Religious Beliefs and Biodiversity Conservation

September 14 2018

Sterlite Power

Nature worship is an ancient tradition in India and all forms of life are considered sacred. This belief is intimately linked with some tribal communities in India that continue to believe trees to be sacred. For them, trees are the abode of spirits and Gods who ensure their people’s safety and persistence. Major tribes in India call their religion ‘Saran Dharam’, meaning worship of trees. These tribal communities set apart sanctified land to propitiate the vanadevatas, i.e. tree spirits. In certain groves, the entire vegetation is considered sacred and is worshipped. These traditions don’t just signify spiritual and cultural expression of the local tribes but also speak of the unique ways in which they conserve and preserve biodiversity.

The cultural ethos of these communities, which has helped preserve the integrity of sacred groves for years, is degrading at a fast rate. The belief systems that were fundamental to the concept of sacred grove conservation are gradually disappearing with the advent of modernization, urbanization and peoples’ changing aspirations.

The Challenge

Sacred groves are called ‘sarna’ (derived from Saran Dharam) in the Bihar-Jharkhand-West Bengal region, where one of Sterlite Power’s critical transmission lines, Purulia-Kharagpur Transmission (PKTCL) Project was being constructed. Sterlite Power faced a three-fold challenge when 3/4th of the proposed transmission line had to be built in this region, where sarna were sporadically distributed. We needed to ensure we conserve biodiversity; deal sensitively with the traditional beliefs of the local tribal communities and also meet the strict timelines of finishing the project. The existing sacred groves in the region are all small islands of vegetation. Sterlite Power, being a responsible corporate organization, decided to approach issues associated with these sacred groves with empathy. The team’s success in tactically solving the challenges without hurting the sentiments of the community forms the crux of the case story.

Our Context

The Project

Purulia-Kharagpur Transmission Project is a benchmark project for Sterlite Power, consisting of two 400-kV double circuit lines. The total length of the line is 273 km, including the 112-km long Purulia-Ranchi and the 161-km long Kharagpur-Chaibasa lines. Sterlite Power will operate and maintain the project, traversing through the states of Jharkhand and West Bengal, for 35 years. The project was won through a tariff-based competitive bidding under the "Build, Own, Operate and Maintain" model. The line, when completed, will contribute to the growing generation capacity in eastern India and strengthen the interconnection between state grids and regional grids to facilitate the exchange of additional power. The Purulia-Kharagpur Transmission Project is a new milestone in providing uninterrupted power supply to the energy-deficient villages in West Bengal and Jharkhand states of India.

Sarna and Sing Bonga

For centuries, the ‘Sarna’ communities of Southern regions of Jharkhand and West Bengal have preserved small forests consisting of Sal trees, that they believe house a local spirit - Sing Bonga’. Over the years, this ‘scared grove’, also called ‘Sarna’ has been threatened by several industrial development projects. However, the community’s traditional beliefs and the will of their religious priest, charged with protecting the abode of God, have been sufficiently strong to prevent human interference in the forest. These once-open forest areas have developed into partially closed-canopy forests.

The sacred groves have become a small refuge for a large variety of fauna and flora and are a repository of numerous native species found nowhere else in the region, in such large concentrations. The groves are an important source of both seeds and seed dispersers which are vital to traditional shifting cultivation practices, and of herbs for local medicinal, social, and religious purposes. While the grove is too small to be a primary watershed, its presence ensures that the water table remains high in the immediate area. (The presence of the original Sal tress in the grove indicates a localized high-water table). It also protects the village from wind and rain storms, bushfires, and other climatic hazards.

We observed that the Sarna community had a very strong local religious belief in the grove as the sanctuary of their local God. The degradation of sacred groves in surrounding areas had helped increase the regional importance of Sing Bonga. The people of Sarna and neighbouring communities believe that failure to comply with the rules protecting the grove will offend and dishonour the Sing Bonga God and may bring misfortune to the offender, his or her family, and perhaps even the whole community. This was why they were completely against the idea of harming the forests for construction of the line.

Our Action - Community Driven with a Multi-Stakeholder Approach

The Purulia-Kharagpur Transmission Project provided an opportunity for Sterlite Power to learn about the Sarna community, their religious beliefs and their role in protecting bio-diversity. The community’s age-old practice to protect their environment inspired our organization.

We adopted a two-pronged approach of modifying our line construction plan and simultaneously working with the religious leader to manage the minimal unavoidable felling of trees. Out of respect for the community’s beliefs, the project’s route underwent a deviation. This resulted in cost escalation to Sterlite Power and posed a risk of delay in project completion. Nevertheless, the organization’s leadership extended their unanimous support to protect the interests of the community and the environment. In places, where deviation in route was not an option, an integrated approach was followed by the Sterlite Power Team. We engaged multiple stakeholders, creating synergies between local communities, government agencies and civil society. The field team of Sterlite Power adapted to changing situations within a time frame driven largely by local requirements and not by the project team. The chief of the community was also a priest at the Sing Bonga temple and a local physician – practising traditional medicine. The project team established a strong relationship with him and understood the community’s customs. He guided Sterlite Power to perform all the necessary rituals required to cut the few Sal trees that were unavoidable.

Throughout this journey there were consistent negotiations, benefit sharing mechanisms and institutionalization of the process. The process involved building trust, exchanging information, problem solving and joint planning between the partners. The social impact of having a transmission line was explained to the community. Several villages in the region, that had never been electrified, were benefitted by the line. In the end, the project was successfully commissioned and the Sarna community was satisfied with the outcome.