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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



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.


C.D.Chatterjee, Forestry in Ancient India, 1966, pp 3-28

A.K.Ghosh, Forest and Forest Policy in India, 1992, pp 1-18.

R.Ribbentrop, Foretry in British India, Calcutta,1900 pp 37, 61, 97-105, 114-16

E.P.Stebbing, Forests of India, London, 1921, Vol I, p 121, 532, Vol II p 463

Ramachandra Guha, Forestry in British and post-British India, an Historical Analysis, Economic and Political Weekly, xvii, 1983, pp 1882-96

Mahesh Rangarajan, Imperial Agendas and India’s Forests : The Early History of Indian Forestry, 1800-1878, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1994

R.Guha and M.Gadgil, State Forestry and Social Conflict in British India, Past and Present,cxxiii, 1989, 99141-77.

R.Guha and M.Gadgil, This Fissured Land, 1992.

I.Habib and T.Raychaudhuri, The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol I, 1982, pp 64-65

F.Zimmerman, The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats, Ecological Themes of Hindu Medicine, London, 1989, pp 14, 44

A.Pratap, Paharia Ethnohistory and the Archaeology of the Rajmahal Hills: Archaeological Implications of an Historical Study of Shifting Cultivation, Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1987.

K.Sivaramakrishnan, British Imperium and Forested Zones of Anomaly in Bengal, 1767-1833,The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1996

R.K.Gupta, The Economic Life of a Bengal District, Birbhum 1770-1857, Burdwan, 1984, pp 31 and 317.

R.G.Albion, Forests and Sea Power, The Timber problem of the Royal Navy, 1652-1852, Cambridge, 1926, p 119.

Munro to the Board of Revenue, September 1823, Madras Forests, p 205.

J.F.Voelcker, Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture, London, 1893, p 140

Gadgil, Madhav and Ramachandra Guha (1994),"Ecological Conflicts and Environmental Movement in India", Development and Change , Vol 25, No 1, January.

Guha, Ramachandra (1989), The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Shah, Ghanshyam (1990), Social Movements in India: A Review of Literature, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

David Arnold, Rebellious Hillmen, The Gudem Rampa Risings, 1839-1924 in Subaltern Studies Vol 1

This is a page where I can broaden the context of a discussion and offer motivated students advanced material.

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African Mathematics

There is evidence to suggest that African Mathematics began more than 8000 years ago. A carved bone dating from between 9000 BC and 6500 BC was found at Ishango in Zaire. The markings indicate that these prehistoric people used a base-10 number system (just like we do) and were familiar with prime numbers and the operation of multiplying by 2. A series of notches on the Ishango bone appear to approximate a lunar calendar, suggesting a fairly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy.

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