2

Indian Forests and Forestry under British Colonialism

Colonialism in India initiated fundamental changes in patterns of resource use, notably forests, and has been described by some workers as a ‘watershed’ in the history of the subcontinent (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). Prior to the arrival of the British, forest land was a common property resource. Far from being an open-access system that Hardin (1968) describes, India’s forests were managed, and their use was strictly mediated by social institutional structures such as caste (Gadgil and Guha, 1992) and cultural traditions (Gadgil et al, 1993).

In east India the area under forest began to shrink as part of the process of colonialism. The British empowered local zamindars (landowners/landlords) to tax and control indigenous communities during the nineteenth century, and encouraged local communities to clear forest for cultivation. Sometimes the clearing of forest for agricultural land was undertaken by migrant tribal labourers, such as the Santals in West Bengal, and financed by the zamindar until the land became productive. In this way, forest loss facilitated the creation of villages which then became subject to the collection of revenue (Poffenberger, 1995).

As the process of colonialism advanced, natural resources came to be increasingly commodified, and, in serving the needs of the empire, began to flow out of the subcontinent. Trees such as Indian teak were highly prized, notably at times of conflict, such as the Napoleonic war, and facilitated the maritime expansion (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). Perhaps the most notable resource intensive undertaking by the Raj, was the use of timber in the construction of the Indian railway system. In the fifty years between 1860 and 1910, railway track increased from 1349 Kms to 51,658 Kms (Government of India, 1964). For every mile of track laid, 860 sleepers were required, which had an expected lifespan of approximately 12 to 14 years. In the 1870’s, it was calculated that every year one million sleepers were needed. Indian trees, particularly sal, (Shorea robusta), deodar, (Cedrus deodara) and teak, (Tectona grandis) were preferred as sleepers, for their perceived strength over other Indian timbers, so it was these three species that were intensively exploited. Much sal (Shorea robusta), was extracted from the forests of the Jungle Mahals of West Bengal and Bihar for the construction of local railway lines, and the main line Bengal-Nagpur railway in 1898 (Poffenberger, 1995). While sal was initially found to occur in abundance near to the sites of railway construction in the Indian peninsular, its overharvesting necessitated procuring other species, notably deodar from the forests of the north-west Himalaya (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). The demand for timber, most notably for railway expansion was seen to intensify and necessitated extraction of timbers much further afield, whilst also stimulating and facilitating commercial demand. In some zamindaries, such as Midnapore in West Bengal, timber merchants rushed to purchase and lease large tracts of forest land, reflecting the increasing value of forests (Poffenberger, 1995).

Somewhat inevitably, the Raj experienced a resource crunch, and the intensive extraction of a few species could not be sustained indefinitely. The shortage of useful timber created by the demand for rail expansion was the first indication that, contrary to the belief of the time, India’s forests were inexhaustible. The prospect of a diminishing resource base and a need for plentiful raw materials on which to expand the empire must have been behind the colonial drive to manage and control forest resources more effectively. To achieve this aim would necessitate the creation of a suitable organisation, thus in 1864, the Forest Department was formed.

As Gadgil and Guha (1992) point out, for the Forest Department to function effectively, required legislation that curtailed the hitherto unrestricted access of rural communities to forest. Ten years after the British had first issued a memorandum that regulated the movement of forest dwellers within the forests of India, the Forest Act of 1865 was introduced (Mohapatra, 1997). The act empowered the government to appropriate any land covered with trees, however, notification could only be effected, if existing rights of individuals and communities were not impinged upon (Mohapatra, 1997). This initial act was superseded by a more inclusive piece of legislation, in the Indian Forest Act of 1878, which was particularly concerned with removing the ambiguity about the ‘absolute proprietary right of the state’. The new act was designed to facilitate strict state control over forest resources, and was distinctly ‘annexationist’ in nature. Baden-Powell, in whose charge the drafting of the forest act lay, put forward a ‘legal sleight of hand’ that sought to remove all concessions and ‘rights’ that were not explicitly granted by the state (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). In this way, the informal and centuries-old system of privileges that had existed between rural communities and the government, were actually rescinded. As Gadgil and Guha (1995) comment, the large-scale annexation of Indian forests by the colonial state constituted a critical turning point, politically, socially and ecologically; politically, because the monopolistic claim to the forests represented an unprecedented expansion of state power and intervention, with a corresponding curtailment of local communities’ rights. Socially, in that traditional patterns of resource use were disrupted by the restrictions to local access, and ecologically, as the forests were undergoing a process of commodification, which would transform their nature.

State control, which was a critical feature of the 1878 Forest Act, also facilitated the development of scientific forestry. Dietrich Brandis was the first Inspector General of Forests, and is widely regarded as laying the foundations of modern forestry, indeed, he is often paid tribute as the ‘Father of Indian Forestry’ (Chaturvedi, 1998). Brandis was a botanist from Bonn University, and Germany was considered the leading European country in forest management of the time. One of the first tasks undertaken by the newly-formed Forest Department, was to survey and map the forests of India. Forests were demarcated so that management plans, or working plans could be formulated (Sagreiya, 1967).

According to the 1878 Forest Act, three types of forest were to be designated; Reserved, protected, and village. Reserved forests were deemed the most commercially valuable and amenable to sustained exploitation. Overall state control of reserved forests was sought, which involved either the relinquishment, or transferral of other claims and rights, although very occasionally, limited access was granted. Legally, channels to contest the reservation of forests existed, though rural communities had little experience with legal procedures, and illiterate villagers were often unaware that a survey and demarcation was in process (Poffenberger et al, 1998). Protected forests were similarly state controlled, but some concessions were granted, conditional to the reservation of commercial tree species, when they became valuable. Protected forests could also be closed to fuelwood collection and grazing, whenever it was deemed necessary to do so. As timber demand for empire increased, it was found the limited control the state had granted itself to be inadequate, thus many protected forests were re-designated as reserved forests. The act also provided for a third designation of forests in its constitution, village forests, though according to Gadgil and Guha (1992), this was not exercised by the colonial government over most of India. The area of forest appropriated by the state in 1878 was 14,000 square miles, which had increased to 81,400 and 3300 square miles, for reserved and protected forests respectively, by 1900 (Stebbing, 1922). In east India, state appropriation of forest land often involved the dispossession of adivasi communities' ancestral land. In the Singhbum District of Bihar, large-scale encroachment by the Forest Department in the late nineteenth century dispossessed the Ho tribe from their villages and surrounds in an attempt to demarcate a reserve forest. The reservation was noted by the Settlement officer of the day as 'one great encroachment', and created conflict between the Ho and Forest Department which escalated into a 'tree war', one that still periodically erupts (Corbridge and Jewitt, 1997).

The colonial approach to forestry was strengthened in 1894, on the advice of the German agriculturist Voelcker, who stressed the importance of good forest cover, to avoid environmental degradation that might otherwise impact upon taxable, agricultural output. The legislation generated from this advice became known as the Voelcker Resolution, and followed the above designations for forests; Reserved, Protected, Village, plus another, Private. Commercial production of timber was the main policy thrust, but some concessions to the ecological function of forest were also tacitly acknowledged. This act consequently served as a model for forest policies in other colonies (Sagreiya, 1967).

 

 

Table 2.1: India’s Forests and the Second World War

Year Outturn of

timber and

fuel(m.cuft)

Outturn of

MFP (Rs m)

Revenue of

FD (Rs.m)

(@ current prices)

Surplus of

FD (Rs. m)

(@ current

prices)

Area sanct-

ioned under

working plans (sq.m)

1937-38

270

11.9

-

-

62,532

1938-39

299

12.3

29.4*

7.2*

64,789

1939-40

294

12.1

32.0

7.5

64,976

1940-41

386

12.5

37.1

13.3

66,407

1941-42

310

12.7

46.2

19.4

66,583

1942-43

336

12.9

65.0

26.7

51,364

1943-44

374

15.5

101.5

44.4

50,474

1944-45

439

16.5

124.4

48.9

50,440

Note:* Average for the period 1934-5 to 1938-9

From Gadgil and Guha, (1992). Original Source: Compiled from Indian Forest Statistics, 1939-40 to 1944-45 (Delhi, 1949).

 

 

The mapping of India’s forests allowed the implementation of scientific management. The dominant paradigm of scientific management was to pursue the maximum sustainable yield, and management practices were organised around this principle. In deforested areas, commercially valuable species were planted (Sagreiya, 1967), while in some cases, mixed forests were felled to be replaced with marketable monocultures. In serving the interests of the colonial rulers, forest management, and its associated restrictions of access to local communities, resulted in, as described by Sagreiya (1967), ‘a steady build up of forest capital.’ The forest capital was somewhat depleted during World War One, but regenerated through intensive management, until deforestation occurred again during World War Two, this time far beyond its sustained production (Sagreiya, 1967). Table 2.1 shows the recorded harvest of timber from Indian forests between 1937-1945. An increase of 65% ‘outturn’ over the war period belies the timber not accounted for, which, by all accounts is considerably, though unknowably greater, when timber procured from other sources is also considered (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). Gadgil and Guha also point out that as the war proceeds, the area covered by working plans diminishes, indicating an increase in fellings from areas not covered with working plans, which would have been unaccountable.

In 1947, the year of Independence, the forest resources of India were considerably depleted. As Gadgil and Guha (1995) note, it was at this low point that the British departed. It was now left to India to re-organise the pattern of resource use, and take over the management of the forests.

 

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