Halkar village portrays a community-based conservation system formalised by the British colonial government as village forest panchayats (VFP) about 70 years ago. This is almost a pre-colonial relic of the system that prevailed in the coastal district of Uttara Kannada (formerly known as North Kanara). This is also a very good example of how government apathy, lack of support and negative intervention can gradually discourage and lead to the degeneration of a well-functioning community initiative.
Halkar village is situated towards the centre of the west coast of Uttara Kannada district (which lies between 13° 55’ and 15° 31’ north latitude and 74° 09’ and 75° 10’ east longitude) in Karnataka. The village is on the banks of the estuary of the Aghanashini River. Halkar lies on the outskirts of Kumta town, with an area of about 200 ha, of which about 60 ha are submerged in the backwaters. The lands all around the backwaters have rich plantations of coconut palms, mango, jackfruit, banana and areca nut. The forest landscape is of semi-stunted type. The total forest area is 89 ha. The forest trees seldom exceed 10 m in height. The number of trees was not more than 100 per ha before the 1990s. However, plantation of fast-growing exotics in the gaps, which the forest had in plenty, has considerably increased the tree population. The species planted are mostly Australian acacia and casuarina. Cashew trees have also been raised in small patches, expecting to bear the nuts in the near future. The village is able to meet its regular requirements of fuel, leaf manure and minor timber on a sustainable basis from the community forest.
Notable among the evergreen trees are two species of blackberries or neeilu, andamurugila, kokum, surugi, halchary and bokalu. Amongst the leaf-shedding trees there are kavala, gojjalu and honagalu. Several herbs and climbers are found in the forest, including notable medicinal plants like agnishikha and satavari. The few mangrove trees left in the gajni (estuarine rice lands) are uppati, ipati and kandale.
Among the fauna, jackals are common and their number has increased since the raising of the exotic trees. Other species that are found here are hyena, black-naped hare, Hanuman langur, wild boar and barking deer. Around 50 years ago, panthers occasionally used to come down from the Western Ghat forests into this forest. Of the many birds found in the forest are herons, kites, redwattled lapwing, jungle fowl, spotted dove, rose-ringed parakeet, oriole, cuckoo, kingfishers, treepie, coppersmith barbet, Indian peafowl, drongos, warblers, bee eaters, etc. Most of the estuarine birds like black-crowned night heron, ruddy shelduck, common teal, greater spotted eagle, grey plover, European golden plover, Kentish plover, lesser sand plover, whimbrel, redshank, marsh sandpiper, whiskered tern, pied avocet and rosy starling are found in the Aghanashini backwaters. The backwater marshes are excellent breeding grounds for fishes, prawns, bivalves, crabs and various crustaceans. The villagers here normally do not hunt. Some outsiders occasionally hunt for hares. The birds of this forest do not face any major threat.
According to the 1991 census, Halkar had a population of 1016, with 177 households. Halkar has a multi-caste Hindu society, who live in harmony despite their social hierarchy. Agriculture is one of the main occupations of the villagers. As a result of the abolition of landlordism, in the 1970s the patgars, who were traditional tenant farmers, became the owners of most of the rice fields, each of them owning approximately one hectare or less. The able-bodied people move out seasonally into the interiors of the district, after the planting of rice in the gajnis, 1 to work in the arecanut gardens of the havik brahmins2. However, nowadays many members of these agricultural families pursue other education-based professions like banking, teaching.
The gunagas or kumbhars are traditionally potters. They also officiate as priests for the folk deities of the village. Barring a few families, the rest of them have diversified into business, transportation and other vocations. The Madivals or traditional washermen have also diversified into other professions. There is an outflow of the younger generation towards urban centres for business activities. Earlier the Mukris were hunter-gatherers and agricultural labourers who yet continue to be on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
Most villagers grow vegetables and various tubers for subsistence and some trade. Laterite bricks (which are quarried from the forest) and forest produce provide a major source of income to the village forest panchayats.
Sacred groves dedicated to folk deities were a characteristic of Halkar till recent times. The Mother Goddess of the village (Choudamma) was associated with a grove till about 25 years ago, which has now been replaced with a shrine.