The mellow winter sun cast a soft glow on 13 sal saplings – known as Shorea robusta – encased in bamboo enclosures at Pandrasali, a small hamlet in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district. Pradhan Birua knelt down near one of the bamboo structures and smiled. After all, the young plants are his babies.

Back in 2018, he was determined to re-introduce the “sacred sal” in his village after lightning struck down the last tree. Birua, a member of the Ho tribe of Jharkhand, involved 15 children in his mission. Today, a long wait lies before him as the saplings slowly turn into hardy trees in the decades to come. But the change maker has sown the seeds for the future.

The enclosure that Birua was tending to was within a sacred grove, called sarna by the tribal communities in Jharkhand, which has a long history of Adivasi struggle.

These patches of forests with sal and a cluster of other trees such as mahua, neem and banyan among others, are places of worship for the tribal people in the state. Sal is a must in these groves because the indigenous communities believe that Singh Bonga, the supreme deity, resides in the sal tree. Felling of trees, harming animals and plucking leaves are usually forbidden in these sacred spaces.

Back in the courtyard of his house, Birua’s face lit up as he recalled his adventures in reintroducing the sal trees inside the sacred grove at Pandrasali. “The state government [was] trying to protect sarnas by constructing boundary walls, but what about planting trees?” he asked, referring to the gherabandi scheme of the Jharkhand welfare department.

Gherabandi is a scheme to protect and conserve sarnas by creating boundary walls around them, carried out by the welfare department after the gram sabha’s approval. “But without the sal, sarnas hold no significance for us,” stressed Birua.

The government must understand this, he emphasised. Inside the sacred grove at Pandrasali, entwined, lifeless branches of the dead sal trees lay on the ground.

The restoration

Birua and his young army had planted the saplings at a distance from the spot where the old trees once stood. The apprehension was that the place where the old trees existed is a lightning-prone area. The children worked hard to ensure the saplings survived the monsoon showers. They helped in making the enclosures to fend off cattle and goats. Watering the saplings was also a challenge as the nearest river is about a kilometre away.

And even as a lone man was trying to reintroduce sal trees inside a grove, the state government was living up to its promise of constructing boundary walls around sarnas. At the Pandrasali sarna, where Pradhan Birua was busy at work, the wall was ready to be plastered with cement. Construction work was also ongoing on in a few other villages in Ho-tribe dominated West Singhbhum district.

Boundary wall work is on at asarna sthalin west Singhbhum. Credit: Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

In the district’s Thai village, Dashrath Lohar was busy mixing cement and wiping perspiration from his face. He said that the work had been going on for the past three weeks under the gherabandi scheme.

But opinion was divided among the communities over the government’s purported real motive, with a section of the tribal community alleging that the government was forcing them to follow other religions under the garb of the scheme. They also fear the inclusion of tribal lands in the government’s land bank.

Durgawati Oreya, a social worker based in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, said sarnas should not be made to look like structures of other religions. “We like to worship our deity, the Singh Bonga, in the open, who resides in the sal. But I feel tribals are being compelled to follow other religions while we are demanding the Adivasi religious code,” she explained. But she also agrees that boundary walls may prevent encroachment in future, amid apprehension of inclusion of tribal lands in the government land bank.

The fear of tribal lands being taken over gained momentum after the Jharkhand government tried to amend the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act in 2017 amidst widespread protest.

Even though the amendment bills were later withdrawn, the suspicion is still rife among tribal people over the government’s purported motive.

Khunti-based social activist Durgawati Oreya. Credit: Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

“Sarnas mostly exist in community lands. In many areas of Khunti which [have] witnessed massive land acquisition, such lands have been included in the land bank surreptitiously. So naturally many sarnas have vanished in the name of development and beautification,” pointed out Masih Guria, a student and social worker in Khunti.

An independent study by social activist Stan Swamy revealed that the state government had earmarked 12,408 acres of common land in Khunti’s Torpa block for inclusion in government land bank. Of this, 31.85 acres are sarna lands.

Do walls offer protection?

In Khunti’s Dulua village, Sanika Munda defended the construction of the boundary wall. There had been numerous occasions when people tried to unlawfully enter the sacred grove with alcohol bottles. Eventually, the wall here was constructed after the gram sabha’s approval in 2016.

Currently, the gate remains locked and is only opened on Sunday morning from 9 am to 12 pm for worship, he said. Munda did not doubt the state government’s motive of conservation of the sacred groves even though he heard rumours about the identification of 16 acres of land for constructing a women’s college at a tribal worship place nearby.

Oreya, meanwhile, was not convinced. “Many people are not aware of the inclusion of tribal lands in the land bank. After being displaced, they will realise their mistake. The walls are of no use as miscreants can enter the groves at night by jumping over. The welfare department is just wasting money.”

Chaibasa-based Ho language teacher Dobro Buriuli said that every tribal village in Jharkhand has a sarna. But in Angardiha village in West Singhbhum’s Tantnagar block, no such place exists.

Buriuli fears that if the forest is converted into a reserved forest in future, then the sarna will vanish. Angardiha resident Shailendra Purty said, “We consider the forest as sarna. But we are afraid that it may become a reserved forest gradually. Generally, the forest department blames locals for deforestation and felling of trees. However, the forest has been with us for centuries.”

Despite apprehensions, walls had caught the fancy of tribals across many villages in West Singhbhum. Some residents of Bhaluburu village were eager to have a wall. According to Purty, structures of other religions were well maintained. “So our people are also thinking in the same way,” Purty said.

Pradhan Birua stands near the wall of the sarna. Credit: Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

Maango Boipoi of Bara Koita village agreed. He said the gherabandi scheme has enhanced people’s faith in sarnas.

In Silpunji village, where there was no boundary wall, Bideshi Gope favoured its immediate construction. “Women mostly urinate inside sarnas during the paddy harvest season as the place offers them protection from prying eyes,” Gope said.

In Meri Tola, which falls under the Chaibasa Nagar Parishad, gherabandi had been carried out due to rising population and to prevent outsiders from encroaching upon sacred groves. The sarna here belonged to the Oraon tribe.

Unlike the cut-off tribal villages of West Singhbhum, Meri Tola resembled a bustling urban area. Citing the instance of Tambo and Meri Tola, Bagun Bodra, a friend of Buriuli, said that outsiders have encroached upon tribal lands in those villages which lie near towns and cities.

“Due to population explosion, many sarnas are getting dirty. So we have agreed for boundary walls as a safeguard measure. Our priests have appealed to gods to accept the gherabandi scheme,” Bodra said.

Buriuli pointed out that sarnas on the roadside will vanish if the widening projects are approved. “At that time if we resist, we will be labelled anti-development. Jharkhand was created for tribals,” he said. Today, Buriuli feels, tribal rituals and traditions are at risk due to development projects. The spiritual relationship of tribal people with forests and trees is deteriorating due to government callousness, he said.

Shadow of land acquisition

Fear of sarnas gradually vanishing is deep in areas where lands have been acquired by the state government for development projects.

Rahul Oraon, a resident of Kutte village in Nagri block of Ranchi, who heads the HEC Hatia Visthapith Parivaar Samiti, said that all inhabitants of the 12 villages around Kutte in Nagri and Namkum blocks were displaced when land was handed over to the Heavy Engineering Corporation in the 1960s. “Our sarnas have vanished. We should get them back or else tribals will forget their culture and embrace other religions,” he said.

Residents alleged that in Kutte, the sarna is currently without a wall as HEC claims ownership over the plot of land.

The sarna in Kutte village. Credit: Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

Same was the case with the Jagannathpur sarna under the Dhurwa police station area where funds were released, but HEC raised an objection to the boundary wall. A local government official, on condition of anonymity, said that when the gherabandi work started in Jagannathpur after land inspection, HEC had created problems. The work has been stalled for almost six months.

In a letter dated April 2019, HEC pointed out that the sarna land belonged to the company after the government acquired and transferred it.

AK Pandey, project director, Integrated Tribal Development Authority, said after the HEC raised an objection, work had been stalled. “We will decide whether the boundary wall will be created after the Assembly elections. The land deed records it as a sarna sthal. We will sort out the matter,” he had said.

Ajit Oraon, the vice-president of Raji Parha Sarna Prarthana Sabha, a Ranchi-based social organisation, said the land acquisition shadow has stopped the execution of the gherabandi scheme in a few places.

He pointed out it is natural for tribal people to feel insecure and cited the example of a sarna sthal, a sacred site, which is now inside the Birsa Munda Airport. “Today, we have to seek permission from the airport authority for entering the sarna. After we request them, they open it for us,” he said.

An Oraon tribe sarna in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district. Credit: Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

Airport director Binod Sharma said that legally, the Hinoo mouza sarna sthal was in the operational area near the runway, but people are allowed to enter once a year during festivals. When the land was acquired by the government, the people were duly compensated, Sharma added.

In a letter dated December 2019 to the airport authority, the Hinoo Sarna Samiti, which works for sarna and tribal culture conservation, had requested the authorities to provide access to people every Thursday from 8 am to 12 am.

Sarnas have also shrunk in size due to the expansion and development of railway colonies. One such example is the Kalyanpur sarna in Namkum block, which now measures about five decimals.

Before that, it was spread over three acres and 85 decimal of land. “We need space to conduct sarhul and karma puja. Many people dance on these occasions,” said Ajit Oraon. Sarhul is a three-day spring festival. Tribals sing and dance during sarhul.

Lily Kachhap, a section officer in the Ranchi district welfare department, said funds are allocated for boundary walls after gram sabhas, or village councils, send proposals.

“Sometimes, even MLAs and MPs recommend boundary walls. But we always check land plots carefully before proceeding, as walls cannot come up on controversial areas or in cases of disputes,” Kachhap said.

In 2016-17, the Ranchi welfare department spent Rs 19.3 million on gherabandi. In 2017-18, Rs 19.2 million was spent. In 2018-19, the amount stood at Rs 55 million, according to the department’s record.

Amid the contentious issues of land acquisition, displacement and vanishing of sarnas due to a number of factors, Jamshedpur-based non-profit Deshauli Foundation is creating natural boundaries through afforestation to protect groves.

Founder Sadhu Ho said that in East Singhbhum and West Singhbhum, some leaders had made the gherabandi scheme a political issue. In many villages, people did not favour the walls even after the approval of the gram sabha. Ho’s organisation, which started working in 2018, is collecting funds to plant saplings around the edges to demarcate sarnas. “Trees will not only beautify our groves but also help to recharge the groundwater level,” Ho said.

It remains to be seen how far the efforts of Birua and Ho go in protecting sarnas, that are facing an existential threat in Jharkhand.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.