THE QUAINT LEGACY OF SACRED GROVES; THEIR LEGAL PROTECTION AND THREATS
The patches of lush greeneries protected and preserved through religious and cultural grounds are termed as Sacred Groves. The ancient Indian society tried to create a synergy of religion and nature to protect the sacred wilderness. Sacred groves comprise of a wide range of rare species of herbs, shrubs, reptiles, medicinal plants, ancient trees, etc. Owing to their perceived importance, they are mostly related to the local deity linked to an ancient, prehistorically evolved tradition and customs on that area. They can be classified under the purview of in-situ conservation of biodiversity. Rapid unbridled industrialization coupled with a boom in population paved way for irrecoverable damages to the ecology and led to the destruction of the groves.
THE GARDEN OF GOD
This rich hub of biodiversity which predates the agrarian era evolved through history as a symbol of communion and reverence to nature. Man created a connection between nature and religious beliefs as a token of a deep sense of appreciation. In India, these gardens of the divine, spread to a wide area in which some of them are sparsely populated with a limited number of ancient trees, and the others widely populated and are preserved as botanical gardens with a rich gene pool. Sacred groves are mainly protected by specific families in that area in a belief that if they protect the sacred patch of land, the holy deity will protect their family and receive blessings. A variety of unique customs and practices prevail in these areas which depict trees as an abode of God, Goddesses, or ancestral spirits to prevent its destruction and hunting of wildlife around the area. Due to such practices and beliefs that instill fear in the minds of people, many such groves and a wide range of endangered species are preserved.
People to a large extent avoid the felling of trees, hunting, collecting food products, or even encroaching into the forest as a result of the myths, taboos, and practices. Any such activities that lead to violation of the pre-existing code of conduct are equivalent to sins and are believed to cause illness and pandemic. Different sacred groves adopt various methodologies of worshiping patterns, modes of offerings, festivals, etc. which defined the cultural identity of that community.
OVERVIEW OF SACRED GROVES IN INDIA
Tremendously diverse sacred groves are scattered across the country. It is a hub for varieties of endemic and endangered species. Studies reveal that the presence of sacred groves was first documented in late 1800s. As per the studies conducted in the year 2004, sacred groves in India extend to 55,000 hectares of area. And the latest studies reveal that the number of sacred groves have declined due to deforestation and hemming of borders. In Kerala sacred groves are known as ‘Kaavu’, serpent worship is an important feature of Kerala’s sacred grooves which are specifically termed as ‘sarpa kavu’. In Jharkhand, it’s known as ‘Sarnas ’which are worshiped by tribal communities in that area. Devrai, Devrann, or Pann are the sacred groves in Goa, ‘Pavithravanams’ in Andhra Pradesh are some of the others in India.
PROTECTION AND LEGAL PERSPECTIVES
There arises a question regarding the ownership of the groves; mostly it can be classified under individuals, families, public trusts, NGOs, temple trusts, local governments or panchayats, etc. Most of the states have their state legislation or rules focusing on the protection and maintenance of sacred groves. But whether the prevailing legal regimes ensure complete protection and preservation of sacred groves?
The Indian Constitution lays down specific provisions for the protection and improvement of the forest. Article 48A and 51A, introduced by the 42nd amendment play a very crucial role. ‘The state must protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country’ is mentioned under Article 48A. And Article 51A (g) focuses on ‘the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including the forest, lakes, rivers, and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures’. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has an implicit connection with the matter.
The Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Act, 2002 was a breakthrough in the protection and conservation of sacred groves that were on the verge of extinction. The amendment Act had introduced sacred groves under the purview of ‘Protected Areas’, by insertion of new sections- 18A and 18B. The Act provided that the state governments could declare intention to constitute any area which is not considered as any reserve or territorial waters as a sanctuary.
Apart from the above-mentioned provisions that provide a vague impact, our country lacks proper central legislative protection that deals exclusively with sacred groves. Even though there is a strong legal backup for forest and wildlife protection, sacred groves aren’t given an adequate place of importance. It is rather overlooked as a patch of the forest undermining its natural identity. State level legislations giving protection to some extent exist in some state, whereas none exist in others. Well-structured and holistic legislations on protection, preservation, rejuvenation of the groves, and stringent punishments for the wrong doers trying to harm the groves is highly necessary.
MAJOR THREATS FACED
Due to the increasing rate of modernization and urbanization, there has been a gradual replacement of religious beliefs and myths among people. This erosion of indigenous religious practices has created complexities with the protection of places of worship. One of the major threats faced by sacred groves in India is, diminishing size and area.
Due to the population explosion in our country, land is being constantly acquired for improving cash crops and industrialization. What started initially as marginal encroachments, is now destroying the groves. These biodiversity hubs are being exploited for their resources, as they house a wide range of flora and fauna, ancient trees, medicinal plants etc. People are illegally encroaching into forests for extracting forest produces. The younger generation in our country considers practices related to Groves as pure superstitions and myths. It can be observed that people are giving more importance to the temple or the place of worship rather than the groves attached to it.
It is a matter of great concern that, these rich hubs of biodiversity are not given adequate protection through statutes, even though the Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Act, 2002 was a breakthrough. Many states are yet to formulate state legislations for the protection of sacred groves. Legislations which exclusively deal with sacred groves are the need of the hour. Currently, local government bodies try to protect groves above particular area limits, and those with lesser areas remain unprotected. Appropriate management practices and awareness among people on the importance of sacred groves can go a long way in protecting and maintaining these treasures. The ‘Biodiversity Programmes’ undertaken by Kerala Wildlife and Forest Department can be set as an ideal as it focused on creating awareness, documentation of flora fauna, habitat improvement, fencing and other related activities helped in protecting the groves. The delicate balance between beliefs, worships and maintenance of sacred groves should be given utmost importance to conserve this valuable biodiversity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
4th Year, B.Com LL.B. (Hons.), CUSAT, Kerela.