This article appeared in
The Hindu Survey of the Environment 1999
BHAONTA: A VILLAGE WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
A Village Reborn
Bhaonta and Koylala are smalls villages nestled in the Aravalli hill ranges of Rajasthan. At first sight, they are typical villages, mud and thatch huts clustered haphazardly, surrounded by agricultural fields. But behind their ordinary looks lies a tale of extraordinary initiative and foresight, one that has lessons for many of India's beleaguered rural populations. Over the last decade and a half, the inhabitants of these villages have transformed their lives from one of extreme hardships to one of livelihood security and relative well-being. The transformation has come due to some remarkable work on water harvesting structures and forest conservation measures, coupled with a strong village-level organisation which tackles all issues through collective decision-making.
15 years back, Bhaonta-Koylala were plagued by severe water shortages, and inadequate supplies of fuelwood and fodder. The nearby forests, technically Reserved and Protected Forests under the custody of the Rajasthan Forest Department, had degraded due to a number of factors. Villagers remember heavy felling from the 1940s, especially for charcoal contracts given out by the government. They also admit that there was overgrazing, and excessive fuelwood extraction, by they themselves and by surrounding villagers. Old water structures, traditionally maintained by the village community, had fallen into disuse, possibly after the government took over control and management but could not provide for their upkeep. With agricultural production at an abysmal low, out-migration of menfolk in search for employment was commonplace. Wildlife populations had substantially declined, due both to habitat loss, and perhaps hunting by royalty in the colonial and post-Independence times.
In 1986, the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), which had set up base in a nearby village and started water harvesting work in the region, organised a padayatra (foot march) covering Bhaonta-Koylala and other villages. During this event, several of the villagers expressed their desire to start some conservation work. A gram sabha (village council) was formed, or perhaps revived (villagers do not seem to recall having such an institution in the past).
By 1987, the gram sabha had framed forest protection rules and begun their implementation; in 1988, johad (checkdam) construction began. Villagers cite several reasons for the forest conservation work: their realisation that in the absence of forests, rainwater was not being adequately trapped, and this could affect the efficacy of water harvesting; the recognition that fuel and fodder supplies could be secured only through regenerating the forest lands, and others.
The rules formulated by the gram sabha are simple yet effective, and have been mindful of the need to balance village needs with conservation priorities. The area of protection is based on their memory of old jagirdari boundaries. No live tree is to be cut (no axes can be carried into the forest), and fuel allowed to be taken out is only dry and deadwood. The only exception is the occasional tree needed for building a house or for marriage ceremonies, but this can be cut only with permission of the gram sabha. Grazing is permitted freely, though villagers claim to have a system of not taking certain kinds of livestock to certain parts of the forest. Hunting is strictly prohibited. Graziers are given the responsibility of detecting any violations of these rules, and reporting back to the gram sabha. Violators are punished with appropriate fines, such as Rs. 11 for cutting green wood. Interestingly, the fine for not reporting such a violation after having witnessed it, is greater: Rs. 21!
Initially, as old-timers Arjan Baba and Dhanna Gujar recount, there were a number of violations of these rules, as many of the residents continued uncontrolled use of the forest. Fines were often not paid, but social pressure and persuasion eventually worked. In addition, there were many violations from neighbouring villages, who shared a common boundary with the forest but had had no such awakening. Fines were imposed, tree-cutting implements were confiscated, neighbouring villages were even subjected to "raids", and forest officials were told of the problems. The message slowly got home and was 'internalised': over the last few years, there have been very few instances of any of Bhaonta-Koylala's own residents taking an axe into the forest, or violating other rules.
One interesting incident highlights the commitment of the village to forest protection. In 1992, the Rajput families of Bhaonta had allowed some graziers from Marwar to camp in the forest. The other villagers pointed out to the Rajputs that this was not acceptable, but there was no response. After about 15 days, villagers physically blocked the entry of the graziers into the forest (they had come out for getting their daily necessities), and forced them to leave with their livestock. Since then, no outside livestock has been hosted by anyone in the village.
The patch of forest being protected by the villagers is about 600 ha. in size. It contains dry deciduous vegetation, typical of the Aravallis --- a preponderance of species such as dhok (Anogeissus spp.), ber (Zizyphus spp.), dhak (Butea monosperma), salai (Boswellia spp.) and others. Much of this area is degraded, but regenerating; in valleys, the vegetation is dense and lush green. There is a diversity of birdlife, and mammals such as sambar, nilgai, porcupine, jackal, jungle cat, and leopard are reported, though in small numbers. The presence of leopards is encouraging; they had, according to the villagers, disappeared from the area about two decades back, and have made a reappearance in the last few years. Indeed, the occasional goat is lifted by these cats, but the villagers think this is part of the natural order: "the leopards have to live too".
It was this revival of wildlife that prompted the villagers, at the suggestion of TBS, to declare the area as Bhairon Dev Public Wildlife Sonchiri. The name has multiple significance: Bhairon Dev is a local deity to which the forest is dedicated; the term "public" is meant to distinguish the area from official protected areas such as the nearby Sariska Sanctuary, where a top-down policy has attempted to curtail village access as far as possible; and the term Sonchiri is not only a localised version of sanctuary, but also denotes a golden ("son") bird ("chiri") in local folklore.
The gram sabha meets once every month, and decisions are taken collectively. Minutes are kept of each meeting. Apart from forest protection and water harvesting, the village has now set up a gram kosh (village fund), fenced off an area to develop as a pasture, upgraded its agricultural production, and started discussing other means of generating livelihood which are in consonance with their local environment and culture. Areas which are still neglected, however, include human health and nutrition. Livestock is reported to have become more productive as it gets more regular and healthy fodder. Outmigration has reportedly decreased significantly. Some of the more active villagers have got involved in the wider work of TBS; Kanhaiya Gujar, for instance, now imparts his knowledge about water harvesting and forest conservation to villagers in a far-flung area.
Issues in Community-Based Conservation
Not all is rosy at Bhaonta-Koylala. 'Illegal' felling by neighbouring villages continues to some extent, and complaints by the villagers to the Forest Department have apparently not helped. Forest officials claim that they are taking action, but that given the lack of forest resources available with many neighbouring villages, the situation is complicated. Research by members of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh, does not, however, show much evidence of Forest Department involvement in the area; we have never encountered even a forest guard in these forests. Perhaps the Department does not feel it is necessary, given the protection work already being done by the local people. In fact, senior officials are quite appreciative of the villagers' efforts.
One clear conclusion from the Bhaonta-Koylala situation is the need for some form of tenurial security of the villagers over the common property resources around them, in this case the forest. Given their lack of legal authority over the Sonchiri, the villagers sometimes find themselves helpless against outsiders. There is also the uncertainty that, one day the Forest Department may come and claim the forests as being theirs, and start forestry operations. The Department would do well to enter into some formal joint management arrangement, in which pressures from both within and without the community can be tackled, and a larger legitimacy given to the community's efforts at conservation. The arrangement must, however, be on the community's terms, and on no account should the government attempt to stake their control over the forests. Kalpavriksh has proposed to take up these issues at a workshop where forest officials, TBS workers, and villagers can discuss and arrive at some conclusion.
Another matter of possible concern, though not articulated by the villagers themselves, is the lack of involvement of women in the decision-making. The gram sabha meetings are almost always exclusively male affairs. Women undoubtedly influence decisions via their husbands, but their absence from direct participation may not be conducive to the kind of participatory decision-making that villagers pride themselves for.
Another issue requiring attention is grazing intensity. While a certain amount of grazing certainly does not harm the ecosystem, and may even be beneficial to biodiversity in some circumstances, research by ecologists suggests that regeneration is being adversely affected by the levels of livestock being taken into the Sonchiri. Villagers will have to consider some form of rotational grazing, or restrictions on kinds of livestock being allowed in, if they are to see a healthier forest and more wildlife coming up quickly. Given their willingness to sacrifice the convenience of cutting trees for fuelwood, this should not be too difficult.
What is also sigificant is that Bhaonta-Koylala are only two of the many villages in this region which have worked wonders. Over 300 villages in the Alwar district have revived or built water harvesting structures, and many of them have moved to regenerating and protecting surrounding forests. Indeed, at a recent public meeting of the villagers of Arvari basin (Bhaonto-Koylala are at the head of this basin, and therefore important sources of the river Arvari), an idea has been mooted to declare the entire basin as a people's sanctuary. An Arvari sansad (parliament) has been set up, to decide on a range of development and environment related issues affecting thousands of people residing in the basin.
The example of Bhaonta-Koylala, and those of many other villages in India (such as Jardhar and Mendha, covered in this Survey), point to the need for an urgent shift in conservation planning in India. These examples show that, given a chance and appropriate policy inputs, communities can achieve conservation and some form of sustainable development. They also show that the government's own efforts at conservation and development can be made significantly easier and more effective if communities were to be given a central part in decision-making and implementation. Community-based and joint conservation efforts could well be the major future strategies for biodiversity and wildlife-rich habitats, including protected areas. The path will not be easy, as issues of equity, livelihood, knowledge and power-sharing will have to be tackled at each level; but surely India is capable of taking up such a challenge?
Ashish Kothari is a founder-member of Kalpavriksh, and is involved in an action research project on community-based conservation in South Asia.