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Magazine Editorial

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Title Feeding birds together: The chabutaras of Gujarat
Abstract SRISTI recently carried out a survey in 186 villages across 11 Gujarati districts (mainly in Banaskantha, Sabarkantha and Anand districts) to understand how traditional informal social institutions are designed by local communities to manage common property. Three institutions were studied namely, the chabutaras, community-managed water tanks and community grazing lands. In this article, rules and norms about chabutras (bird-feeding platforms/towers) are discussed. The institutional norms regarding management of local community water tanks and grazing lands will be discussed in the forthcoming issues. Chabutaras, bird-feeding towers/platforms, are found mainly in Gujarat but also in many villages in other parts of India. There are different architectural designs of various chabutaras-one of the most visible common property institutions sustaining concern for birds for centuries. This report describes how they are managed by villagers in three districts. The building of chabutaras Chabutaras were usually financed and built by the community frequently with the support of the panchayat/village council. These were also often built by relatives as memorials to their departed kins. It was found during the study that bird feed was provided entirely by the community in 82% of the villages. Almost every where, birds were fed in the morning. The institution of chabutaras is however, on the decline. Most chabutaras were older than 15 years and only 16% of the villages had a new bird feeding tower/platform that had been built in the last five years. In the remaining villages, new Chabutaras were donated by local legislators and sarpanch (village heads) from their funds, or by NGOs and charitable trusts. How bird feed is collected Large quantities of bird feed are donated at significant life events such as childbirth, marriage or funeral. During the kite festival, people regard feeding the birds as auspicious and a good karmic gesture. Hence the season witnesses a number of bird feed donations. After the kite festival, street plays are organised to raise donations to buy grains for birds and grass for cows in a few villages. Elderly Hindu women who embark on their ‘prabhat yatra’ (chanting morning walks) as part of their daily routine, carry a bag to collect bird feed donations from families and place them at the chabutara. Individuals are asked to donate specific quantities of grains to the bird towers/platforms as a penalty or fine for their misdemeanour. The main grains for feeding the birds are wheat, bajra (sorghum), jowar (pearl millet) and maize. Different grains are used in different locations depending on their availability. Avoiding injury to birds: Maintenance of the chabutaras There are several ways in which communities maintain chabutaras: schools organise field trips for children to help in cleaning up the bird feeding platforms; during major festivals like Diwali, village youth take the initiative to clean up these platforms and decorate them; many villagers also volunteer to carry out the maintenance work. Some panchayats hire people to clean up the village public spaces and also the chabutaras. Our survey finds that Kheda and Sabarkantha had much better facilities for bird feeding platforms and maintenance procedures. The community generally plays an active role in maintaining the cleanliness of the platforms/towers and ensuring a steady supply of bird feed. An interesting observation was that some villages had covered the base of the chabutara with a mixture of cow dung and soil to protect the birds from injuring their beaks while picking up grains. Challenges faced and novel solutions Not all institutions face the same kind of challenges. The survey team came across several peculiar challenges. Some of these were tackled in quite innovative ways. In a few villages, a strange kind of problem was faced. A few children would steal grains from the chabutaras to sell in the local market. The villagers then decided to reduce the quantity of grains stored in the tower itself and keep the bulk of the grains outside at a place in everyone’s view. That helped them overcome the problem. Sometimes it was difficult to feed the birds whenever a chabutara had not been cleaned for a while. In such a situation, the villagers would feed the birds on their terraces. In another village, it was found that cats from a nearby tree would attack birds on the tower, so the tree was moved for their protection. In some places, short towers were upgraded to a greater height to protect the birds from dogs and cats. In the 186 villages surveyed, 88% (164) had at least one chabutara. It was found that the villages with higher average income (Anand & Sabarkantha) had far fewer chabutaras than villages with low income (Banaskantha). What some may find paradoxical, the key finding was that much greater community concern was shown for birds in less well endowed regions. Even if the conditions of the few platforms found in developed districts might have been a bit better than average condition in economically disadvantaged region, this traditional institution thrives in dry regions much more than in well irrigated cash crop regions.
Volume No. Honey Bee 25(2) 9, 2014