Orans sacred groves of Rajasthan

News Excerpt:
A recent announcement by the Rajasthan government to notify Orans as deemed forest has sparked fear among community residents in the state regarding the potential loss of access to forest resources and their means of livelihood.

More about the news:

  • Recently the Rajasthan government has proposed to classify orans (sacred groves) as deemed forests.
  • Earlier the Supreme Court directed that Orans, Dev-vans and Rundhs will be given the status of deemed forest.

What are Orans?

  • 'Oran' is an informal term used to describe community lands and sacred groves of traditional pastoral communities in Rajasthan. 
    • They include woodlots, pastures, orchards, sacred groves, and habitats usually centred around springs and bodies of water. 
    • Orans provide landscape connectivity and nourish human communities, livestock and biodiversity.
    • Being associated with local deities and customs, orans also play a cultural and spiritual role in these communities.
  • The Rajasthan orans are home to the endangered great Indian bustard (GIB), chinkara, and the Indian desert fox.

Concerns of the communities dependent on the Orans:

  • Communities believe that once the orans are declared as deemed forest, they will be deprived of forest produce and access for herds and sheep in the forest area.
    • The villagers use the forest area for cattle herding, pastures and sustenance
      • There are at least 5,000 camels and 50,000 sheep dependent on the Degray oran only.
    • The villagers also use gum, timber, forest produce and wild vegetables from orans for their livelihood and daily use.
  • People are in fear that they will have to vacate the land if the state forest department takes over. 
    • These concerns are legitimate as even the places of worship, last rites and religious events take place inside the oran and are related to the trees, water bodies and other entities of the sacred groves.

Deemed forests:

  • The concept of deemed forests is not defined in any law or the rules, including the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980.
  • The Forest Act, of 1980, only provided protection to forests that were notified so in government and revenue records on or after 1980. 
    • In 1996, the Supreme Court in Godavarman's verdict expanded the remit of the Act to areas that weren’t notified as forests but conformed to the “dictionary” definition of forests.  

Sacred Grove:

  • A sacred forest or grove comprises patches of natural vegetation, from a few trees to several acres.
    • Sacred groves are dedicated to local deities or tree spirits. 
  • These spaces are protected by local communities because of their religious beliefs and traditional rituals that run through several generations.
  • The degree of sanctity accorded to the sacred groves varies from one area to another. 
    • In some forests, even the dry foliage and fallen fruits are not touched. 
    • People believe that any kind of disturbance will offend the local deity, causing diseases, natural calamities or failure of crops. 
      • For example, the Garo and the Khasi tribes of north-eastern India prohibit any human interference in the sacred groves. 
      • In other places, deadwood or dried leaves may be picked up, but the live tree or its branches are never cut. 
      • The Gonds of central India prohibit the cutting of a tree but allow fallen parts to be used.

 Ecological Significance of Sacred Groves

  • Conservation of Biodiversity – The sacred groves are important repositories of floral and faunal diversity that have been conserved by local communities in a sustainable manner. 
    • They are often the last refuge of endemic species in a geographic region.
    • Recharge of aquifers – The groves are often associated with ponds, streams or springs, which support the water requirements of the local people. 
      • The vegetative cover helps in the recharging aquifers.
    • Soil conservation - The vegetation cover of the sacred groves improves the soil stability of the area and prevents soil erosion.

Distribution of Sacred Groves in India:

  • In India, sacred groves are found all over the country and abundantly along the Western Ghats. 
  • Although, there has been no comprehensive study of  sacred groves in the entire country, experts estimate the total number of sacred groves in India could be in the range of 100,000 – 150,000.

Threats to the Sacred Forests:

  • The threats vary from one region to the other and even from one forest to the other. But the common threats identified are: 
    • Disappearance of the traditional belief systems, which were fundamental to the concept of sacred forests. 
      • These systems and their rituals are now considered mere superstition.
    • Sacred forests in many parts of our country have been destroyed due to rapid urbanization and developmental interventions such as roads, railways tracks, dams including commercial forestry. 
      • Encroachment has led to the shrinkage of some of the largest forests in the country.
    • Many forests are suffering due to ‘Sanskritisation’ or the transformation of the primitive forms of nature worship into formal temple worship.
    • Invasion by exotic weeds such as Eupatorium odoratum, Lantana camara and Prosopis juliflora is a serious threat to some groves.
    • Pressures due to increasing livestock and fuelwood collection.

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