A Sacred Grove Trespassed
Sandh Karmari is a village in the Bakawand Block of Bastar district. In the village is the Maulikot, also known as the Bendrakot, one of the largest sacred groves in central India, spreading over about 100 acres.1It is a small slice of an old growth forest in the eastern part of the district that borders Odisha. There are more than 400 species of woody plants, terrestrial orchids including the species of Nervilia and Habenaria, large ficus and silk cotton trees that have buttressed with age, and giant lianas that provide a wonderful high-way for the giant squirrels, langurs and civets that make this grove their home. The shrine at one corner of the grove is of Mauli Mata, also known as Kanda-khai, tuber eater. Legend has it that the first signs of her presence came about when three women went out to dig yams and one of them found a figure of the goddess in her basket.
Between 29th February and 9th March 2020 the staff of the forest department, with the help of some JFM members, cleared some ‘damaged’ trees in the sacred grove of the village. This was apparently with the intention to ‘repair’ the forest by clearing of crooked and ‘unseemly’ trees, according to the Bastar Forest Division’s work plan, and to include it within the Reserve Forest.2 Sandh Karmari is a very spread out village with about 8 hamlets but the JFM members of only one hamlet were involved; people in other parts of the village were completely unaware of this grand effort of the forest department to repair the grove. Most people were barely getting used to the lockdown imposed due to the pandemic; they were collecting mahua flowers – one of the seasonal forest produce that provides a cash income for adivasi people in central India – and occupied otherwise. There was little movement between the hamlets.
On hearing what had happened to their sacred grove people from other parts of the village were alarmed; some of these people also belong to the Legal Environmental Action Foundation (LEAF), a local group, which took up the matter and wrote to the Governor, Chhattisgarh, asking her to direct the forest department to give an explanation. Why would the forest department want to reforest a grove that is better than any forest for miles around? Were there not other places in Bastar district to put in their efforts and spend the funds?
The landscape of Sandh Karmari consists of extensive rice fields dotted with clusters of mahua trees, interspersed with patches of sal forests. Many of these sal patches are graveyards, scattered in and between the different hamlets of the village. Along with the Maulikot (Mauli is the goddess, kot is a grove) there is another tract of protected forest called Badlakot, a nurtured forest, of about 215 acres, which was brought back to life from almost nothing over a span of about 40 years. (I mention this forest, which has nothing to do with the present story, to show the peoples’ commitment to conservation). These efforts were led by Damodar Kashyap, an ex-Sarpanch for 35 years, whose story has been written by me elsewhere. The forest of Badlakot has much of its boundary along Odisha, as also much of the reserved forests that surround Sandh Karmari. The eight hamlets of the village are quite far for a daily monitoring of these forests. Despite the traditional thengapalli, the customary way of ‘patrolling the forest’, regular pilfering of timber across the border does happen. Needless to mention that there is a small but powerful section of people within Sandh Karmari who are a part of this clandestine timber trade.
Over the past decade or more panchayat elections in Bastar, as in other places, are a political ‘fight to kill’ and involves booze and money, shrill campaigns and intrigue, in a credible resemblance to what goes on at the national level. Inevitably, money and power play a larger role in these elections than forest conservation and other ethical leanings. In Sandh Karmari, about 10 years ago, the gentleman who became the Sarpanch Pati 3 – yes, these are realities we experience – was part of the timber trade across the border. Over the years any attempt to talk about conservation and protection of the village and surrounding forests was jeopardized by him and his inner coterie. In fact, the few attempts made to have the village gram sabha apply for the community rights under the Forest Rights Act (2006), which would involve a forest conservation and management plan, was also successfully scuttled by this group as it would have impeded the movement of timber across the border.
The unfortunate part of all this is the split within the village. These are not the traditional clan feuds and enmity over land or the best-watered fields that are to the advantage of an individual or family. These splits affect the entire community and all are eventual losers, as with a sacred grove which belongs not only to a village or villages but to humanity as a whole. Such groves are not replicable bits of conservation experiments but unique in situ instances that have evolved over time, a meeting of faith, culture and the sacred. Like so many customary laws, for instance first fruit ceremonies, the rules governing these aspects of adivasi life are internalized and lived. And it is such a space that the forest department entered, fuelled as it is in recent years by the CAMPA fund.
The CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) fund is a pool of money generated through compensations paid through user agencies that diverted forests for non-forest purposes. Over the past 3 decades about 14,000 sq kms of forests have been diverted in India, much of it for mining (4947 sq km), followed by defence projects (1549 sq km) and hydroelectric projects (1357 sq km). Already in 2016, when the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act was passed in parliament, the fund accrued through these diversions was an estimated Rs 40,000 crores. The Supreme Court directed that the funds be used for what it is meant for. State forest departments were allotted their shares depending on the extent of forests diverted in their respected states; Chhattisgarh received Rs 5792 crores. The intent of the Fund, apart from the purported intention to reforest degraded and barren lands ((DFL, Degraded Forest Land; NFL, Non-forest Land), also brought certain ‘revenue’ lands into ‘forest’ lands, a shifting of ownership between departments.
The plantings motivated by CAMPA funds target various forest lands in the main, coming into conflict with local village communities who have been cultivating or occupying such lands, sometimes for many generations.4Over the past 5 years or more such conflicts have increased, including on lands claimed and occupied by communities under the legal provisions of the Forest Rights Act. This has happened in Kalahandi in Odisha, where the department forcefully planted teak on peoples’ lands, as well as in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In more than one case there has been human rights violations. Ironically, as conservation trends across the world tend to include local communities in their plans, India’s forest department alienates them and continues with its exclusionist agenda. In 2016, only 6% of the funds had been used for the restoration of forests; much of it had been spent on non-forestry expenses including furniture, vehicles, fuel and cultural programmes.
The farcical inquiry
After initial attempts to find out about the rationale of felling operations in the sacred grove from the Sub-Divisional Officer proved fruitless, the Governor was intimated about the situation. It was pointed out that this was a Schedule 5 area, that the gram sabha had not been contacted, and that the grove that had been trespassed was the cultural heritage of the entire community. The Governor directed the forest department to conduct an inquiry and submit a report.
The forest department, after some reminders, responded by sending the Sub-Divisional Officer to conduct the inquiry. The SDO conducted her inquiry on 02/06/2020 and on 04/06/2020 a member of LEAF met her to find out what her meeting in Sandh Karmari revealed. From her responses it was evident that the plan to clear trees in the grove was not known to the gram sabha (she had only notified the JFM through the beat guards); and most of the people questioned called it ‘coup katai’, which refers to tree felling, and not a removal of a few crooked trees. In addition, only a few select people were asked to attend the inquiry and some others heard it by chance and came along. (No masks were worn during the meeting except by one beat guard. Apparently everyone was asked to wear one and sit apart from each other for a photograph taken by a forest department staff at the end of the meeting.)
Once the inquiry was over a report was written down and the people asked to sign it; it was read out only after some people insisted that they will sign it after hearing what was written. From detailed interviews with 6 of the people who attended the meeting 5 it is quite evident that trees have been felled. The intention of the forest department was repeatedly stated as wanting to plant fruit trees and fence the area of the grove: this becomes evident from the letter (in response to LEAF’s query) which states that the idea of the department is to bring this grove under their reserved forest working plan.
The formal reply to LEAF’s queries by the CAMPA’s CEO as well as the forest department in Jagdalpur, Bastar district, stated that “Karya mein kisi bhi prakaar ka katai nahin kiya gaya hai, matra CBO karya karaya gaya hai” (No felling was undertaken in this work, only Cut Back Operations was taken up).6It also said that this was in accordance of the APO 2019-20, slotted for “van kshetra mein bigde vano ka sudhar karya” (the repair of damaged forests in forest areas). The letter avoided the question about the gram sabha and also failed to respond to why a sacred grove and its environs was taken up for a reforestation programme, especially a grove as rich in biodiversity as the one in Sandh Karmari. The response from the CAMPA’s CEO contradicts itself as it says that no felling was taken up as well as some repair was done. However, the youth concerned with the grove and LEAF’s members counted the number of tree stumps around the grove that were left behind – this was precisely the area where planting of native trees species have been done each year for almost a decade – and found 1000 sal (Shorea robusta) stumps, 300 jamun (Syzigium cuminii) stumps, 200 batseona (Linociera ramiflora) stumps, and another 100 stumps of mixed species. It is noteworthy that many of the people questioned about this matter referred to it as a ‘coup katai’ which in Indian parlance translates to ‘clear felling’. This was definitely not a ‘repair’ of damaged forest. It was nothing but an unthoughtful and unnecessary act motivated by a need to spend a certain amount of money within a certain amount of time. The closing of the financial year was perhaps a factor.
It is high time that the working of the CAMPA funds, its management at the state levels, and its social and environmental impacts are scrutinized by civil society, as we would any large infrastructure project. Apart from the mismanagement of these funds, about which much has been written, it has negatively affected village communities in most states. It has helped the forest department encroach or fence off commons that many of the rural and marginal people depend on for their nistar needs. It has fragmented forests as well as communities.
It is also worrying that the forest department, when engaging in CAMPA activities, has often resorted to an undemocratic manner of working. A series of inquiries under the Right to Information Act by the partners of the NTFP Exchange Programme network, about the funds spent, plant species planted and the lands afforested, in Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh have been unable to find relevant answers. There seems to be no monitoring protocol in place about the planning and justification of the afforestation projects undertaken, the nurseries that this would entail, and the species that need to be raised for such a purpose.
Needless to say, a proper consideration of these aspects would require a team of botanists, ecologists and forestry experts who will be able to understand and implement like “cut back operations” mentioned above, and other nuances of reforestation. This is definitely not the job of any old beat-guard that an SDO dispatches to the proximity of a sacred shrine. The present incident raises the larger and more fundamental question: does the forest department, which has an enormous amount of funds at its disposal, have the wherewithal, in terms of expertise, understanding and a sympathy for the communities it works amidst, the competence and the will to restore the country’s forests?
The elephant has been in the living room for a long time now. It’s time we all have a good look at it.