Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
The survival economy and forest conflicts
Indigenous Management for satisfaction of Basic Needs
Indian civilisation is distinctive in the sense that it evolved in the forests, not in the city. According to Tagore, 'Forests have nurtured India's mind and India's civilization. 'Intellectual growth in India did not take place in enclosures made of brick, wood and mortar, but was inspired by the life of the forests in which nature's living forces express themselves in daily variation, creating a diversity of life and sounds, providing the context for the understanding of nature and man. Human understanding in such a context, could not be restricted to perceiving nature as inert, as an accumulation of dead resources waiting for exploitation. Nature provides light, air, food and water through living processes of creative renewal. This awareness of life in nature as a precondition for man's survival led to the worship of light. air. food and water and they were considered sacred. Indian culture has been cradled by the culture of the forest first in the Vedic period and later during the times of Buddha and Mahavir.
Thus, forests in India had remained central to its civilisational evolution. The forest teased 'ashramas' (settlements) produced the best scientific research and cultural writings and India thus came to be known as an 'Aranya Samskriti' or a forest culture Human understanding of the fundamental ecological utility of forest ecosystems and their economic importance led to veneration of trees. This basic dependence on the existence of forests for human survival was the material basis underlying the worship of trees in almost all human societies. In the Rig Veda, forests are described as Aranyani or mother goddess who takes care of wildlife and ensures the availability of food to man. These ashramas and forests, not urban settlements, were recognised as the highest form of cultural evolution providing society with both intellectual guidance and material sustenance.
This civilisational principle became the foundation of forest conservation as a social ethic through millenia. Its erosion began with the spread of colonial methods of management of forests in India. Teak from the forests of the Western Ghats, sal from Central and Northern India and conifers from the Himalayas were felled to meet the timber needs of the British empire. The result was not merely the destruction of forests but the destruction of a culture that conserved forests.
India's forest wealth is characterised by richness of diversity which is related to the diversity of soil types and climate. Moist tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forests are characteristic of the Western Ghats and the northeastern region. Tropical dry deciduous forests are seen in the north and the south with sal and teak being the dominant species, respectively. The Hirnalayan region has a diversity of moist and dry temperate forests changing into alpine vegetation at the highest altitudes. Each region of India had paid special attention to the growth of village forests with multipurpose tree species providing, fuel, fodder, fruits, fibre, green manure, etc. The ecological role of forests in soil and water conservation was widely recognised and social control over the felling of trees in ecologically sensitive areas like river banks was strictly exercised.
The protection and propagation of forests as a deeply ingrained civilisational characteristic in the South Asian region is evident from the existence of sacred groves in river catchments and fore shores of tanks, and from village woodlots. These practices were of critical value both ecologically and economically. Ecologically, indigenous and naturalised vegetation has provided essential life support by stabilising the soil and water systems. Economically, trees have been a source of small timber, fodder, fuel, fibre, medicines, oils, dyes, etc. Indigenous medicines use more than 2,000 species of plants, both wild and cultivated. The centrality of trees to survival and economic well-being created the need for their conservation which was achieved through the concept of sacredness. In the archaeological remains of the Harappan culture, it is clear that even in the third or fourth mitenia BC trees were held in high esteem and were worshipped.
The planting of trees, either for their fruit or for the purpose of obtaining shade, was an act which was held in high esteem in oriental countries, and especially in India, since ancient times. The oriental appreciation of the luxury of shade led to the plantation of trees along canals and highways. In the Sunnud (Royal Order) of Emperor Akbar, it is directed that on both sides of the carnal down to Hissar, trees of every description, both for shade and blossom, be planted, so as to make it like the canal under the tree in paradise; and that the sweet flavour of the rare fruits may reach the mouth of everyone. During the reign of Emperor Sher Shah a 2,000 km long Grand Trunk Road, connecting Punjab and Bengal, was planted with shade-giving trees on both sides.
In Mysore state, roadside plantations of trees- constituted another vital source of tree wealth, not only providing ample shade to the traveller but also ensuring a steady flow of supplies of timber, fuel, fruits, green manure and animal feed. The access roads to the villages from the main highways were known for their leafy cover, generally of honge, neem and tamarind, and maintained by the village organisations themselves; and the avenues along the highways were covered by species such as ala, bage, neem, tamarind and jamun, and were managed by the services of the state administration.
The importance attached to village forests and roadside plantations by the state administration a century ago is reflected in an explicit statement in the report on forest area of the princely State of Mysore: In 188-81 village forests numbered 16,293 standing on a total area of 14,376 acres and containing 8,11,308 trees while 3,750 miles of public roads had been planted with trees on both sides, at distances varying from twelve to sixty feet.'
Plants (oshadhis) and trees (vanaspatis) are personified as goddesses and deities and collectively invoked as the jungle goddess, 'Aranyani', in the Vedas.
All religions and cultures of the South Asian region are rooted in forests, not out of fear and ignorance but due to ecological insights. This is true of all forest cultures in the tropics. As Myers observes,
In contrast to the folklore of temperate zones, which often regard forests as dark places of danger, traditional perceptions of forests in the humid tropics convey a sense of intimate harmony, with people and forests equal occupants of a communal habitat. A primary source of congruity between man and natures
Conflicts over forest resources in India can be demarcated into four phases. The first phase began when the British 'reserved' large tracts of forests for commercial exploitation to meet the military and other needs of the British empire. These conflicts led to forest struggles and forest satyagrahas during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second phase was the post-colonial phase when the 1952 forest policy led to the rapid expansion of forest based industry, large-scale clear felling of natural forests, and their conversion to monocultures of commercial species. Conflicts generated by this intensification of forest use led to movements like Chipko. In the third phase, spurred partly as a response to growing public criticism of the commercial exploitation of forests, and partly as a response to the crisis in the supply of raw materials for wood based industry, industrial plantations expanded on farm lands and village commons under 'Social Forestry' and 'Wasteland Development Programmes'. These afforestation programmes have become a new source of conflicts during the eighties. The fourth phase is expected to emerge in the future as international finance, changes in biotechnologies and biomass conversion into chemical and energy substitutes for petroleum based products, supported by major investments in forestry, are expected to lead to a new level of transnationalisation of forest use and forest conflicts.
Colonial Forestry: Commercialisation Against Survival
Colonial rule introduced dramatic breaks in the way in which forests in india were perceived and used. The perception of forest ecosystems as having multiple functions for satisfying diverse and vital human needs for air, water and food was superseded by the growth of one-dimensional scientific forestry during the colonial period which had as its only objective the maximization of the production of commercially valuable timber and wood while ignoring the other ecological and economic objectives for the utilisation of forest resources.
In India, forests play three major economic roles. In order of their significance for economic development in a democratic society like ours they may be classified as contributions to:
Obviously, the first contribution of forests to the national economy through maintenance of nature's economy is the defense against the threat to our survival from floods, droughts and soil erosion. Commonly this is characterised as conservation. Lack of recognition of this vital contribution led to the downfall of the Roman, Mayan, Harappan and Mesopotamian civilisations. The second contribution is the sustenance of nearly three-fourths of the people who depend on the free productivity of nature for the satisfaction of basic biomass needs. The third and last contribution is mainly for the process of growth of wood based industries which obviously comes after survival and sustenance is ensured, and not before it.
Conflicts over forests emerged when colonial rule ignored nature's economy and the survival economy through indifference to the conservation and basic needs role of forestry, and developed forestry only along the one dimensional criterion of commercial/ industrial requirements.
Forest resources, like other resources needed for survival, have traditionally been common resources, collectively managed and utilised by village communities. They could not consistently with the principle of Hindu law and the customs of the country belong to any individual. To transform these common forest resources into commodities from which revenues and profits could be derived. it was therefore necessary to change property relationships. Through the Indian Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878, the British acquired a monopoly right over all valuable tracts of forests by converting them into reserved forests'. The traditional free access to forests of the forest communities was therefore curtailed. British forest legislation aroused resistance from village communities which were thus deprived. Local revolts broke out in all forest regions of the country.
Forest struggles have been a sustained response to commercial forestry introduced by the British. The earliest records of commercial exploitation are of a syndicate formed in 1796 by Mr. Mackonchie of the Medical Service for the extraction of teak in Malabar to meet the demand for shipbuilding and military purposes. In 1806, a police officer, Captain Watson was appointed the first Conservator of Forests in India incharge of Malabar and Travancore. to extract teak for the King's navy, indicating that policing not science, was needed in the colonial forestry of that period. Indigenous trade was sealed and peasants were denied rights.
By 1823 the growing discontent of the forest proprietors and timber merchants, chafing under the restrictions of the timber monopoly, and the outcry of the peasants. indignant at the fuel cutting restrictions, came to a head. On the recommendation of the Governor of Madras, Sir Thomas Munro, and with the consent of the Supreme Government, the conservator ship, on which Captain Watson had been followed by several successors during the seventeen years of its existence, was abolished.
The Forest Act of 1927 aroused a new response against the denial of traditional rights of local people. During 1933-31 forest satyagrahas were organised throughout India as a protest against the reservation of forests for exclusive exploitation by British commercial interests and the transformation of a common resource into a commodity. Villagers ceremonially collected forest produce from the reserved forests to assert their right to satisfy their basic needs of forest products. The forest satyagrahas were particularly successful in regions where survival of the local population was intimately linked with the access to forests as in the Himalayas, the Western Ghats and Central India. These non-violent protests were suppressed by the armed intervention of the British rulers. In Central India, Gond tribals were shot down for participating in the satyagraha. On 30 May 1930 several unarmed villagers were killed and hundreds injured in Tilari village of Tehri Garhwal when they gathered to protest against the reservation of forests. Following the loss of many lives, the satyagrahas were finally successful in reviving some of the traditional rights of the village communities to forest produce as recognized privileges.
The forest satyagrahas, like the Salt Satyagraha, were generally protests against legislation introduced by the British administration which transformed vital common resources into resources reserved for revenue and profit generation through the establishment of monopoly rights and control. These satyagrahas were a response to conflicts which were based on the exclusion of the competing demand on the resources for survival needs.
The imperative for increasing revenue and profits in a growth economy, however, drives resource utilisation patterns in directions which maximise production of the commercially valuable components of the ecosystem at the cost of destruction of those components which are commercially valueless but essential to survival.
Thus, in the case of forest resources it was not enough to manipulate policy and legislation to exclude the local communities from free access to forests. It also became imperative to manipulate nature to increase the production of biomass for commerce at the cost of decreasing and destroying biomass for survival. Systems of science and technology thus combined with systems of policy and legislation in becoming essential tools for the appropriation of vital common resources for commerce, revenue and profits. Scientific and technical aspects of forestry determine prescriptions for the functioning of forests which maximise immediate production of wood of commercial value through the destruction of other biomass forms that have lower commercial value but may have very high use value. Silvicultural systems of modern forestry are prescriptions for destruction of non-commercial biomass for the increased production of commercial biomass. Ultimately this increase in commercial production is achieved by mining the ecological capital of the forest ecosystem and disrupting the essential hydrological and nutrient cycles of nature which make plant, animal and human life possible.
The growth of commercial economic activity through the manipulation of nature generates second order conflicts over natural resources which arise not merely from issues of how a particular resource is distributed, but also how it is utilised and how it affects related resources. Thus, in the case of forest resources, contemporary conflicts are being generated by silvicultural systems aimed at maximising the production of commercially and industrially valuable species like eucalyptus, pine and teak, through the destruction of natural indigenous mixed forests which have a high use value for basic needs and for ecological stability. In Bihar, the conversion of sat forests into teak plantations has been resisted by the tribals. In 1980, a violent confrontation between tribals and the forest officials and police in Gua resulted in the death of thirteen tribals and three policemen. This clash was the outcome of the conflict between two types of silviculture, one based on trees for.the people and the other based on trees for commerce. Movements arising from conflicts over natural resources at this level are ecologically rooted since they do not merely emerge from an unfair distribution of a single resource, but from the unjust and unsustainable use of an ecosystem as a complex of interrelated resources. In ecologically sensitive regions, the destruction of forest ecosystems has in turn threatened the survival of the forest dwelling communities. The people's response to this deepening ecological and economic crisis induced by the commercial exploitation of resources has been the emergence of movements for the conservation of forest resources throughout the country. The most well known and successful among these is non-violent Gandhian movement called the Chipko (hug the tree) movement. Beginning in the early seventies in the Garkwal region of Uttar Pradesh, the methodology and philosophy of Chipko has now spread to Himachal in the north, Karnataka in the south, Rajasthan in the west and Bihar in the east. Chipko as a national campaign for forest conservation is a response to the multidimensional conflicts over forest resources at the scientific, technical, ecological and economic levels.
The arrival of the British and their exploitation of India's forest resources marked a new phase in the use of forest produce in ludia. The British were hardpressed for hardwood since their own oak forests were destroyed and rendered unproductive in the second half of the eighteenth century through unscientific management. Stebbing has recorded the situation in India after the arrival of the British:
The new Administration possessed no knowledge of tropical forestry, nor, indeed, of European forestry, since British forestry had almost ceased to be understood as a commercial enterprise in Great Britain. With the realization of the value of teak the British Admiralty were soon engaged in enquiries with the object of replacing (local) oak timber by teak from India for use in the construction of the Fleet. For the supplies of first class oak timber were falling short in England owing to the cessation of the planting, which had fallen off to a great extent early in the later part of the eighteenth century
In 1805 a despatch was received from the court of Directors enquiring to what extent the King's navy might, in view of the growing shortage of oak in England, depend on a permanent supply of teak timber from Malabar. This despatch led to the immediate formation of a forest committee charged with a comprehensive programme of enquiry both into the capacity of the forests themselves,` and the status of proprietary rights on them. Thus the first real interest expressed in the forests of India and the subsequent study of those accessible at the time originated from England, and the reason was the same which had kept forestry in the forefront in England for a period of three centuries-the safety of the empire, which depended upon its 'wooden walls'. The planting of oak owing to the supineness of successive governments had fallen into abeyance for nearly a century, and the country was faced with a shortage in timber supplies which, in view of the bid of the French for sea supremacy, might well spell the doom of England. When the British started exploiting Indian timber for military purposes, they did it rapaciously, because the great continent appeared to hold inexhaustible tracts covered with dense jungles, but there was no apparent necessity for their detailed exploration even had this been a possibility. In the early years of our occupation the botany of the forests, the species of trees they contained and their respective values was an unopened book.
As far as the government and its officials were concerned, the important role played by forests in nature and the tremendous influence they had on the physical well-being of a country went unnoticed, neither were they able to appreciate their importance to the people nor their revenue producing potential. In view of the tremendous forest wealth that existed, for some years the government obtained its full requirements without any difficulty and the people also managed to get all they wanted. The early administrators appear to have been convinced that this state of affairs could continue for an unlimited period of time; and that in many localities forests were an obstruction to agriculture and, therefore, a limiting factor to the prosperity of the country. The overall policy was to expand agriculture and the watchword of the time was to destroy forests with this end in view.
The requirement of the military for Indian teak led to an immediate proclamation declaring that the royalty right in teak trees claimed by the former government in the south of the continent was vested in the East India Company. Under increased pressure from the Home government to ensure the maintenance of the future strength of the King's navy, the decision was taken to appoint a special officer to superintend the forest work; someone who was conversant with the language and habits of the people in addition to having a knowledge of forests. His duties were to preserve and improve the production of teak and other timber suitable for shipbuilding. A police officer, Captain Watson was appointed the first Conservator of Forests in India on 1() November 1806 Under the proclamation of April 1807, he wielded great powers, which unfortunately were somewhat vague in both scope and in the extent of interference he was permitted in the established order.
Forest Conflicts in the Himalaya
In the Garhwal Himalayas. an Englishman, Mr. Wilson' obtained a lease in 1850 to exploit all the forests of the Bhagirathi Valley for a low annual rental of Rs. 400. Under his axe several valuable Deodar and Chir forests were clear felled and completely destroyed." In 1864 inspired by Mr. Wilson's flourishing timber bussiness the British rulers of the Northwestern provinces obtained a lease for twenty years and engaged Wilson to exploit these forests for them. European settlements, such as Mussoorie, created new pressures for the cultivation of food crops, leading to largescale felling of oak forests. The conservation of forests was not considered. In his report on the forests of the state, E.A. Courthope; IFS, remarked: 'It seems possible that it was not mainly with the idea of preserving the forests that government entered into this contract'.'' Inspired by the economic success of Mr. Wilson and the government, in 1895 the Tehri state took over the management of forests. Between 1897 and 1899 forest areas were reserved and restrictions were imposed on village use. These restrictions were resented and completely disregarded by the villagers, and led to incidents of organised resistance against the authorities.'' On 31 March 1905 a Durbar Circular (No. 11) from the Tehri King announced modifications to these restrictions in response to the resistance.
These modifications, however, failed to diffuse the tension. Struggles took place throughout the kingdom, but the most significant one occurred in 1907 when a forest officer, Sadanand Gairola, was manhandled in Khandogi. When King Kirti Shah heard about the revolt he rushed to the spot to pacify the citizen
The Doon Valley in the Garhwal Himalayas is an example of how colonial forest policy eroded the traditional management systems for forest use for basic needs and made commercial forestry the dominant pattern of use.
Earlier settlements of Dehradun were located in the slopes of the Himalayan belt and the triangular plateau in the valley defined by the rivers Tons and Rispana. These settlements were of the agro-pastoral type and their requirements of forest resources were non-commercial in nature-fodder, fuel, structural timber for housing and agricultural implements. The exploitation of forests for the satisfaction of these needs was controlled by the social organization of these villages. Clusters of several villages were called taluks. Each village was the property of a community of cultivating owners, managed by a headman or sayana who, as representative of the community, held his village in subordination to the sayana of the whole taluk. The bond that held together the villages in a taluk was the community ownership and management of grazing and forest lands. The forests used by villages were traditionally under the ownership and management of an entire community and not of a private individual. It had also been re ported in a letter to the Secretary of the Board of Revenue, which states that forests and wastelands: could not consistently with the principles of the Hindu law and the customs of the country belong to any individual and must ascertain to the state as public property.... By Hindu law a piece of land, sufficient for the pasturage of cattle was directed to be left uncultivated around each town or village, between it and the fields under cultivation.'
Besides the social control built into the management of forests as commons, people also had their indigenous conservation strategies. As Pant reports, in the hill regions
A natural system of conservancy was in vogue, almost every hill top is dedicated to some local deity and the trees on or about the spot are regarded with great respect so that nobody dare touch them. There is also a general impression among the people that every one cutting a tree should plant another in its place
That this system of management of resource: ensured the sustainable utilization of forests is reflected by the fact that while this tenure system continued. village forests around taluks like Dwara and Malkot were in a very good condition as reported in accounts of the last century. The sustainable utilization of forests near the villages ensured their health and limited the exploitation of forests in the rest of the valley, which remained virgin till the British entry in 1914.
The British rule introduced drastic changes in the pattern of forest produce utilization. First, a new pressure was put on the virgin sal forests by linking them with far-reaching commercial demands outside the valley. Second, the British administration changed the ancient tenure pattern, overtly and covertly, by introducing the zamindari system which destroyed the community organization. Third, the large-scale colonization of the valley through liberal land grants to Europeans converted large forest tracts into agricultural or plantation areas. The use of virgin forests as mines for sal (Shorea Robusta), sissoo (Dalbergia Sissoo) and tun (Tuna Siliata) timber under the free felling system led to rapid and severe degradation. The free felling system allowed uncontrolled extraction of timber in exchange for revenues on the produce. As William writes in his memoirs:
Reckless waste was inevitable and the fine sal forests began to disappear rapidly. The absence of conservancy was absolute. The district still abounded in fine trees 100 to 200 years old and upwards. All these fell before the axe. And probably the rest would have gone with them had the roads been a little better. The consequences of this bad system are most perceptible in Western Dun.
Initially, the forests were leased against fixed revenues to individuals who farmed the dues from the actual extractors. For the period 1819-21 the average revenue for Dehradun was Rs. 4,000. In 1839 the forests were leased for Rs. 6,500 a year. However, when Mr. Vansitartt, the Superintendent of Dehradun, discovered that the actual amount collected was Rs. 80,000 a year, he discontinued the lease and took charge of the collection. Subsequently, the Forest Department was established in 1855. As the 1911 Gazetteer reports:
The forest department instituted in 1855 concentrated its energies on the collection of revenue without making any attempt at systematic conservancy. It was in fact nothing but a forest revenue collecting agency. The effect of this neglect became apparent in 1867 when the revenue reached the low figure of Rs 23.333.
The new inequalities imposed on the region by the British administration through the introduction of the zamindari system became a source of degradation of village forests, which under community control had been maintained on a sustainable basis. In this process village forests were declared to be the property of zamindars of the villages to which they appertained. These zamindars, as new centres of economic and political power, completely destroyed the community organization its control over village forests. Thus, 'in Malkot iliqua (region) containing 31 villages the cultivating proprietors had lost their power.... a disability due to the aggression of the superior sayana, Surjan Negi, a man of capital and influence'. Surjan Negi's capital and influence was, in turn, derived from the fact that in 1822 forests in the valley were farmed to him. This economic power of a contractor coupled with the power of a zamindar completely destroyed the role and responsibility of the sayanas in the management of common resources for common use. As the control of the community was substituted by the control of the zamindars, the zamindars were only 'too anxious to make money as fast as possible out of their new acquisitions. In pursuance of this policy they prohibited the tenants from grazing and cutting wood in the village forests and sold the latter-to charcoal burners who completely denuded the hillsides'.
To encourage colonization of the valley, in 1838 the British government offered grants on very liberal terms to Europeans. The Gazetteer of 1911 records that: the grantees were bound to clear the whole of their grants within 20 years with the exception of the irremediably barren land. The land was to be subject to a progressive rental until the tenth year when it reached its maximum of 12 annas with which may be compared the universal rate of 14 annas proposed by Maj Young in his settlements
These grants covered large areas with the original nine grants amounting to nearly 200 sq km. The best sites among these had been appropriated by the officers of the district or persons associated with them. The extent of clear felling of forests through a single administrative decision was the most significant factor contributing to the depletion of forest cover in the Doon Valley. This deforestation altered the face of the valley and reduced the stability of the river banks. Indicating this impact the Gazetteer of 1911 reported that 'near Debra Dun the scenery has been somewhat spoilt by the rapid spread of cultivation and the cutting down of the sal trees that used to lie in the high banks of the numerous ravines in the neighborhood'.
Large-scale clear felling of forests for agricultural land use was a typical colonial phenomenon which was the outcome of the colonial view of agricultural surplus as an important source of revenue. As the eighth settlement report admitted:
Perhaps no mistake was more common in the early days of British rule than to suppose that the extension of the cultivation wherever culturable land could be found and the clearing of forest and jungle to extend cultivation, must necessarily benefit the country and the government, and should be encouraged and pushed as much as possible. It is now fully recognised that every country requires to have a certain proportion of its area under forests, and that in a tropical country like India, where the heat is so intense, and the very existence and well being of the people depend on a regular and sufficient rainfall, this proportion should be even larger than in European countries.
These ecological considerations were not, however, the central objectives of the reservation of forests through the notification of the Forest Act of 1878. The reservation of forests was guided largely by the fact that: 'Forests in themselves constituted a property of great value and might be made to yield an annual revenue equally with cultivation'.
The reserved forests managed by the forest department continued to be guided by the objective of revenue maximization through commercial exploitation of forests. The only difference between the earlier free felling system and the present system of scientific management through the working plans was that the same objective was achieved in a more systematic and regular manner. This conservancy was thus made an equivalent to maintaining revenues. Neither ecological considerations nor considerations of the basic needs of villagers were an intrinsic part of this scientific management. Forest reservation denied the local people access to the free use of forests. Village forests which were not reserved were declared to be the property of zamindars to which they pertained. While villagers thus lost their traditional resource bases, their requirements were not systematically included in the management of reserved forests. According to the 1911 Gazetteer:
During the earlier years of conservancy the forest department denied that the villagers possessed any rights of any description. The government, however, called for a report from the superintendent Mr. H.G. Ross who took a very different view of the matter. He described the most extensive prescriptive 'right' in grazing as having existed from time immemorial and he produced much evidence in support of his contention. The forest department, however, preferred to call the grazing facilities enjoyed by the people 'privileges'.,.
When Mr. Ross's report became the basis of notification No. 7()2 of 1880, specifying the list of villages entitled to special grazing facilities, the forest department was successful in the battle of words, so that 'rights' were not admitted, but villages included in Mr. Ross's list were permitted to exercise certain privileges. A systematic management for satisfying the basic needs of the local population thus never became an intrinsic part of the management of reserved forests. The direction in which the systematic approach did evolve was largely in the area of quantifying growing stock to guide felling to ensure steady revenue returns.
Subsequent to notification No. 702 of 1880 based on Ross's report of the villagers' rights to forest produce, notification No. 889F of 1893 very clearly spelt out the management framework for meeting local needs of grazing, fodder, fuelwood. poles and thatching grass for housing. According to this notification, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) was to prepare an annual list of forest areas which would be open to grazing. The list would specify which areas, in which block of the forest, would be open for grazing in that year. The grazing of cattle in the said reserve blocks was to he regulated in either of the following ways:
On the basis of a list prepared in this manner the.DFO was to issue herdsmen badges specifying the number of permitted cattle, the names of villagers owning the cattle and the names of the herdsmen. Only those cattle under the charge of a herdsman and certified by the number on his badge were permitted to graze.
Village communities enjoying these grazing facilities: were also to be permitted to collect and remove headloads of fodder grass as well as fallen and dry fuel free of charge. Although operationalising this management scheme was the most important precondition for satisfying basic needs as well as protecting the reserved forests from degradation, they do not appear to have been enforced in the working plans.
Conflicts over forests emerged because colonial rule ignored the demands of nature's economy and the survival economy through indifference to the conservation and basic needs role of forestry, and developed forestry only along the one dimensional criterion of commercial/industrial requirements.
In the Kumaon region there is evidence that the needs of the empire and not of the local people led to rapid forest denudation. According to Atkinson's Gazetteer, the forests were denuded of good trees in all places. The destruction of trees of all species appears to have continued steadily and reached its climax between 1855 and 1861 when the demands of the Railway authorities induced numerous speculators to enter into contracts for sleepers, and these men were allowed, unchecked, to cut down old trees far in excess of what they could possibly export, so that for some years after the regular forest operations commenced, the department was chiefly busy cutting up and bringing to the depot the timber left behind by the contractors.
While the local people were denied their traditional rights to forest resources, and while the colonial forest policy became a 'policy for deforestation', the local people were often blamed for the devastation of forests. As Pant observes:
The.tale about the denudation of forests by the hillman was repeated ad nauseum in season and out of season by those in power so much so that it came to be regarded as an article of faith.... By way of vindication of the forest policy it is claimed by its advocates that in the pre-British days the people had neither any rights in the soil nor in the forests.
The violation of people's ancient rights to forest resources through the colonial forest policy led to popular opposition to the forest policy. Their resentment was first manifested in 1906 in the state of Tehri Garhwal. On 27 December 1906, the forest surrounding the Chandrabadin temple about 14 miles from Tehri town was earmarked for reservation. The next day 200 villagers gathered to protest against state interference in their forests over which they claimed full and extensive rights.
In 1907, a mass meeting was held in Almora to protest against the forest policy which authorised the government to declare all forests and 'wastelands' ('benap'or unmeasured land) as reserved forests. As people's agitation increased because they were unable to get a response, they set fire to government forests and resin depots in 1916. The Kumaon Association was also established in that year to look into the forest problems of Kumaon, with G.B. Pant as its general secretary. Increasing people's protests forced the government to set up a 'Forest Grievances Corranittee' to enquire into forest protests in Kumaon and Garhwal. Though the committee reclassified forests to pacify the villagers, yet people's rights were not protected. As Pant concluded in The Forest Problem in Kumaon,
The policy of the Forest Department can be summed up in two words, namely, encroachment and exploitation. The Government has gone on pushing forward, extending its own sphere and scope and simultaneously narrowing down the orbit of the rights of the people.... The memory of the 'San assi' boundaries (1880 predemarcation) is green and fresh in the mind of every villager and he cherishes it with a feeling bordering on reverence; he is simply unable to see his way to accepting the claim of the Government to the benap lands comprised within his village boundaries and regards every advance in that line as nothing short of encroachment and intrusion. Let the san assi boundaries be vested with their real character instead of being looked upon as merely nominal, and, to remove misgivings, let the areas enclosed within these boundaries be declared as the property of the villagers and all the benap lands included within these areas be restored to the village community, subject to such conditions to impartibility, etc., as may be desirable in the public interest. It is a matter of common knowledge that a large number of memorials were sent by the villagers at their own instance, about the year 1906, asking the Government to restore the areas within the san assi boundaries to them: the unsophisticated villager spontaneously reiterates the same demand today. This is the minimum demand of the people and there seems to be no other rational and final solution. The simple fact should not be forgotten that man is more precious in this earth than everything else, the forests not excepted, and, also, that coercion is no substitute for reason, and, however stringent and rigid the laws may be, the forests cannot be preserved in the midst of seething discontent against the unanimous wishes and sentiments of the people.... The collective intelligence of a people cannot be treated with contempt, and even if it be erratic, it can come round only by being allowed an opportunity of realising its mistake. If the village areas are restored to the villagers, the causes of conflict and antagonism between the forest policy and the villagers will take the place of the present distrust, and the villager will begin to protect the forests even if such protection involves some sacrifice or physical discomfort.
The contradictions between people's basic needs and the state's revenue requirements, however, remained unresolved, and in due course these contradictions intensified. In 1930 the people of Garhwal launched the non cooperation movement to draw attention to the issue of forest resources. Forest satyagrahas to resist the new oppressive forest laws were most intense in the Rawain region The King of Tehri was in Europe at that time. In his absence, Dewan Chakradhar Jayal resorted to armed intervention to crush a peaceful satyagraha at Tilari. A large number of unarmed satyagrahis were killed and wounded, while others lost their lives in a desperate attempt to cross the rapids of the Yamuna river. Years later, the martyrs of the Tilari massacre provided inspiration for the Chipko movement when people pledged themselves to protect their forests.
Contents - Previous - Next