem of a good grove?).

To do that, let us look at the state of Sikkim. Its ecology depends upon the sacred highlands -- called Demojong -- in West Sikkim district. A number of glacial lakes that fall in this sacred scape give rise to numerous rivers like the sacred Rathong Chu, and other perennial and seasonal springs. Any alteration in the region, believe the Sikkimese Buddhists, would render people incapable of ever finding these treasures again. Myths and taboos bind the protection of the higher and more fragile systems to life in the valleys below, revering the ecological links that science discovers each day.

Studies on sacred groves in south Kerala show how water the groves entrap combines with the thick litter cover of the forest to enhance water retention in the region. The groves act as micro-watersheds and are almost always associated with freshwater systems. They are crucial to the water needs of communities close by.

South Kerala's groves are further intertwined in the agroforestry system of the region. Birds that reside here keep a check on insect populations and also replenish the phosphorus deficient soil by their droppings. Snakes control the rodent population, which, left unchecked, could easily destroy the region's agriculture. Is this why many groves in south Kerala are associated with the snake gods, the sarpakkavus?

The second box
Here emerges the second box: the social box. The ecology of a sacred grove is inextricably linked to the society that protects it. This relation between nature and humankind changes, adjusts and relocates itself over time. This might work to the detriment of one, or at times -- though increasingly rarely -- to the benefit of both.

Ecologists have shown that many tribes in northeast India depended upon groves as reservoirs and germplasm banks when they practice shifting cultivation. But the relations have changed with the emergence of new agricultural practices and other livelihoods options. Take the example of Meghalaya where, as official records show, only 52,290 families practice jhum (shifting cultivation) today. As cash crops and permanent wet rice cultivation take root in villages, people's dependence on agroforestry slowly withers away. The state's population has increased from 6,06,000 in 1961 to 1,7,75,000 in 1991. And it has found increasingly varied ways to earn a living. Every year the unemployed registered with the government increases by about 3 per cent; the tale of the menacing circular trap of unemployment and militancy is often repeated. The monetary economy pushes integration with the markets at an increasingly fast pace. The per capita net state domestic product at current prices (an indicator of the monetary economy's growth as well as changing economic dynamics) has increased from Rs 4,375 in 1990-91 to Rs 8,474 in 1996-97.

Against this backdrop is the loss of 8,500 hectares in the state's forest cover (including sacred groves) between 1995 and 1999. Without transforming this fact into a static symbol of the effect of change, it can be safely said that it is a loss recapitulated in other states in the country.

Groves and other forests
Reasons of economic change apart, sacred groves do not survive in isolation from other forests. Ecology does not adhere to political or legal classifications. A bird finds little singificance in the barbed wire that severes the reserved forest from a sacred grove. Communities restrict usage from the sacred spaces because there are other forests that provide them (wherever law allows, or by taking recourse to such tactics as tresspassing) firewood, medicinal plants and other forest produce. The sarnas of Chattisgarh could be turned into reservoirs because tribal communities would look for amla and other such non-timber forest produce in nearby forests (so often illegally, thanks to Indian forest laws). Tribals in Mizoram can carry on extracting bamboo from usage forests, till their safety forests survive. In Himachal Pradesh, pastoralists can protect the higher patches of land because they have the common pasture lands for regular use. Similarly, Meghalaya has classified its forests into clan forests, village forests and community forests, enabling it to develop a relatively strong management system around sacred groves that works without any government aid.

Matrix re-looked
One can sketch similar profiles of groves in many states. Each follows the same matrix of relations and yet each also charts its own dynamics. The matrix would also suffer flux and changes with time -- because of both localised and external factors.

Take Kodagu, where the sacred groves were once home to Kodava tribals. Today migrants from Kerala and other parts of the country -- largely unfamiliar with the sacred traditions of the tribals -- have moved in. Moreover, the Kodavas themselves eat into the groves and prefer lucrative coffee plantations. The earlier symbols of sacredness are consigned to the backyards of new flourishing temples where 'national' Hindu deities preside.

Elsewhere, government laws regarding forest land regularly play around with the rights of people. In Maharashtra, a politico-legal institution has been foisted on the groves, in the name of protecting the temples, leaving the people out of the loop. The Paschim Maharashtra Devastha Samiti was created in 1969 to take over temples and groves in the districts of Kolhapur, Sangli and Sindhudurg. The samiti controls about 6,777 ha of land, which includes agricultural lands, grasslands, forestlands and sacred groves. It owns 3,067 temples. A laywer heads the body -- his job is to tackle litigation; actually managing groves is nowhere on the institution's agenda. The grove temples are treated as just any other temple and the forests become a sylvan backdrop at best. Call it 'sanskrit'-isation if you wish -- the surreptitious or blatant conversion of the tribal ethos. It reduces the sacred to the merely religious.

Tivri village in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district has gone through precisely this process. The village sacred grove covers a small area of 0.2 ha. It is the site of traditional tombstones. Today, a new age temple, Bajikedar mandir, blocks sunlight that would have otherwise fallen on the traditional tombstones. Because of the prominence of Hindu gods and goddesses, the Buddhist and Muslims (who were ealier dalits maintaining a separate grove here) do not associate themselves with the institution anymore.

Most youths in the area work in close-by metros such as Mumbai or Pune. They come back to reassert their identity by spending lavishly on ceremonies and rituals in the Tivri temple. "Such practices have become a status symbol," says Sawanth, a farmer in Hasne village, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra. "When people come back from Mumbai for the [local annual sacred grove] festival, they usually bring video discs of the latest Hindi movies and this is played in the temple once the rituals are over," he adds.

The new currency
These symptoms of change have to be accepted as a 'given' in the current political/ecological shape of things. Religious and sacred icons are created at particular moments. They evolve, generate layers of myth and lore and get wrapped in a veil of venerability. But what does one do when icons do not make sense in a transformed world? Does one try to resuscitate them artificially? When the Kodavas forget their gods and pray to Shiva, where is the future of their groves? Does one seek answers to the problem by preserving residual symbols of religiosity? Or does one try and overcome the idea of a central, overarching meaning itself, and then examine the force that drives these symbols into oblivion to try and appropriate it and so help groves survive?

The force today is the economy: monetisation is transforming Indian villages like never before. It changes the atmosphere in which the society constructs its ways of self-control and codes of morality -- the myths, legends, gods and icons.

We can rue the fact that village economics goes for a toss when agriculture stops being the predominant source of income. We can be sorry that tribal identity has dissolved into the acid of market forces. But all that leads us nowhere. What we need to make sure is that social norms, which accompany the new economy, again accept groves and forests as central to the lifeworld. Ecological sense must fit with economic prudence. And in turn, we should reset the price for deviating from ecological prudence.

Lofty. But that is the only option today. So let us ask: how does one implement it? First, let us look at an attempt that has not delivered. Take the Maharam syiem's (community leader) case in Meghalaya. Nairendro Syiem cannot fathom why sacred groves -- and not the clan forest or community forests -- get the axe first in his neighbouring villages. They are supposedly the safest, the most secure. "We have to try and maintain or rejuvenate as many groves as we can," he says. He has taken the help of a non-governmental organisation to document medicinal plants of some groves and has also spent enormous energy in trying to revive a grove completely wiped out. "We received about Rs 2 crore to reafforest the land. But the project did not take off. I was twice suspended from my office and there was a lot of ill-feeling. The project ended without accomplishing the restoration of the grove."

Quite obviously, a dole does not work. The working of the government's joint forest management programmes makes this abundantly clear. Wherever such programmes are imposed on existing social institutions of natural management and money infused temporarily, the 'project' ends dismally. But where the community uses its natural resources and links it to its economic growth, the experiments do better.

Working principles
In a seminal paper on self-governance and forest resources, Elinor Ostrom, professor of political science at Indiana University, US, has laid down the principles that make possible the sustainable use of common forest resource. Forest users are more likely to devise their own rules, says Ostrom,

When they use a forest in early stages of deterioration;

When dwindling forest products provide early warning about the forest's condition;

When forest products are easily available, and the forest is sufficiently small to enable users develop accurate knowledge of its conditions;

When forest resources are highly salient to users, and they have a common understanding of the problems, thus allowing them to get self-organised;

When users trust each other and have the autonomy to make some rules on their own;

And, when users have prior organisational experience.

The debate that has sprung up around such assertions is multifarious and continues till today, but there is consensus on some basic issues. Either ways, the point is: do enumerated principles actually work?

Let us go back to Mawphlang again.The sacred grove here, Ka law kyntang, is one of the best preserved and most researched in the country. It stands like a green island amidst a degraded seral grassland. The people have accepted that the grove's sanctity is derived not just from the earthly deities of the Khasis but also from its economic potential -- in this case, the interest researchers and tourists show. They tax that interest. "One has to pay a mere Rs 20 to visit the grove. But what is important is an outsider acknowledging the value of our social asset. It gives us immense pride and social values get reasserted, albeit in a different language -- that of the monetary economy," says Kingkerious Lyngdoh, the head of the Mawphlang lyngdoship (kingdom) and caretaker of the grove. The taboos are also retained. The two, for the first time, are synchronised.

But how to price forests?
But how does one price forests in areas where the forest is not so extremely central to survival? Very often the outsider does not need to. The community is capable of assessing the value, and if it is empowered to, create a currency to manage the resources. It is not exactly a price put on forests, but on the advantages a community derives from them. The efforts in Maharashtra's Aghane village are along these lines. If the market runs on rationalising wisdom and knowledge (say, turning traditional knowledge into products like medicines)and the one who possesses the rationale has the enabling power, then Aghane's youth have decided to hold the rationale firmly in their grasp. They find out species valued in the market and before any one else exploits them, use that 'product' to protect their resources.

If they don't, the market shall nevertheless work to price it out of their lives. In Meghalaya, a government body has already tied up with a subsidiary of the Reliance corporate group to provide rights over any special compound that it is able to synthesise from the forests. Elsewhere, such contracts are made with more clandestine intent.

If the communities do not put a price on their forests, others shall do so. There will emerge villages with jarring temple structures laden with religious kitsch posters. Or, groves could morph into plantations. It is possible that many experiments shall fail, but there is nothing to be won by lamenting the present scenario. If the sacred idea needs revision and the monetary economy is the new mantra that must be repeated, isn't it worth a profane try?

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