Oran – A traditional biodiversity management system in Rajasthan

Aman Singh & Pratibha Sisodia

“Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sansthan” (KRAPAVIS} has been assisting in rehabilitating the poor rural and tribal communities within Rajasthan, for the last 10 years, who are in dire need of gainful employment and sustainable livelihoods. KRAPAVIS focus has been on participatory programs such as bio diversity conservation, watershed and natural resources management, women-in-development (WID), promotion of Self – Help Groups (SHGs) etc. This paper is based on a study conducted on traditional biodiversity management system in Rajasthan better known as Oran, sponsored by UNDP/GEF.

In Rajasthan State, there is usually an overlap between ‘gochar’ or ‘roondhs’, the common pastures, and ‘Oran’, the sacred woodland around a temple. There are some local systems like Kakad bani , Rakht bani and Devbani. Kakad bani refers to a grove on the common geographical boundary of two or more villages where a common deity known as ‘Kakad Devta’ is installed. The responsibility for protecting this common forest rests with these villages. It is used for grazing and other minor forest produce. Similarly, ‘Rakht bani’, covers the forest area belonging to one village only. It is common resource for one village. ‘Oran’ or ‘Devbani’ refers to a common preserved sections of forests protected in the name of some god or goddess by each of the villages of their own specific needs. Thus Orans are dedicated to one or more deities worshipped by the community and can therefore be termed as sacred forests.

The area under an Oran can vary from a few square meters to several hundred hectares. For instance the Bhadriya Oran in Jaisalmer district is 15000 hectares, Baankal Devi ka Oran spreads over 4600 hectares where as Kundla’s Oran is 7500 hectares in Barmer district. According to one estimation, the total area under Orans in the state of Rajasthan is above 1,00,000 hectares covering about 1100 Orans.

Orans have been a source of natural wealth like fodder, fuel, timber, berries, roots and herbs. They were regarded as a symbol of prosperity for the community that owned it. Moreover, Orans also played an important role in promoting a flourishing livestock based economy and growth of livestock rearing communities in Rajasthan. According to the study, 41% livestock is dependent on Orans in Barmer district of Rajasthan. The Oran system ensures people’s participation in its management.  Orans also benefit the villages through their water bodies and diversity of trees. During the survey of all 163 existing Orans in Alwar district, KRAPAVIS observed that every Oran has a water body like Johad, Tank, and spring, Baori, Well etc. Many species are found both within and outside the Orans and traditional societies use them for a variety of livelihood needs. Therefore, for them managing biodiversity is crucial for their own sustainable development. 

In the management of Orans, ecologically valuable species perform key functions in the ecosystem thereby contributing to the support and enhancement of biodiversity. Generally, the species are selected and valued by the local communities for cultural or religious reasons. ‘Bishnoi’ community and their 29- point led to absolute protection not only to the ‘khejadi tree {Prosopis cinerarea}, a multipurpose legume tree valued by the villagers, but also promotion of plant and animal biodiversity within their village ecosystem boundary. Thus, in the community’s view, the Oran serves four main purposes: vegetation as grazing ground for the livestock; watering place for the livestock; resting places for the livestock; and medicine in ethno botanical form.

Two cases of traditional management systems in Rajasthan is presented here:

Shital Das & Gopal Das ki Deobani

The ‘Shital Das’ and ‘Gopal Das ki Deobani’ are two different Orans located in two contiguous villages – Rainagir and Pehal respectively, in Alwar district of Rajasthan, and situated on a hill slope at a distance of 5 Km from each other. Population of both the villages is about 6500, and consists of about 1000 households. Of these, 25% belong to tribal and backward castes. Total geographical area of the villages is 2400 hectares. The area under the Oran is 160 bighas (i.e. about 40 hectares).

This area has been dedicated to deities Gopal Das and Shital Das worshipped by the community and conserved since then for biodiversity. These sacred groves are under the control of temples and managed by the village communities. Felling of trees for timber was taboo, which ensured that the fauna survived through the ages. There was no interference with the biota of the groves and grazing, hunting and even removal of leaf litter was not allowed. Even today this ‘Oran’ shelters rare plants and protects water sources in the area.

The study records a total of 72 species belonging to different families and genera. About 27 species are reported to be extinct from these groves. Since there is no record of biodiversity in the past, no one can say for sure how many species have been lost. Rare species like Gugal, Kadam (Anthocaphalus indicus), Dhak (Butea Monosperma) etc. are on the threatened list. This primary forest is composed entirely of trees about 5-10 meters tall with little shrub or herbaceous under growth. The dominating tree species are Dhok (Anogeissus pendula), Kair (Capparis decidua), Ber (Zizyphus mauritiana), Neem (Azardirachta indica), Peepal (Ficus religiousa), Bargad (Ficus bengalisis), Gular (Ficus glomerata), Salar (Boswellia serrata), Babul (Acacia nilotica), Khair (Acacia catechu) etc.

Besides protecting genetic diversity, the Oran forest also caters to community needs, including medicinal plants, non-wood resources like edible fruits, honey and fibre etc. They play a vital role in the ecosystem during the dry season, providing staple food for birds and mammals. And, most importantly, the community point of view is that ‘Shital Das ki Deobani’ Oran serves the local communities as a most trustful health care center of human as well as livestock. Thus, ethno botanical value of the Oran is also an important factor leading to their protection by local communities.

Therefore some of the species, so preserved, have multiple uses and are already known to be of considerable value for the traditional medicinal use of local community, such as Dhok (Anogeissus pendula) found maximum in these Orans. Another species Dhak/ Khkra (Butea Monosperma/Frondsa) is used as brushes for white washing. They are cut into strips and used to make a juice, which is mixed with butter- milk. Lac insect is found in this tree. Bark is used for the production of local wine. Gum is eaten by women- it is supposed to be successful in helping women to conceive. Root and bark crushed and water heels blood in stool. Flowers dried, powdered and water heels blood in urine. Bark crushed and water used as body coolant, help in heeling blood in stool and digestion problems. Raisin is a good tonic for the women. Branches of Salar (Boswellia Serrata) are used to make a mandap (open hall), which plays an important role in a marriage ceremony. Gum is used to make dhoop (incense sticks). Pipal (Ficus religiosa) helps in treatment of Guinea worms; a skin disease used to be serious problem in western part of the Rajasthan. There are few Neem (Azadirachta Indica) in the Oran but they occur mainly in the village.

According to the community, domestic animals and wild herbivores have complementary functions in the maintenance of equilibrium and productivity of vegetation in the Orans. They also consider wild herbivores as a buffer against predators and cattle lifting tendencies. The villagers realize that wild animals have a fundamental function in controlling herbivores population and maintaining the general equilibrium of the environment. Many jackal, deer, rabbit, snake, mongoose, squirrel, and other so many types of wild animals, besides different birds like peacock, patriot, parrot, etc. are commonly found in the Orans.

About the water source, a talab (rain water harvesting structure) exists in the Gopal Das ki Deobani, which is very old and architecturally beautiful where as Kunds (spring) are found in Shital Das ki Deobani. Talab is constructed at a place, which has maximum run-off contributing into it. The topography of the catchment is a square / circular and tributaries tend to come together and join the main stream somewhere near the centre of the area and thus water get collected into talab. This is important in terms of providing water for irrigation and drinking purposes. This ‘Oran’ also constitutes a unique example of in-situ conservation of genetic resources as well as shows micro climatic conditions with their own distinct floral and faunal values.

The Oran has a special significance in the lives of the local community. There is a traditional belief called ‘Saavadi’, a system prevalent in the ‘Gopal Das ki Deobani’, wherein each household from neighboring six villages contribute 6 kg grains per harvesting season, to feed birds and others inhabitants of the Oran. Thus culture and religion are the over riding considerations in preserving Orans. This could be an excellent example of ‘community based’ approach to biodiversity conservation and natural resource management.

Bherunath ji ki Bani

Bherunath ji ki Bani is located in a small village called Bakhtpura, in the Aravalli hills of Alwar district in Rajasthan.  There are 70 households with a population of 687, made up of 4 castes; Gujar, Harijan, Luhar and Nai.  The Gujar- a pastoralist community is the dominating caste in the village, mainly dependent on the animal husbandry.

The village itself is divided by a hill where the village Oran is situated on a gentle slope. At the base of the hill lies a water hole connected to the Oran.  The surrounding land is mountainous and barren with the hills arising abruptly of the valley floor.  Their tops are rugged with only a few thin trees surviving and the mountainsides are also barren and rocky. The Aravalli hills lie looming in the distance and in the midday sun look hazy and vague and the inhospitable climate is also reflected in the lack of vegetation on the valley floor.

The total area of the Oran is 46.5 bighas i.e., about 12 hectares and it consists of water hole locally known as Johad and the sacred forest enclosing their temple of the deity called Bherunathji.

The most dominated species in the Oran is Dhok (Anogeissus pendula) and its trees are about 5 to 10 meters high.  There is little shrub undergrowth.  However, there are about 600 major trees, the species wise numbers  are; Dhok (Anogeissus pendula) -532, Kair (Capparis decidua) -10, Ber (Zizyphus mauritiana) -5, Peepal (Ficus religiousa) -4, acacia trees – 40, Khair (Acacia catechu) -7 and plenty of shrubs like Adusa or Bansa. The main species like Hingota (Balanites Egyptiaca), abalakanta and Sadahari, a creeper are reported to be extinct from the Oran in the last 15 years.

For the whole Bakhtpura village, the main watering source for their 1356 livestock population is ‘Johad’ which exists in the Oran.  Deforestation elsewhere has led to the drying up of all the other perennial sources in the vicinity of the village.  Therefore, the villagers are aware of the crucial role of Oran in their lives.  The villagers as owners obviously have no wish to destroy this last source. There is another traditional herding system known as Khadu in this area. The Khadu defines the area of grazing, herd’s size  and the water source ‘Johad’.  All the animals, save the milking buffaloes, remain in the mountains away at night, and as a result about 2 – 4 % fall victim to wild animals every year. However, since it is the sheer number of animals in the village that has led to the intense problem of over-grazing in and surrounding the village Oran.

In the community view, the Oran therefore has four main purposes; medicine in ethno botanical form, vegetation as grazing ground, watering and resting place for the livestock. By custom, no wood is removed from this area. The dried wood is used for worship and cremation.  Every year in the month of ‘Asaad’  (the first month of Monsoon), the village community organizes a ‘Mela’ at the ‘Oran’ site where they rejuvenate their commitment towards this woodland. In this arrangement, the sanctity of the domain ensures a ready and plentiful availability of an important energy source for the benefit of all.

Economically, the ‘Oran’ is very useful as some of the medicinal species are known to be of considerable value for the pharmaceutical industry, while other species such as ber and wild grains are valuable for home consumption and trade. In addition, the Oran could aid scientific research in yielding useful derivatives, which could be used in the pharmaceutical, chemical and food processing industries.

Orans – Present status and future concerns

Communities recognise Orans as a source of water, food, fodder, fuel and medicines. They are often the only surviving areas of mature woodland in otherwise denuded surroundings and provide a refuge for wildlife.

In the management of Orans, ecologically valuable species perform key functions in the ecosystem and thereby contributing to support / enhance biodiversity. Generally, these species are selected and valued by the local communities for cultural or religious reasons. Thus the system ensures people’s participation in ‘Oran’ management. Many such species are found both within and outside the sacred groves and for traditional societies who use it in a variety of livelihood concerns, managing biodiversity is crucial for their sustainable development.

Despite all these characteristics, Orans have undergone decline and shrinkage. This has happened due to abandoning traditional practices of natural resource conservation and management. Most of the herbs, which existed in ‘Orans’, have either become extinct or threatened to become extinct. Currently, at least 3% of the recorded wild flora and a somewhat larger number of wild fauna are on the threatened list in the area studied. For the last few decades this area has lost about 70 % of its forests despite the fact that the biological diversity of the area is one of the most significant in India with several thousands species of flora and fauna found in the area.

According to the Alwar Extraordinary Gazette Notification 1934, existing ‘banis’ and ‘roondhs’ declared as protected forest. The state since 1950 has followed progressive policy vis-à-vis cultivable lands as groves and gaucher or pastureland are all included in the same category of “Culturable Waste Land”.  The forced conversion of such area into “revenue” and “forest” lands allotment and regularization of encashment on revenue land or Siwai Chak precedence of private agriculture etc., have all been done without the consent of local users.  The customary right of commons has not been recognized as a civil right.

As ownership, rights and responsibilities on Oran lands are not clearly defined in the revenue records, the State is gaining control over ownership of these lands rather than understanding the cultural significance in conservation and forest protection. This has denied economic benefits for the local communities. As a result, the traditional community practices of Oran conservation and management is rapidly being abandoned.

Once the forests have gone out of community control, there has been a decline in the area under sacred forests.  Over a million people dependant on livestock are struggling hard for survival because of shrinking grazing grounds in ‘Orans’ . These pastorals have to either  undertake large scale migration into adjoining areas or resort to over grazing in near by forest area, which often cause them physical hardship, destruction of vegetation, social stress, often leading to conflicts.

Joint Forest Management vs Orans

Recently the policy makers have introduced Joint Forest Management (JFM) concept to develop the village forests, which may be successful in some areas.  But JFM may not be an alternative to Orans.  The basic difference between JFM and Orans is that of the degree of community involvement. While Orans were fully community controlled and managed, JFM on the other hand, offers limited involvement to the community. Another burden of JFM is to register the community members under the society Registration Act 1958, which is a lengthy and tedious process.

Today, the government is spending a huge amount on preserving wildlife sanctuaries, but still is not able to maintain the standards of protection that existed in the old sanctuaries, such as Orans.  In those days, these small sanctuaries were located between the villages.  The system was better than having huge government sanctuaries, which are unmanageable. Small is not only beautiful, but, also provides habitat for local varieties and involves the local communities directly in caring their own environmental flora and fauna. Sariska, the world famous Tiger Reserve spread over 866 square km area in Alwar district of Rajasthan is in fact an example of integration of various ‘banis’,  ‘roondhs’, and ‘ Orans’ attributed to different deities; Naraini Mata, Bharthari Baba, Pandupole Hamumanji, Parasar ji, Talvraksh, Jaipal Baba, Naldesar, Garva ji, & Nilkanth etc.

Aman Singh & Pratibha Sisodia, Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sansthan (KRAPAVIS), Bakhtpura, Alwar, Rajasthan

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