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Make forest creation on degraded and private village land a priority

Sacred groves could add lakhs of hectares to India’s green cover and restore our depleting natural wealth.

analysis Updated: May 14, 2019 09:21 IST
Valmik Thapar
Valmik Thapar
IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,india's forests,soil erosion
The only way we can save ourselves is to mobilise people and especially around the remaining forests. We need to create new forests across India.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

In these times of election when nasty political rhetoric has enveloped our lives, some of us have been watching David Attenborough’s Our Planet and refreshing ourselves with amazing details of the natural world. We are at a critical moment in the history of the planet: According to a United Nations report released on May 6 (IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), up to one million animal and plant species are on the verge of extinction. Nature’s current rate of decline is unparalleled, the report says, and the accelerating rate of extinctions “means grave impacts on people around the world are now likely”. An earlier report (The Living Planet Report 2018) warned that tens of thousands of species have gone extinct and wildlife populations have dropped by 60% in the past 50 years. In the same period, however, the human population has doubled.

What do we do? Well first of all, just to educate themselves, our political leadership should watch David Attenborough ‘s series and listen to his words. We are dealing with the issue of life and death on this planet. Our life as humans is hanging in the balance. We have inflicted a huge toll on nature by abusing it. Our politicians and administrators must answer for this. Given the fact that they do not hold the answer to repairing nature, they should be kept at an arm’s length before they do further damage to our natural wealth. There is so much money to be made in the exploitation of this wealth that greed becomes all-consuming as forest after forest is torn down and illegal mining destroys our landscape. This causes huge problems ranging from soil erosion to mudslides to disruptions in our natural water supplies. Nature’s fury at our senseless actions takes the form of enormous cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and various other natural disasters that take a huge toll on human life. This is the result of development without any vision.

Second, we must mobilise people to save the remaining forests, and create new ones. For thousands of years, Indians have celebrated sacred groves (forest fragments that communities protect because of religious connotations). They can be found in the desert of Rajasthan and in the rain forests of southern and eastern India. Some are small but others stretch across more than 40 square kilometres. These forests of the gods are protected by locals, and, in some cases, even a leaf is not allowed to be taken out. The sacred groves find mention in ancient Hindu, Jain and Buddhist texts. They can be connected to temples, monasteries, shrines and burial grounds.

We have more than 649,481 villages (Census 2011) in India. How can we motivate them to start new groves in the name of local deities or individuals that have been exceptional for that village? We must designate at least five hectares of sacred groves either on degraded village wasteland or on individual plots of agricultural land especially if it is degraded. The individual who uses his land to plant trees or allow its regeneration, will not only get free food rations for his family but will also get double the yearly revenue from his land. These new sacred groves could add lakhs of hectares to India’s green cover and such a scheme should start in villages that are adjacent to forests. It would be best if the forest department played a minimal role in this.

Young people in villages must be engaged with this task. Families that convert their lands into new forests should get relief from the state. There is just no other way forward, and in my opinion there is nothing more important than taking on this challenge and keeping our villages green and secure. There will be finance involved and this must come from our government. We need our sacred groves just as much as we need toilets. We have built 84 million toilets in the last few years but are they really being put to proper use? Few thought of water for these toilets. This shows how flawed our planning is.

Such community-led afforestation programmes will require funds, and the central government will have to chip in. In the last five years, the NDA government has prioritised the building of toilets and built more than nine crore toilets across the country under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Much of the expenditure for the programme has been wasted as toilets are misused especially in water-scarce areas. Surely creating new forests on degraded farmlands in villages can be made a national priority in our effort to re-green this planet.

Valmik Thapar has worked for 43 years with wild tigers. He has also written 30 books on India’s tigers and wildlife

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 14, 2019 09:20 IST