British forest policies, initially inclined heavily towards clearing forests and later towards
conserving forests, did attain their objective of enriching the home country and its adventurous officials and their government
in India. But it left a swathe of ecological destruction and socio-economic distress in its colony.
The actual experience of scientific forestry was quite often at odds with its professed aims
and supposed achievements. The strengthening of state control had as its corollary the denial of customary rights of use of
peasant and tribal communities. Peasants and pastoralists, swidden cultivators and wood-working artisans, all looked upon
the forests as a provider of their basic means of subsistence: the source of fuel for cooking, grass for livestock, leaf for
manure, timber for homes and ploughs, bamboos for baskets, land for extending cultivation, herbs for curing ailments, and
so on. When access to these resources was restricted by the creation of strictly protected government reserves, escalating
conflict between local communities and forest departments was the inevitable outcome.
The government was warned by a dissenting official that the Indian Forest Act of 1878 would
arouse a sense of injustice, resentment and antagonism toward the government. When the act was in place peasant and tribal
groupings resisted the operations of the Forest Department in all kinds of ways: through arson, breaches of the forest law,
attacks on officials and on government property, and coordinated collective social movements aimed at restoring local control
over forests. These rebellions formed part of broader nationalist upsurges. Sometimes they engulfed thousands of square miles
and were quelled only by the superior firepower of the colonial army or police.
Recent work by ecologists suggests that, in the tropics, sustained yield forestry was honoured
mostly in the breach. In India scientific forestry was complicated by the fact that India’s tropical forests were more
diverse than the temperate forests of Europe and therefore more difficult to manage. An additional complicating factor is
the monsoon, the two or three months of torrential rain which quickly washed away soil exposed by logging, thus rendering
regeneration extremely difficult. In such circumstances, it is highly questionable whether sustained-yield forestry on the
European model can be successfully practised, a skepticism that is borne out by the record. The strategies of resource use
introduced by the British and continued thereafter were neither scientific nor conservation oriented. 130 years of state forest
management have left forests in much poorer condition than they were when scientific forestry first made its appearance. Their
objectives have been threefold, namely (i) the demarcation and consolidation of forest land taken over by the state and alienated
from access to the local people: (ii) the imposition of certain restrictions on the rate at which harvests are made from the
forests. These restrictions do not ensure sustainable harvests, rather they have served to regulate the quantity of the material
harvested to match commercial demands; (iii) the conversion of natural forests with a wide variety of resources valued by
the local population into plantations of a relatively small number of species of maximal commercial value. While the environmental
consequences of these objectives have been disastrous, the unpopularity of scientific forest management with the mass of the
Indian population is a powerful indicator of its social inappropriateness.
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