In recent years, India has been widely regarded, from inside the subcontinent and in the international community, as on the precipice of ecological and humanitarian disaster. A burgeoning population of 984 million, approaching one billion by the year 2000, for which the 'vast majority' are engaged in a biomass-based subsistence economy, (Poffenberger and McGean, 1998) is a scenario which shows little sign of changing in the near future, and needs to be accommodated. Thus, fears over diminishing forest cover in the 1980's, variously estimated at 24,000 ha per year (Ravindranath and Hall, 1994) to 339,000 ha per year (FAO) to 1.5 million hectares (Mha) (Agarwal and Narain, 1990) sparked widespread concerns and initiated an intense drive to reforest the subcontinent, with considerable aid and loans from international bodies such as the World Bank.

While the overall effectiveness of large, expensive, foreign-aided biomass programmes is still open to question, other efforts to rejuvenate India's forests are becoming apparent; a quiet revolution in forest management has been seen to spread from one community to another, notably in the east Indian states of West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. In recent years increasingly competing claims on biomass resources has accelerated pressure on forests, and faced with increasing scarcities, communities have come together to claim and protect areas for natural regeneration; all the more remarkable given the largely 'illegitimate' status of their claims upon the forests of India, according to the state.

The Forest Department has been referred to as the most 'reviled arm of the state' (Gadgil and Guha, 1992), and roundly criticised for its draconian approach in its attempt to police forests, whilst also failing to acknowledge subsistence claims. However, a paradigm shift has occurred from within the Forest Department, which now views forest communities as part of the possible solution to forest degradation, rather than as the problem. The shift effectively legitimises rural communities' claims to the forests, and allows for a partnership between forest communities and the state, for the joint management of forests, which has been recently formalised in policy. In other areas, such as Orissa, protection and management of forests is a community initiative, without any intervention from the Forest Department. The new emerging relationship between the state, forests and rural communities is the subject of this study, for which fieldwork was undertaken in January 1999, in Orissa.

India's forest covers an area of approximately 64 Mha, 19.5% of the total geographic area, of which 60% (38.56 Mha) is classified as dense forest cover, (with a canopy greater than 40%), and the remaining classified as open forest, (between 10-40% crown cover). Population density is high, with 287 persons per km2, and per capita forest is extremely low, at 0.075ha (Ravindranath and Hall, 1994). Efficient and sustainable management of India's forests therefore, is critical, given the significance of biomass to rural communities. Materially, forests provide fuel and fodder, food, materials for construction, and agricultural implements, but crucially, forests also provide income-generating opportunities, supplying materials that can be employed in cottage industries, such as bamboo, leaves, lac, or for direct sale, e.g. honey, herbs, fruit. Although it would be too simplistic to equate the health of the forests with the health of rural India, the degradation of forests certainly contributes to an impoverishment in quality of life, as will be discussed. Conversely the reverse appears to be true, and particularly amongst adivasi (adi=original, vasi=inhabitants) and groups of low economic status.

Table 1.1: Per capita availability of forests and status of forests in east India
State Total forests

(sq. km)

Open forests

(sq. km)

Forest productivity* Per capita forest (ha)
West Bengal 8,394 2,953 67.04 0.02
Orissa 47,137 19,384 37.8 0.11
Bihar 26,934 13,522 31.7 0.02

From Bajaj (1992) * cum/ha of growing stock

The eastern states of West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar (See map, below), seemed a logical demarcation for this study, due to the notable forest protection in these states, and also because, although each is different, in terms of ethnic/caste composition, political system etc…there are also many similarities. All three states are predominantly agricultural, characterised by smallholdings less than the national average, e.g., less than 2.5 ha in West Bengal, from which usually, a single rain-fed crop of paddy per year for subsistence is cultivated (Nesmith, 1991). The eastern states are variously perceived as populous, and 'backwards', are noted for being home to a large proportion of India's adivasi population; e.g., 25% of India's adivasis live in Orissa. Similarities in climate and vegetation type are also apparent with all three distinctly tropical, with a high humidity, high daily temperatures and high rainfall (see table 6.2), while vegetation is dominated by dry and moist Shorea robusta forests, that occur across the Chotanagpur plateau. Significantly, two states, West Bengal and Bihar show that forest per capita is less than the national average of 0.075, both at 0.02, while Orissa is a little higher, at 0.11.

Figure1.1: Map of India showing study areas in Orissa

While not attempting to be inclusive, which is outside the possible scope of this dissertation, the study, nonetheless attempts to investigate the tangible effects of forest management by rural communities on the communities themselves, and on the forests of east India, to determine whether local people are reclaiming the forests.

In sections two and three, the relationship between people, the forests and the state, in the colonial era, and since independence, is described, which lays the historical context of state regulation in the interaction between forests and rural communities. Section four explores the importance of forests to different socio-economic groups; adivasi, landless, marginal smallholders, and larger farmers, and considers the effects of restrictions to forest resources. In section five, environmental activism as a catalyst for change is considered. A new beginning in forest management is outlined in section six, where the emergence of joint forest management is described, and its potential in rejuvenating India's forests is explored. Sections seven, eight and nine comprise reports on field work undertaken in Orissa in January 1999, to determine the effects of community forest management on forests under protection, and upon the communities involved. Section seven explores the sal (Shorea robusta) forests of Budhikhamari, while section nine turns to three different forests under Ranpur Forest Protection Committee. Section eight reports on an area of degraded forest not subject to community protection and management. Finally, section ten evaluates the emerging forms of forest management with community participation, followed by the conclusion in section eleven.

No appendices have been included. Where calculations have been undertaken, formulae appear in the text.

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