Forests: Policy and Management in Independent India, 1947-1988


This section will briefly review the trends in forest management, and the main policy trajectory in forest management since Indian Independence.

Under the Centrally Planned Economy model of development that India adopted, Five Year Plans were employed that set out priority areas in each sector. Thrust areas in forestry were often found to reflect the dominant theme of the general Plan, thus, the First Five Year Plan to be implemented after Independence was most concerned with food security, (not long after the severe famines in east India), while the Second and Third Five Year Plans reflected a drive towards industrialisation (Rawat, 1998).

Considerable administrative and legislative changes were accompanied by an intense drive to industrialise under Nehru. Such fundamental changes impacted upon the forests of India. Poffenberger and McGean (1998), note that in the newly independent state, the intensity of deforestation increased, particularly for commercial exploitation. Several factors contributed to the acceleration of forest loss at the time. New legislation introduced, which altered land tenure systems, notably the Zamindari (landlord) Abolition Acts, provided an incentive for large-scale felling of trees on land that was to be nationalised. Rawal (1998) notes that most of these forests were in ‘a very derelict and overworked condition’ which presented the Forest Department with a ‘new challenge’ in their rehabilitation. Jewitt (1995) demonstrates this ‘official deforestation’ with reference to a village called ‘Ambatoli’ in Bihar that is named after a mango tree, but where the twenty-two acres of orchard were felled by the ex-zamindar ‘to make a quick buck’, and where now there is not one left.

Industry in India has reaped considerable benefits from state management of forests. Indeed, the commercial-industrial sector has been described by Gadgil and Guha (1992) as the main beneficiary of state forest management, for which policies were largely determined to meet the growth in wood-based industries since 1947. Considerable changes in forest composition and cover have been brought about consequently. State subsidies of industry, which characterised the early drive of industrial development, and a mismatch between industrial growth, and available raw supplies, resulted in what Gadgil and Guha (1992) term as ‘sequential over-exploitation.’ This pattern of resource use relates to the running down of a resource in terms of quality and quantity; where different species are used, until their depletion necessitates the switch to another, perhaps less suitable species, further afield.

Forest was also a casualty as a result of the strengthened contacts between foresters, business people and politicians. Between the 1950’s and 1970’s, millions of hectares were leased out to industry at heavily subsidised rates, and were able to continue with unsustainable silvicultural practises, subject to generous contributions to the politician’s coffers, who would then influence the Forest Department to turn a blind eye (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). In this way, contractors were able to over-fell their allotted coupes, to maximise profits, with little redress.

Concurrent with the drive for a wood-based industry was the growing awareness that dwindling natural forests would have to be supplemented with biomass specially produced for industrial consumption. The thrust of the Second and Third Plans therefore were concerned with the production of fast growing species, such as eucalyptus, and plantations consequently sprang up, often over the clear fell of the less productive indigenous forests. By 1980, over 2.2 million hectares of plantations had been grown (CSE, 1982).

Plantations were also encouraged in a government-initiative to meet the rural need for biomass, which was becoming increasingly scarce. In the 1980's, under the augur of ‘social forestry’ 1.4 million hectares per year were planted with exotic species (Ravindranath and Hall, 1994). Although pragmatic in intent, social forestry is widely acknowledged as falling short of its remit on many counts, by environmentalists and foresters alike, from the suitability of the species, ecologically, and instrumentally, (Shiva and Bandyopadhyay, 1983, Gadgil and Guha, 1995) to the issues of relieving the pressures on natural forests (Poffenberger and McGean, 1996), and providing for subsistence needs (Saxena, 1992), to the poor success rate, which was as low as 1% in some areas (Pandey, 1998).

Newly independent India, therefore, was experiencing an acceleration of forest loss, and appeared increasingly unable to provide for rural, subsistence needs. That rural needs were actually relegated in order to meet the needs for industry, indeed, as a matter of policy, is illustrated in the National Forest Policy of 1952, which stated:

Village communities in the neighbourhood of a forest will naturally make greater use of its products for the satisfaction of their domestic and agricultural needs. Such use, however, should in no event be permitted at the cost of national interests. The accident of a village being situated close to a forest does not prejudice the right of the country as a whole to receive the benefits of a national asset.’ and:

‘Restrictions should be imposed in the interests not only of the existing generation, but also of posterity.’ (Kumar, 1992, page 63).

The 1952 National Forest Policy has been widely attributed as further eroding the legitimacy of communities’ claims on the commons (Gadgil and Guha, 1992, Poffenberger and McGean, 1996), while also explicitly asserting the monopoly right of the state (Guha, 1983).

However, more severe in its stance was the draft Forest Conservation Act in 1980. This act was almost a reproduction of the 1878 Forest Act. As Guha (1983), notes, 81 out of 84 sections are reproduced. The act also made provision for more draconian measures of policing; particularly in the increased powers of arrest, and confiscation. Others have described the act as ‘pro-rich, pro-urban and anti-rural people [in its] bias’ (Kulkarni, 1983).

Jewitt, (1995) comments ‘the postcolonial Forest Department has been able to enforce a modernising forestry policy that is, ironic though it may seem, even more imposing, insensitive, and paternalistic than was its British predecessor’ (page 80). The pursuit of such policies has led political ecologists such as Jewitt to contend that the dominant discourse of colonial forestry management has continued and enlarged in Independent India since 1947, effectively, that the postcolonial state has inherited a colonial attitude, or mindset, from the British. Building on Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’, whereby groups are represented according to the fantasies and desires of more powerful players, Jewitt suggests that ‘postcolonial governments and elites define and discipline their ‘own’ internal ‘Others’ by means of Orientalist assumptions, languages and strategies’ (page 68). The implementation of policies that curtail access or management of resources, by local communities is one such example, in the belief that the ‘natives’ can’t manage their own forests without outside ‘help’.

In keeping with the theme of colonialism, Gadgil and Guha (1992), argue that ‘the demands of the commercial-industrial sector have replaced strategic imperial needs as the cornerstone of forest policy and management’ (page 185). This has effectively been achieved at closing-off access, and rights of access, to forest land, by rural communities. Fernandes (1996) notes the progressive erosion of rural rights to biomass in the succession of policies over the last century and a half. In 1854, policy spoke of the rights of rural communities to forest produce, which became rights and privileges in the Indian Forest Act 1927. However, more significant is the first postcolonial policy of 1952, where rights and concessions were provided for, the rights becoming more threatened over the last two decades, becoming subsequently downgraded to concessions.

What began with apparent concerns over the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968), might well be better understood in terms of the ‘tragedy of enclosure’ (Ecologist, 1993).

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