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Home | British Forest Policy in India : 1800-1947 | The Ecological Watershed | The Clearance of Forests | Conservation of Forests | Impact of British Forest Policies | Conclusion

Environmental Issues in India - History Concurrent Course

The Ecological Watershed


The ecological history of British India reflects how the world economy had been profoundly altered and disrupted by western capitalism and its dynamic expansion. Such interventions reshaped the habitats they intruded upon for the benefit of Europe. Colonialism’s most tangible outcome was its global control of resources (mineral, plant and animal) which inevitably contributed to Europe’s industrial growth.

The British forest policies represented an ecological watershed in terms of the environmental imprudence introduced, the scale of the imprudence introduced and the usurping of the rights of the forests dwellers and tribals to the access to forest and the use of forest produce. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha have stated in ‘This Fissured Land’ that pre-colonial Indian society had cultural traditions of prudence and there was stability in the relations between agriculture and industry, and between the state and society. The Mughals did not alter the existing patterns of resource use and the social structures they were embedded in. If this view is valid, the British impact on the environment was an ecological watershed because of the end of prudence in the relentless clearing of forests for agriculture.

Mayank Kumar has provided an alternative view in respect of Rajasthan where there were instances of imprudence as evidenced by the official records of punishments meted out to violators of ecological customs and traditions such as cutting of young green trees and the killing of cattle. If this view is correct the British forest policies and practices would still mark an ecological watershed on account the scale of environmental imprudence they unleashed in India. The requirement of the railways and the two world wars did unprecedented damage to India’s forest resources.

To forest dwellers and tribals who depended on the forests for their livelihood, British forest policies brought about a watershed in their rights to the forest. Gradually and increasingly the state usurped many of their rights to the forest to safeguard the forest requirements of the state.

The first systematic documentation of forest flora (categorized into fruit trees, flowering trees, timber, fuel-wood, medicinal plants etc.) was started in the Aryan period. Excavations at Harappa showed that they were familiar with four species of timber : Rosewood, Ber, Deodar and Elm. The Aryans did not leave any evidence of forest management.

The origin and development of forestry as a state dominated subject is believed to have started with the birth of imperialism in north India about 543 b.c. with king Bimbisara as king of Magadha. During the Magadhan period forests were for the first time divided on the basis of geographical locations and physical characteristics.

On the basis of Arthsastra of Kautilya, C.D.Chatterjee informs us that a forest department or a department of forest products existed in ancient India. The duties of the forest department included increasing productivity, pricing of products, classification of logs, timber, bamboo and medicinal plants, maintaining law and order, imposing fines for illegal activities and even trading in wildlife products. The references to reserve forests, forests for the public, forests donated to eminent brahmanas, afforestation programmes and a set of eighteen forest laws indicate the outcome of a process of deep thinking on conservation, utilisation and management of vital natural resources.

The next phase of chronicled history of forests and forestry can be traced in the memoirs of Hiuen Tsang who visited India almost 900 years later between 629 A.D. to 645 A.D. His memoirs indicate that the north west regions, which had been previously recorded as densely forested by historians accompanying Alexander, had been dessicated and deforested. The rest of India had a large forest cover.

The Mughal rulers of India were keenly aware of the revenue generated by cultivated lands so they nurtured a penchant for clearing forests for cultivation. It is rather surprising that the great Mughals did not think of keeping an accurate quantitative estimate of forest area. But the Ain-i-Akbari by Abul Fazal indicates the awareness of the commercial value of seventy two different types of timber on the basis of weight of wood per unit area. The forest borders were in flux depending on revenue policies of the time and military control. When revenue demands of the state were favourable for the peasants, cultivation increased and forests decreased; when revenue demands were unfavourable cultivated land relapsed into forest. Some forest areas were reserved for hunting or timber or strategic defence of forts and some forests spaces were venerated as sacred groves.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the Europeans brought to India some revolutionary ideas about resource use, the transformation of resources from one form to another and transporting them over large distances to the final user. Many resources became commodities with ever-increasing uses. For example, wood that used to be consumed as domestic fuel or for the construction of shelters and tools could now be converted to paper, used to power steamships and railways, and also used as sleepers on railway tracks.

Three elements of the Industrial Revolution influenced the ecological encounter between India and Britain:

There was a change in emphasis from resource gathering and subsistence production to the production of commodities and trade. There was a shift from production for self-consumption to production for market.

Cooperation with neighbours became less important. So there was a breakdown of cohesive local communities. Human societies became atomized with individuals acting largely on their own.

With the increasing domination of manufacture and commerce, the institution of the market came to receive the veneration that previous food-gatherers reserved for the spirits of the trees.

There was a radical transformation in the flow of materials. At the food-gatherer stage such flows were confined to the territory of each group. With settled agriculture food-grain flowed from the countryside to the towns where non food producers were concentrated. With advances in technology, as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, there were flows of a greater range of resources from cultivated lands, non-cultivated lands and water bodies.