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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 Clearance of Forests


The early British mistreatment of Indian forests reinforced the claim that the British race was rapidly converting forests into deserts. By 1860 Britain became the world leader in deforestation, devastating its own forests and forests in Ireland, South America, north east USA for farming, iron smelting and shipbuilding.

The motives behind the British drive to clear forests in India:

To increase revenue by extension of agriculture which was a prime and consistent source of revenue

To increase political control by increasing land under settled cultivation which was easier to administer than forests and wastelands

To meet increase in demand for timber for shipbuilding which was accentuated by (a) the Anglo-French naval rivalry (b) shortage of timber in Britain (c) Baltic timber supply stopped because of strategic isolation of Britain during the revolutionary and Napoleanic wars between 1793 and 1815 and the neutrality of the Baltic countries during the blockade.

To meet increase in demand for timber for building dockyards, barracks, ordnance factories, and later and most importantly railway construction.

To meet increase in demand for fuel for steamships, townships and later railways

To reduce the hideouts of disorderly social groups and revenue fugitives. Forests were the abode for tribals who were considered to be primitive and prone to violence. And peasants from the settled cultivated areas who were unable to bear the revenue demands of the state took refuge in the forests.

To honour the negative view of woodlands that the British carried into India from Britain. Forests were considered by the British to have lapsed into a state of nature because of inadequate human care. The British believed that forests were meant to be tamed by clearing them for cultivation.

Policies adopted by the British for clearance of forests:

Revenue demand was increased which forced cultivators to extend the land under cultivation by clearing forests and wastelands and bringing those lands under cultivation. Sometimes it had the opposite effect when revenue demands were too high - then cultivation was avoided by escapism.

Military campaigns were used to subdue belligerent forests users who resisted the clearance of forests. The Paharia tribals of the Rajmahal hills were subdued by military action in 1772-78 and Santhals brought in because they were good workers and generated more revenue.

A Baze Zamin Daftar (Wasteland Office) was created in Bengal to give priority to clearing wasteland for cultivation.

Baze Zamin Regulations were instituted in 1788. The provisions included restriction of zamindars from giving rent-free land grants - in normal times this was beneficial but in times of famine it had the opposite effect of retarding agricultural recovery after famine conditions.