5

Resistance, Rebellions, Reactions

The Forest Act 1952, and the 1896 Act before it, effectively criminalised rural communities, for their livelihood dependence on forest resources. Verrier Elwin (1964) demonstrated the general ethos by quoting a forest officer as saying ‘our laws are of such a kind that every villager breaks one forest law every day of his life’ (page 115). While appropriation of forest and common land by the state was backed with punitive measures designed to deter transgressions, most of rural India had little choice but to become ‘criminals’ in the course of their daily existence. Adaption to the rules set by the Forest Department, first under colonial rulers, then by the Indian State, necessitated an increase in poverty, by way of reducing access to biomass resources. Measures to evade the Forest Department, by sheer livelihood necessity, and also as a form of ‘everyday resistance’ are therefore common; everyday resistance, as described by Bryant and Bailey (1997), refers to covert, usually individual acts that seek to assert local rights, in a manner that evades confrontation with a more powerful ‘actor.’ In this case, everyday acts of resistance may be in the form of ‘stealing’ resources from the forest and general non-compliance with forest officers.

Here it might be worth pointing out that, in this uncoordinated and unchecked way, 'illegal' use of forests and forest resources by villagers all over the subcontinent, certainly contributed to the degradation of forests. The shrinking of forests, by increasing (commercial) deforestation, coupled with the acceleration of the population in the newly independent state requiring subsistence, further intensified the burden on the forests. Lack of overall management, as an inevitable result of policy that did not officially acknowledge the biomass needs of rural communities thus impacted detrimentally on both the people and the forests of the subcontinent.

The unwillingness of the state to recognise peoples’ rights to the forests, indeed, the policing of the forests to protect them from rural communities, not surprisingly led to a general ethos of alienation amongst villagers, who daily had to pit themselves against the Forest Department. Resentment sometimes took the form of destructive acts, such as arson. Corbridge (1986) (in Corbridge and Jewitt, 1997), recounts adivasis in the Singhbhum District of Bihar setting ablaze large, mature sal trunks to prevent the government from taking them. In other areas large-scale rebellion has occurred, a response that can be traced as far back to the initial colonial appropriation of the forests. Guha (1989) describes the popular ‘peasant resistance’ movement in the Himalaya, that included widespread incendiarism of commercial plantations, such as chir and pine, in the early Twentieth Century. Such rebellions and movements have been interpreted as the precursor to the Chipko, or tree-hugging movement that sought to protect forests from commercial loggers in the Kumaun Himalaya in the 1970’s.

Interpreting the history of ‘peasant rebellion’ and resistance as a way to contest government forest policy, Guha, and more recently Gadgil, the so-called forest intellectuals, have been widely attributed as disseminating the idea of a moral economy of provision, and mobilising support against more than a century of state forestry policies that culminated in the Draft Forest Bill of 1981 (Corbridge and Jewitt, 1997). According to Corbridge and Jewitt, the forest intellectuals have enabled opponents of India’s forest policies ‘to contest further reservations, uncontrolled scientific forestry, and the criminalisation of nonofficial user groups.’

A gradual change of opinion by government has been seen to evolve, since widespread opposition has been articulated from rural communities, NGO’s, intellectuals; the Draft Forest Bill 1981, acting as the draconian catalyst. The National Forest Policy, 1988, represented a significant departure. Rather than emphasis on the commercial exploitation of forests, there was, for the first time official recognition that forests must meet the subsistence requirements of local communities, who must have some role in their management. Singh, the Principal of the Dehra Dun State Forest Service College, writes in the Indian Forester:

'The policy has not only re-prioritised the objectives of forest management but has also emphasised sustainable management by involving local communities.' Singh calls for the evolution of a 'holistic' management strategy for the forests of India.

Rawat (1998), also writing in Indian Forester comments that the 1988 Forest Policy was a paradigm shift for the FD, from the earlier ‘policing’ approach. Local communities were beginning to be considered as rather than a problem to forest management and conservation, a part of the possible solution (Singh et al, 1991).

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