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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

Impact of British Forest Policies


Colonial forestry has had wide ranging consequences. Apart from enriching the British and their collaborators, the impact was overwhelmingly negative. It caused irreparable environmental damage, jeopardized the livelihood of communities who subsisted on forests, and became the role model of India’s post independence forest management, thus ensuring its insidious continuity.

The Forest Department’s revenues rose from Rs.5.6 million in the five years between 1869-1874 (or Rs.1.12 million per annum approximately) to Rs.56.7 million in the two years between 1924-25 (Rs.28.35 million per annum approximately). The surplus or profit rose from Rs.1.7 million in the five years between 1869-1874 (or Rs.0.34 million per annum approximately) to Rs.21.3 million in the two years between 1924-25 (Rs.10.65 million per annum approximately). Between 1869 to 1925, annual revenues grew twenty five times, and profit grew thirty one times.

The expansion of railways reduced teak and sal forests of peninsular India to such an extent that deodar forests of north India were required to be tapped. Cleghorn in "The Forests and Gardens of South India" wrote that the Melghat and North Arcot Hills, formally crowned with timber was almost laid bare. The deodar forests of the Sutlej valley was rapidly exhausted after 1864 leaving only some deodar forests in the Jumna valley. In the north west Himalayas where the finest quality of deodar were found in the forest of Tehri Garhwal and Punjab were rapidly exploited by the agents of the colonial state and in the later stages directly by the raja. This introduced a qualitative change in the relationships between the ruler and the ruled. As a result there were sporadic ‘dhandaks’ or forest movements in Tehri Garhwal since the early years of the nineteenth century. Even Verrier Elwin has talked of the melancholic effect forest reservation had on the tribals of Central India for whom nothing aroused more resentment against the government than the taking away of the forests they regarded as their own property.

The history of forest conflict and struggle can be seen essentially as emanating from alternate conceptions of property rights and obligations. There did not exist a developed notion of private property in the tribal and peasant communities of India where the relationship to the overlord was expressed in terms of mutual obligations which had to be fulfilled. Colonial rule on the other hand was based on a notion of private property that ran contrary to the experience of these communities. The tribals were confronted with the vagaries of the colonial market economy that continually eroded their lifestyles. Moreover the assertion of state primacy over natural resources deprived them of an important means of subsistence.

Environmental movements in the colonial period were responses to the British policies which: (i) tightened state control over forests areas (ii) banned or restricted shifting cultivation, (iii) curbed hunting, timber use and grazing and (iv) instigated an influx of outsiders from the plains (moneylenders, traders, land grabbers, and contractors) into the forests.

In the nineteenth century tribal movements remained an endemic feature in many parts of India. At the lowest stratum of the peasantry tribals subsisted as agricultural labourers, coolies in plantations, mines and factories and through shifting cultivation. The colonial state tightened control over forest zones for revenue and banned shifting cultivation in the reserved forests.

The Santhals of Chhotanagpur revolted in 1855. A more formidable rebellion took place in 1879-80 of the Gudem-Rampa in Tamil Nadu. They rose against their overlord’s efforts to enhance taxes on timber and grazing, police exactions, excise regulations restricting domestic production of toddy, exploitation by moneylenders and traders, and restrictions of shifting cultivation.

The best known tribal rebellion of this period is the Ulgulan or the Great Tumult of Birsa Munda south of Ranchi in 1899-1900. The Mundas had seen their khunt katti land system (joint holdings by khunts or tribal lineages) being eroded during the nineteenth century by moneylenders and traders. Birsa Munda, their leader, urged the killing of moneylenders, merchants and Christians. The revolt was suppressed but the Mundas got recognition of the khuntkatti system, and forced labour was banned.

A powerful Forest Satyagraha was held in Cuddapah during the Non-Cooperation Movement after the traditional rights to the forest produce of the primitive food gathering Chenchu tribe were restricted by the government from 1898.

The old ‘Rampa’ country of the Godavari hills also remained restive. There was a revolt in 1916 serving as a prelude to a major rebellion under Aluru Sitarama Raju in 1922-24.

In 1910 British troops suppressed a rising in the Jagdalpur region against the Raja of Bastar because of the recent banning of shifting cultivation and the free use of forest produce. The rebels disrupted communications, attacked police stations and forest outposts, burnt schools (being built with forced labour and compulsory levies on tribals) and even tried to besiege Jagdalpur town.

In 1914, Jatra Bhagat started a Oraon movement calling for a return to shifting cultivation, monotheism, and abstention from meat liquor and tribal dances. The movement took on a more radical millenarian colour in 1915 and was quickly repressed. A more pacific ‘Tana Bhagat’ movement survived among the Oraons and developed important links with Gandhian nationalism from the 1920s.