DEFORESTATION IN INDIA OVERVIEW AND PROPOSED CASE STUDIES Pankaj SEKHSARIA Kalpavriksh - Environment Action Group, India I. INTRODUCTION India is a vast country - encompassing a large canvas of habitats, and ecological niches; rich in bio-diversity and simultaneously supporting a rich, and vibrant diversity of human cultures. The environments are as diverse as can be imagined ; from the Himalayas in the north, the long coastline touched by the Arabian Sea on the west and the Bay of Bengal in the east to the islands of Andaman and Nicobar and the Lakshadweep. From the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat in the west to the teak forests of Central India to the thick and towering rainforests in the Northeast. Large parts of India like most other parts of South Asia and for that matter the rest of the world were till recently covered in thick forests. This region is probably best known for the civilizations that flourished in the valleys of its great rivers like the Ganges, the Yamuna and of course the Indus. These were civilizations that reached a high degree of sophistication, and urbanization. What are much less known are the innumerable, small, vibrant, diverse and extremely sustainable forest cultures that survived and flourished and continue to do so even today in the areas where the forests still exist?
II. LOCAL TRADITIONS AND CONSERVATION There are several continuing examples of many such small communities; taking self propelled initiatives outside the formal structures of law and governance to protect their forests. In their endeavor to safeguard their environment and protect their forests they are often in direct conflict with powerful political and economic structures which are themselves driven by major vested interests. The best known case of this is the Chipko movement in the Himalayas (Hegde, 1998; Weber, 1987). The villagers rallied together to save their forests by hugging the trees from the axe of the contractors who were issued licenses without the consent of the local people. Much earlier to this movement, though similar in its action is the story of the Bishnois in the desert state of Rajasthan (CSE 1984-85). The religious tenets of the community prevent them from causing any harm to any living thing. A few centuries ago a situation arose when the ruler ordered the cutting down of the trees of the area. The people of this community protested. They hugged the trees to protect them and in the process paid a very heavy price. The king's men ruthlessly chopped down the protesters before chopping down the trees. Even today the villages of the Bishnois are a pleasant sight where trees
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grow all around inspite of the desert like environment and various animals like the endangered Blackbuck find freedom and safety in a people's sanctuary. In addition, across the country there are innumerable sacred groves (Gadget, 1975; Gadget and Vartak, 1976; Induchoodan, 1991; WWF, 1996); patches of forests that have had a sacredness and sanctity attached to them for centuries. Often it is a forest dedicated to the local deity and in many places like in the western ghats these remain the only surviving examples of the rich and virgin forests that once clothed the mountains. More recently we come across the well-documented cases where communities are taking the initiative in protecting their forests. For instance Jardhar (Kothari, 1995) is a village in the Garhwal Himalayas about 12 hours drive away from New Delhi. Here the village has come together on its own initiative to protect the forests on the hills around their village. With the help of the Delhi based environmental group Kalpavriksh they have even prepared a community register of their biological, ecological and environmental knowledge. Additionally they have a 'Beej Bachao Andolan' (Save the seeds campaign) wherein the villagers have taken it upon themselves to save the great agricultural diversity of their area and have started a...
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