Articles- Science and Society: An Indian Perspective
Science and Technology under the British Rule

The Story of Modern Forestry in India

The Indian Forest Department celebrated its centenary in 1961. A publication brought out by the Forest Research Institute on the occasion declared that, ‘Scientific forestry in India is a hundred years old.’ Regarding the general history of Indian forests prior to this period, it stated:

The forest extended over most of the country, when the original inhabitants lived mostly as denizens of the forest. With the practice of agriculture came shifting cultivation and gradual destruction of the forests for food and pasture¼ Even after the advent of the British, in the early days of the establishment of their rule, the accessible forests suffered due to large scale felling of valuable timber trees¼ It is only when doubts began to arise whether the timber requirements of the Navy and the Empire would continue to be available without interruption and to the full extent, that the British began to realise that the forests were not so inexhaustible as they were earlier thought to be¼ With the initiative taken by Conolly, Collector of Malabar in 1842, to form teak plantations, came the beginning of scientific forestry in India. The first regular Conservator of Forests was appointed in Bombay in 1847 and in Madras in 1856. The foundations of organised forestry were surely and firmly laid when the Government of India appointed Sir Dietrich Brandis as the first Inspector General of Forests of India in the year 1864. [1]

The following extract from the report of the National Commission on Agriculture describes the beginning of scientific forestry in India in a similar vein:

In this country, scientific forestry commenced in the early sixties of the last century, when Forest Departments were created in the various British provinces. The first task that devolved on forest officers was to inspect tree-clad lands and all hilly regions, and then to demarcate, survey and map suitable areas for settlement as “reserved” or “protected” forests under newly enacted Indian Forest Act, 1865. After this, general principles were laid down in the national forest policy of 1894, on which they were to be managed. The sole object with which state forests were to be administered was public benefit. In general, the constitution and preservation of a forest involved the regulation of the rights and restriction of the privileges of the user in the forest by the neighbouring population. [2]

C. C. Wilson, a member of the Indian Forest Service, who served in Madras Presidency for 32 years and retired as a Chief conservator of Forests, presents a vivid picture of this transition to scientific forestry and what it meant to various sections of Indian people:

Scientific forest management started in 1861, just 100 years ago when the frightening shrinkage in the forest cover was first appreciated. There was an uphill task. As it has been in all countries in its incipient stages, forest conservation was unpopular. And this is easy to understand as the dwellers in the countless villages all over the country had, from time immemorial, obtained a great part of their daily needs from the jungles. First and foremost was the question of fuel with which to cook their food. Without that they could not live. Then there were small timbers for building without which they would have no shelter, ploughs without which they could not cultivate the ground, grazing without which their cattle would die, green-leaf manure for their fields, tanning bark for their leather, bamboo for a dozen different purposes. And these were vital to their well being, and always they had taken them where they could find them. And then an authority came into being which denied them what they had always looked upon as their rights. They fought most bitterly and indeed understandably, against the new tyranny. They had neither the education nor the intelligence to realise that their village forests were fast disappearing and that, if the process continued, the country would become uninhabitable¼ Indeed, it was not only the villager that did not understand. At the end of my service when I was Chief Conservator of Forests in Madras, a very great man, Mr. Rajagopalachayra was the Premier. He sent for me and told me that his advisers were pressing him to abolish the Forest Department as being oppressive, expensive and useless. I explained the position to him and urged [him]¼ to see for himself the working of the department and the results we had achieved in some of the forest reserves. Within six months he was preaching forest conservation wherever he went. [3]

The above is the essence of the story of scientific forestry in India. Scientific forestry has never claimed to be non-oppressive; its main claim for consideration is that without such ruthless means the forests would have entirely disappeared. We shall in this article discuss some of the presuppositions of the modern science of forestry, by examining some of the landmarks in the evolution of scientific forestry in India.

II. Forests in Pre-British India

History tells us that at least since the time of invasion of Alexander, India has been famous for its forest wealth. Extensive tracts of this country were wooded till 18th century. The following quotations give an idea of what is generally said about the luxurious state of forests in India before the British:

The forests covered nearly half the area of Northern India. In the Deccan as well as the coastal region, there were extensive forests.[4]

The tract east of Aravallis was, however, covered with forests even till late into the 18th century, as can be seen from James Todd’s travel accounts of Rajasthan in the 19th century.[5]

The above statements would be true of most tracts in the country. Not only were there extensive forests, but they also abounded in a variety of species of tress. Brandis noted in his famous book on Indian Forestry:

The total area of the British Indian Empire is 1,560,000 square miles, that of Europe aggregates 3,800,000. Yet the number of trees indigenous in India exceeds 1,200, while in Europe only 158 species are known. And besides these trees there are 120 species of bamboo and a large number of climbers which play an important part in the Indian forests. [6]

One important feature of forestry in traditional India was the setting apart of sacred groves. Brandis gives the following description in his book cited above:

Very little has been published regarding scared groves in India, but they are, or rather were, very numerous. I have found them in nearly all provinces. As instances I may mention the Garo and Khasia hills which I visited in 1879, the Devara Kadus of Coorg[7] with which I become acquainted in 1868, and the hill ranges of Salem district in the Madras Presidency examined by me in 1882. Well known are the Swami Shola on the Yellagiris, the sacred grove at Pudur on the Javadis and several sacred forests on the Shevaroys. These are situated in the moister part of the country. In the dry region, sacred groves are particularly numerous in Rajputana. In Mewar they usually consist of Anogeissus Pendula, a moderate sized tree with small leaves… In the southern-most states of Rajputana, in Partabgarh and Banswara in a somewhat moister climate, the sacred groves, here called Malwan, consist of a variety of trees, teak among the number. These sacred forests, as a rule, are never touched by the axe, except when wood is wanted for the repair of religious buildings, or in special cases for other purposes. A remarkable little forest of Sal (Shorea Robusta) I found, in 1864 near Gorakhpur¼ The forest was in good condition; and nothing was allowed to be cut except the wood required to feed the sacred fire [kept by a Muhammadan saint, Mian Sahib] and this required the cutting annually of small number of trees which were carefully selected among those that showed signs of age and decay. [8]

A recent study notes the following regarding the extent of sacred groves in India:

In India, about 13,720 sacred groves have been enumerated so far from 19 states. In South India, about 2,000 groves occur in Kerala, 1,600 in Maharashtra, 800 in Andhra Pradesh and 448 in Tamil Nadu. Extensive studies on the sacred groves in Maharashtra and Kerala have indicated that they are rich in rare and endemic species of plants…From Karnataka, sacred groves have been reported from the districts of Uttara Kannada, Shimoga and Kodagu…Kodagu district has 1,214 sacred groves, covering an area of 2,550.45 ha… It is surprising to note that sacred groves have not been properly documented from Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts… [9]

In the 1840’s, as a result of various reports received from America on the effects of forests on the climate, the British Government wanted to find out whether such effects were observed in India also, and enquiries were made to that purpose. The Board of Revenue of Madras Presidency in its Minutes of the Consultation of 18th May 1849 noted that:

The notion that more rain falls in mountains and forests than in the plains as prevailing among Natives is noticed by the Collectors of Nellore and Bellary. The Principal Collector of Coimbatore mentions the general opinion among Natives that extensive clearances have an influence on rain.

In this context, Brandis cites the following interesting incident:

Surgeon C. I. Smith of the Mysore Commission, writing in 1849, records the belief of the people of Coorg and of the Superintendents of the Nuggur and Chittledroog divisions of Mysore, that the presence of trees in a country tends to increase the quantity of rain¼ In a range of hills south-east of Bangalore at a coffee plantation called Glenmore, in the Debenaicottah taluk of the Salem district, the proprietor, when preparing ground for a coffee garden, which was watered by an excellent spring, was warned by the natives not to clear away the trees in the immediate neighbourhood of his spring, but he disregarded their warning, cut down the tress, and lost his stream of water. [10]

Traditional Indian attitude towards forests is exemplified in the following statement of Gautama Buddha:

The forest is an organism of unlimited kindness that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe-man who destroys it. [11]

G. P. Majumdar has compiled the following extracts from the Puranas about the importance of trees:

In the Matsya Purana we read: ‘One who sinks a well in a place where there is scarcity of water, lives in heaven for as many years as there are drops of water in it. The effect of digging ten such wells is equivalent to the digging of one pond, and the excavation of ten such ponds is equivalent to that of a lake, and the excavation of ten such lakes has as much effect as that of begetting a virtuous son, and the birth of ten such sons has exactly the same effect as that of planting a single tree.’

A similar eulogy on the practice is prescribed by the Agni Purana: ‘The planting of trees and the construction of pleasure gardens (for the public) are conducive to purgation of sin and enjoyment of property.’ Varaha Purana enjoins that ‘he never goes to hell who plants an Aswattha or a Pichumanda, or a Banyan, or ten Jasmines, or two Pomegranates, or five Mangoes (Panchamras)’. A similar verse also occurs in Tithitattva where instead of Banyan, Jasmines and Pomegranates, we have Champaka, Kesara, Tala and Narikela. A more elaborate injunction describing the particular effects of planting particular trees by the roadside is given in the Padma Purana. …The same authority further tells us that, ‘the man planting trees (by the wayside) will enjoy bliss in heaven for as many years as there are fruits and flowers and leaves in the plant he plants.’ …

The Agni Purana has the following explanatory verses: ‘The man who plants trees bearing fruits and flowers for the enjoyment of the public attains to a supreme state of bliss. The man who plants thirty trees giving shade, fruits and flowers, and ten mango trees, is not destined to go to hell. Gods, demons, angels, seraphs, and the whole of the flying fraternity, beasts, and birds and men - all receive some sort of delight through trees. The Gods get pleasure through flowers, the manes through fruits, and men and birds and beasts through shade. The man who plants trees giving fragrant flowers and sweet fruits is re-born as a result, as a Brahmin in a respectable family enjoying prestige and wealth in a prosperous country. So one should plant such trees and look after them as if they were one’s own children which, in fact, religiously speaking they are. The mortal sons are meant for purely selfish purpose whereas the ‘tree-sons’ serve purely altruistic ones. Leaves and flowers and fruits and shade and roots and barks and wood (timber) benefit others and bring salvation to our forefathers. One should worship trees as one worships a sage free from the vice of envy, because it provides with shade and fruits and flowers even to its very cutter. The all-giving ‘tree-son’, which does not bear a grudge even to its ‘cutter-father’ out of selfish consideration, brings about the complete salvation to the planter. So the Brahmin should always plant them with due ceremony and treat them as his sons.’

The Varaha Purana observes: ‘That (the tree) which is taken for fuel is called ‘Agnihotra’ (the sacrificial fire); the tree by reason of shade and rest for travellers, the nest of birds, and leaves, roots and barks, etc. for drugs of bodied beings is called a ‘panchayajna’ (who observed the five sacrifices). It houses small animals for whom it would have been difficult to build a house. It sheds leaves to give alms, and this is how it ends its sacrifice (panchayajna). It produces fruits twice a year which all the year round are of service to their parents (planter), and there are omens to be understood from the trees. Thus, O son, are they (the trees) to be duly planted, and so the seers know.’

The Agni Purana then very aptly concludes: ‘Therefore never cut down any tree that bears good flowers and fruits, if you desire the increase of your family, of your wealth, and of your future happiness. If a man cuts down trees near temples, Chaityas and graves, famine, epidemic and drought follow. If one destroys Chincha trees, serious mischief to the monarch is the consequence. If one destroys a boundary tree he dies with his horses; therefore, one should not cut down trees of the region haunted by gods. The supremely wicked man who cuts down trees and thereby stops the passage to wells, ponds and lakes gets his family degraded and even his distant relatives despatched to hell…’[12]

III. Forest Denudation of the Early British Period

The European background

Unlike the situation in traditional India, “The forests of Europe during feudal days were the property of the feudal lords… The protection of forests was in the hands of gamekeepers… The forests were used also for grazing… Sustained yield forestry began its development between the 13th and 16th centuries. It is interesting to discover that regulatory forest management in Germany came because of the fear that a timber famine would result from over-cutting, land-clearing and grazing. It took the form, first, of grazing control.”[13]

Most of Britain was covered with great forests, when the Romans first came there; but these were largely cleared to make possible the settlement of land. At the end of 17th century, it was estimated that about 1/8th of England was wooded.[14] The destruction was largely wrought by the hunting privileges of the nobility in the earlier centuries and the timber needs of the navy in the more modern times. The history of destruction of the British forests is well summarised in the quotation below:

The influence of hunting on forest management in Europe has been so great that it is worth considering its effects in England where fresh practices were introduced by William the conqueror and continued by his successors to the throne with long lasting results. But previous to 1066 (the time of Norman conquest) King Canute had proclaimed similar protective laws in English forests… The forest law to protect hunting as developed by William the Conqueror and his successors… was severely administered by a body of chief-foresters, foresters and other officials and enforced at the Forest Eyre or internal court of justice. The forest law did not apply only to the woods of the king’s domain. To quote Turner, ‘In Medieval England most of the forests were the property of the crown, but from time to time the kings alienated some of them to their subjects. Thus the forests of Pickering in Yorkshire and all those in the country of Lancaster were in the fourteenth century held by the Earls of Lancaster.’…

The term ‘Forest’ …denotes a region afforested by English kings as far back as Saxon days, in the interest of hunting. They enacted savage laws in order that there should be no interference with their chasing deer and other game. In the afforested regions, this harsh legislation, of which the thirteenth century ‘casta de Foresta’ is an example, supplanted the customary law of England.The hunt determined the course of English forest policy centuries before naval timber was a consideration, but the original forest laws indirectly provided for the latter maritime need¼

The timber problem was first realised in the sixteenth century. It became acute during the Restoration. A century later, after the Seven Years War (1756-63) the scarcity of oak caused very general alarm[15] and during the remaining hundred years of wooden ship building the groves of England became less and less capable of meeting the increased demands of the Navy…

The king’s woods had fallen into a notoriously low condition during the [18th century]…In fifty seven years they had supplied the Navy with the equivalent of only four years’ consumption… The general supply of English oak never recovered from the drain of Napoleonic wars and the Navy looked more and more to foreign lands for her ship timber. [16]

The destruction of forests in Britain and in the whole of Europe continued well into the nineteenth century. Major General W. Cullen, Resident of Travancore, in his report of 7th April 1849 noted, “In France in 1750 the woods are stated to have occupied 1/4th of the surface of the country, in 1788, 1/7th and in 1814 only about 1/12th . In England according to Mr. Morean de Jones the woods, [in 1825] occupy only 1/23rd of the surface.”

Unprecedented destruction of Indian Forests during early British Rule

The period 1600-1750 had already witnessed the enormous devastation of the forests of Ireland to meet the timber requirements of England. It was now the turn of India and other colonies. The following is a summary of what happened in the early years of British rule in India, as recounted by the imperial historian of Indian forests, E. P. Stebbing:

The British of the period were unacquainted with the principles of forestry science. The reports on the forests in the neighbourhood of the parts of the country, we first occupied, were unanimous in regarding them as inexhaustible, so far as the materials that were required from them were concerned. The first decades of British occupation in India, therefore, witnessed no check, but rather an enhanced rate in the destruction of fine timber forests in these regions…

The true state of affairs was not appreciated by the Government until the failure to supply local requirement began to be felt. The first of these requirements which began to give out comparatively early was timber for ship building…

[In 1805] a despatch was received from the Court of Directors enquiring to what extent the king’s Navy might, in view of the growing deficiency of oak in England, depend on a permanent supply of teak timber from Malabar… Thus the first real interest aroused in the Forests of India… originated from home, and the cause was the same which had kept forestry in the forefront in England through a period of three centuries-the safety of the Empire which depended upon its ‘wooden walls’. [17]

The felling of Malabar forests by the British had started considerably earlier. The earliest records of these efforts is the formation of a ‘timber syndicate’ in 1796 with Mr. Maconochie of the medical service as the prime mover. In 1799 alone 10,000 teak trees were brought down the Beypore river while it was estimated that about 2,000 teak trees would be the annual yield.[18] The reports that were received in response to the enquiry of the Court of Directors in 1805, revealed that “the capacity of the forests in mature teak timber had been overestimated; that the more accessible forests had been almost cut out”. Soon it was decided to appoint a special officer to supervise forest work, to “preserve and improve the production of teak and other timber suitable for ship building”.[19] Thus Captain Watson of the Police was appointed first Conservator of Forests on 10th November 1806. What followed was indeed a nightmare. The Conservator was given extraordinary powers in a proclamation of April 1807, which also asserted the Company’s right of sovereignty over the forests[20] and prohibited the felling of trees or young plants by private individuals under the penalty of being treated as plunderers. As described in a report of 1851, by W. R. Baillie:

The proclamation of 1807, which formed the basis of his [the Conservator’s] authority, contained no definition of the term ‘sovereignty’, nor had those forests been specified over which the sovereignty extended. But the conservator succeeded in a short time in establishing a monopoly of all the timber of the two provinces of Malabar and Travancore. He cut down and appropriated to the use of the Company not only the trees of the private forests, but even those growing on cultivated lands, paying revenue to Government, while the proprietor himself, unless expressly permitted by the conservator, was prevented from cutting a piece of wood on his own property, or removing the young seedling plants that were injuring his land… The peasantry were deprived of the privilege of cutting wood for fuel and other ordinary purposes, a privilege which they had enjoyed from time immemorial, and which was stated to be particularly prized in the rainy climate of Malabar, where large buildings are required by the peasants for the protection of themselves and their property. [21]

As a result there was a seething discontent all over. To avert a total disaster, the office of the Conservator was abolished in 1822. In his minute of 26th November 1822, Governor Thomas Munro acknowledged that:

The system [of forest conservancy] we are following and now seeking to legalise… is worthy only of the times of the Norman Conquest.

While this first phase of forest conservancy did ensure the supply of all the teak the British Navy wanted, the forests of the West Coast of India got rapidly denuded. Mr.Underwood the collector of Malabar wrote in 1839 on the achievements of the forest conservators, that he could not discover any record that any of the conservators had taken any steps to perpetuate the forests, as he could not discover that any of them had a single tree planted. In 1860, the Conservator of Forests noted that “the old forests of Malabar do not now contain much timber”.

Other areas of the country were also getting similarly denuded. For instance, in his journey through Mysore in1800, Buchanan had noted that ‘extensive forests of teak flourished throughout the province. These had well nigh disappeared in 1847.’[22]

Apart from South India the major source for teak was Burma. The Tenasserim province of Burma was annexed in 1826. Dr. Wallich, the Superintendent of Company’s Botanical Gardens, was soon despatched to make a survey of the forests there. In his report of 1827, Dr. Wallich suggested: “In my humble opinion not a single tree ought to be touched, not a stick of that valuable wood [teak] ought to be allowed to be carried away for any purpose whatever, but those of the Government, without their express sanction.” The extent of teak exports from Moulmein during 1840-48 was over hundred thousand tons.[23] Another province of Burma, Pegu, was annexed in 1852. Immediately it was proclaimed that all the forests are “property of the Government”. The shipbuilding industry of Britain in this period had insatiable hunger for teak. It was not merely the navy whose demands were to be met; the tonnage of merchant ships also was rising fast: it rose from 12,78,000 tons in 1788 to 49,37,000 tons in the 1850’s.[24]

Till 1850’s the colonial government had asserted its sovereignty over the forests by various sporadic proclamations and regulatory rules. Mostly forests which were easily accessible and had ‘valuable’ trees like teak, sandal, etc. were taken over for forest management. But with the coming of the railways in 1853, the situation changed drastically. The railways, which were the backbone of colonial rule, needed wood for sleepers for laying the lines, and as fuel for the locomotives. Firewood continued to be the main fuel for the railways till late in 19th century. To meet the requirements of the railways it became necessary to control all the forests of India. Demands of the railways became rather urgent immediately after the 1857 War of Independence. According to E.P. Stebbing:

The incidence of the mutiny at once threw into glaring relief the paucity of the communications in the country. The necessity for railway construction, if only to facilitate the movement of troops and their equipment, had become evident. The Government set themselves feverishly to work…The urgent demands for timber to provide the sleepers for the new railway lines were met in the time-honoured fashion, and great forest areas in the central and northern parts of India which… had hitherto remained untouched by man, were ruined in order to supply to the demands… Large number of trees were felled in the forests without reference to the possibility of extracting the logs, numbers of which remained in situ unutilised, to be subsequently burnt in the jungle fires. [25]

IV. Legislating For Modern Forestry

The Forest Act of 1865

The clamour for a complete control of all the Indian forests became vociferous in 1850, when the British Association in Edinburgh formed a Committee to consider the destruction of tropical forests in India. The Committee demanded that all forests be taken over for management by the government. This led to the memorandum of August 3, 1855 by Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor General. E.P. Stebbing, calls this memorandum the ‘Charter of the Indian Forests’.[26] The ruling principle enunciated by Dalhousie for the management of forests was that the timber standing in them was state property to which individuals or communities had no right.

The needs and compulsions for initiating scientific management of Indian forests by setting up a Forest Department are set forth in the letter of the Governor General to the Secretary of State dated November 1, 1862:

So long as the supply of timber in the country was generally sufficient for the public works in hand, the question of forest management did not present itself to the Government as one calling for earnest consideration. Latterly, however, while the supply of timber has been steadily diminishing from want of proper conservation, the demand both for State and private purposes has been rapidly increasing, and the enormous requirements of the different railways for sleepers has especially brought the matter into very prominent notice, and has now made the subject of forest conservancy an important administrative question…

And in the first place we may express our belief, that under no conceivable circumstances it is possible that personal interests can be made compatible with public interests in the working of forests, otherwise than under a system of… stringent supervision… The moral or social restraints… are most especially wanting in India, whether we deal with natives of the country or European settlers. Therefore we think that the idea of giving a proprietary right in forest to any individual should be abandoned, as the possession of such a right is almost certain to lead to the destruction of forest; personal interests in short, under existing conditions and in this respect are not only incompatible with public interests, but they are absolutely antagonistic. [27]

Thus the crying need of the hour was to establish a state monopoly over forests and exploit them for ‘public interests’ alone, a pattern which was well established over a century in the various progressive states of Europe, such as France, Germany, etc.-England having been left with no real forests to boast of any management. Thus Dietrich Brandis, a German trained forest officer who had already proved himself, since 1856, in managing the teak forests of Pegu region in Burma, was invited in 1862 to “advise Government on forest matters, and in 1864, he was appointed the first Inspector-General of Forests to the Government of India. He inaugurated the management of forests on scientific lines. A Forest Department was created, and a forest law enacted which provided for the settlement, demarcation, protection and management of forests.”[28]

Below we present extracts from the first forest act, Act No. VII of 1865, which inaugurated the ‘scientific era’ of forest management in India.

Extracts from the Forest Act of 1865: [29]

2. The Governor-General of India in Council… may, by notification in the Official Gazette, render subject to the provisions of this Act, such land covered with trees, brushwood, or jungle, as they may define for the purpose by such notification: Provided that such notification shall not abridge or affect any existing rights of individuals or communities.

3. For the management and preservation of any Government Forests or any part thereof in the Territories under their control, the Local Governments may, subject to the confirmation hereinafter mentioned, make rules in respect of the matters hereinafter declared, and from time to time may, subject to the like confirmation, repeal, alter and amend the same. Such Rules shall not be repugnant to any law in force.

4. Rules made in pursuance of this Act may provide for the following matters:

First: The preservation of all growing trees, shrubs and plants, within Government Forests or of certain kinds only - by prohibiting the marking, girdling, felling and lopping thereof, and all kinds of injury thereto; by prohibiting the kindling of fires so as to endanger such trees, shrubs and plants; by prohibiting the collecting and removing of leaves, fruits, grass, wood-oil, resin, wax, honey, elephants’ tusks, horns, skins and hides, stones, lime or any natural produce of such Forests; by prohibiting the ingress into and the passage through such Forests, except on authorised roads and paths; by prohibiting cultivation and the burning of lime and charcoal, and the grazing of cattle within such Forests.

Second: The regulation of the use of streams and canals passing through or coming from Government Forests or used for the transport of timber or other the produce of such Forests - by prohibiting closing or the blocking up for any purposes whatsoever of streams of canals used or required for the transport of timber or Forest produce; by prohibiting the poisoning of or otherwise interfering with streams and waters in Government Forests in such a manner as to render the water unfit for use; by regulating and restricting the mode by which timber shall be permitted to be floated down rivers flowing through or from Government Forests and removed from the same; by authorising the stoppage of all floating timber at certain Stations on such rivers within or without the limits of Government Forests for the purpose of levying the dues or revenues lawfully payable thereon; by authorising the collecting of all timber adrift on such rivers, and the disposal of the same belonging to the Government.

Third: The safe custody of timber, the produce of Government Forests - by regulating the manner in which timber, being the produce of Government Forests, shall be felled or converted; by prohibiting the converting or cutting into pieces or burning of any timber, or the disposal of such timber by sale or otherwise, by any person not the lawful owner of such timber, or not acting on behalf of the owner¼

7. All implements used in infringing any of the Rules made in pursuance of this Act, and all timber or other Forest produce, removed or attempted to be removed, or marked, converted, or cut up contrary to such Rules shall be confiscated.

8. Any Police Officer or person employed as an Officer of Government to prevent infringement of the Rules made in pursuance of this Act may arrest any person infringing any of such Rules, and may seize any implements used in such infringement, and any timber liable to confiscation under this Act.

Forest Act of 1878: The background debate

Though it was to be discarded soon in favour of an ‘improved’ forest act, the Act VII of 1865 initiated the process of establishing the right of the state over forests by fiat, as also of taking stringent punitive action on the people who by custom or necessity sought to exercise their established rights on forests and their produce. Some of these features of the Act were pointed out in the objections raised by the Madras Government which refused to introduce the 1865 Act into the Presidency,[30] and the Madras Board of Revenue wrote the following on 16th April 1868:

The Act will not in any way facilitate conservancy, and no forest land can be placed within the scope of it, which is not absolutely the property of Government, free from private rights of every kind, for section 2 specially enacts that its application ‘shall not abridge or affect any existing rights.’

All the jungles and forests of this Presidency are within village boundaries, and the people residing in or near them, have, from time immemorial, had the right to take leaves for manure, firewood for their own use, and timber for agricultural purposes, to graze their cattle at certain periods. These rights have been repeatedly recognised by Government, and are now scrupulously respected. When, therefore, these and other similar existing privileges, as well as the rights of way which necessarily exist through forest tracts are taken into consideration, the operation of the Act in this Presidency will be very limited, and every prosecution under it may be met by the allegation (which the Forest Officers must disprove) that a right previously existed which vitiates the application of the Act. When the forest is the absolute property of Government, no special Act is necessary to declare it such…

But while thus useless for good, the Act, in the opinion of the Board, opens a wide and dangerous field for oppression and extortion. By section 8, any Forest Officer, even a ‘peon’ on five rupees per mensem, may arrest, without warrant, any person infringing rules under the Act.[31]

Excepting the Madras Presidency, the Act VII of 1865 was adopted everywhere else. In 1869, the Governor-General reported to the Secretary of State on the progress achieved so far, and noted the tasks ahead:

We have the honour to report that the necessity of supplying sleepers and wood-fuel on a large scale for the state railways, the construction of which has been determined upon, will require a considerable expansion of forest establishments in the North-Western Provinces [Uttar Pradesh], Sind and Punjab, and that eventually the requirements of these railways will necessitate an increase of officers in the forests of the Central provinces, Oudh and British Burma. At the present time the forest establishments are but ill-prepared to meet this expansion.[32]

But the more crucial issue engaging the attention of the forest officials and the Government was the need for a new and more comprehensive Forest Act. Brandis formulated a draft bill in 1869 which was improved upon by Baden Powell in 1874 and a final version was prepared and adopted as the Indian Forest Act (Act VIII of 1878). This is perhaps the most significant event in more than hundred years of scientific forestry in India, as this Act, though modified in 1927 by the Central Government and amended here and there by several states, continues to be the central piece of legislation governing forest management.

Let us give some details of the process preceding the Act VIII of 1878. An important conference of forest officers was held in Allahabad in 1874 to discus the limitations of the Act VII of 1865. The conference was organised by Baden Powell, who was then officiating as the Inspector General of Forests. The following extracts are from a paper entitled, ‘On the defects of the existing Forest Law’ presented at the conference by Baden Powell:

The former rulers of these lands, of course had no idea of what forests were worth in any sense of the word; they only looked on them as immense jungles that were infested with tigers and wild beasts, and were far larger than was necessary for their sport; consequently they cared nothing for them. In the course of time… without any distinct grant of license, and without any idea of asserting a right as against the ruling power, or against other individuals or communities, everybody got accustomed to graze and cut in the nearest jungle lands, because nobody cared whether he did or not. Now it is hardly necessary to point out that this does not constitute a legal or prescriptive right properly so called… Hence, while the forests were, and are still, overrun with people cutting and doing what they like, they are nevertheless in theory, the absolute and unrestricted property of the state¼

Now this settlement of forest privileges and this regulation and limited interference with private rights being conceded, how does our Forest Law, Act VII of 1865, deal with the question? Why, it quietly ignores the first subject altogether; and as regards the second, it deliberately declines to allow any interference with any private right whatever. I am aware that this would be enough of itself to condemn the Act without another word… But besides these cardinal defects, there are, as I have already intimated, numerous others…

The section 8 [of the 1865 Act] gives the one satisfactory power in Act, and must be maintained in a law; arrest without warrant is absolutely essential…[33]

In the same conference a paper was read by Major Kenneth Mackenzie, ‘On the principles on which a settlement should be effected, in demarcating forests, with villagers who have enjoyed the general run of forests with undefined rights’. On Mackenzie’s paper, Baden Powell made the following remarks:

Here he [Mackenzie] bears out fully the principle in all such settlements, which is what I ask the conference to support, viz., that having once made a careful settlement, determined what forest we are going to reserve, and how we are going to treat it, let us gently but firmly, stick to what the Government have sanctioned, and never mind what people say. In the first place, let the interests of the people be fully represented by an intelligent, reasonable, and experienced civil officer of the district or settlement staff, and let justice full and fair be done to every body… You never did invent nor ever will invent any system of conservancy worth the name, which was popular or which every body liked. Forest conservancy is as much hated in Europe after three centuries of practice, as it ever was; and if so, how can you expect to be liked in India? Whatever you do, you affect some one: you limit the freedom of some people in their grazing, burning and cutting, and they hate it accordingly. To suppose therefore that you can carry with you the people in the efforts to conserves is a vain hope. But though you cannot be popular and please everybody, you can and must be just. [34]

Another paper by C. F. Amery sought to establish that the rights of the local population were actually privileges, concessions granted by the State. In a later forest conference held at Simla in October 1875, Amery openly declared that:

The right of conquest is the strongest of all rights-it is a right against which there is no appeal. [35]

Dietrich Brandis, who wrote the first draft of the revised act in 1869, set forth his views on the above issues in his memorandum on forest legislation written in 1875. On the question of the rights of the local population over forests, Brandis writes:

It has been maintained that the customary use of forest in India here spoken of is usually not based upon a right but upon a privilege. Great stress has been laid upon this point in Mr. Baden-Powell’s able paper on forest legislation in the Report of the Conference of 1874. He argues that the villagers who from time immemorial were accustomed to cut and graze in the nearest jungle lands did not acquire a right by prescription, because they used the forest without any distinct grant or license and without any idea of asserting a right as against the ruling power or against other individuals or communities; that the State had not exercised its full right over the forests, which were left open to anyone who chose to use them; but that the right of the State was unimpaired and was asserted whenever a Native Ruler chose to close whole areas of forests to preserve the game, as in the well-known instances of the Belas of Sindh enclosed by the Amirs.[36]

The view of the case merits careful consideration, and doubtless in many cases what are sometimes called forest rights are not rights at all, but merely privileges which are exercised by permission and at the pleasure of Government and not as of right. A large class of cases will, however, remain and must be provided for by Forest Law, in which the custom to graze the village cattle and to cut wood for the requirements of the village have grown up in a manner in every respect similar to the growth of rights of Common or of forest rights in Europe.[37]

Brandis was not interested in establishing that all forest rights were mere privileges. He argued that it will be useless for the Government to be saddled with the management of all forests. His view was that the Government should have the liberty to constitute as ‘reserved forest’ any forest area which it would like to work for ‘public benefit’-and for this, it would be sufficient to claim that the rights, if any, that the local population enjoyed over forests were no different from the rights of Common in Europe.[38]

Brandis has more clearly set forth his argument in a later Memorandum of 1878, while pronouncing or the rights of the cultivator in South Canara:

The rights of Wargadars in South Canara… are rights in re aliena, which they have exercised in the Government forests¼ In India, as in Europe, these rights have grown up with the development of private property in fields, gardens and other cultivated lands¼ It has been maintained that rights of user (droits d’usage) partake to some extent of the nature of proprietary rights, and that the right holders are in the position of co-proprietors with Government. The study of this subject in the forests of the continent of Europe has led to a different result, and rights of user in forests are regarded universally as specifically distinct from proprietary rights in the soil. [39]

In essence both Brandis and Baden Powell argued that there could be no proprietary rights of the local population over forests or their produce, as no such rights existed in Europe. Baden Powell, Brandis and a host of others justified most of the provisions of the 1878 Forest Act by arguing that these were based upon the most enlightened principles and practices which had been long established in Europe. Baden Powell declares in his, Manual of Jurisprudence for Forest Officers (Calcutta 1882, p.79), that:

Throughout the work I shall illustrate my remarks by an occasional comparison with the laws [of France, Austria, Bavaria, Italy and Switzerland] I have alluded to …partly to show that the great principles on which forest law must proceed, are fundamentally the same… It will be, I think, a strong ground for confidence in the general wisdom and reasonableness of our own legal provisions-even those which seem at first sight to persons unaccustomed to deal with these questions, arbitrary or too extensive-if I can show that they are supported by a consensus of skilled opinion in Europe.

To complete our story, we cite the following from the speech of Honourable T. C. Hope, while moving the Forest Bill in the Viceregal Council on March 6, 1878:

Our general principle is very plain; forest conservancy cannot go on without our, in some cases, taking something. But we take as little as we can-no more than is necessary for the purpose-and that little we pay for in one form or another… I submit that this is a policy clear, reasonable, in harmony with European legislation, and that this is the only policy compatible with the true interest of the community at large. There are of course persons who advocate an opposite theory of forest conservancy… It would suffice, they think, that… ‘Village communities should be encouraged to preserve and improve their own customary forests or jungles by reaping to their villages benefits therefrom’. In short if you want the forest preserved, only let people alone, and they will do it. I believe such a theory to be a delusion, and a most mischievous one. Whatever you do, do as leniently as possible; do equitably and only as far as is well shown to be necessary in each case, but act you must, if you are to save what is left of the once vast forests of India, to check deterioration of climate, and to diminish risks of famine. Under any system of laissez faire you are only fiddling, while Rome, or your forest, is burning. The effects of such a system under Native Governments, and during the earlier years of our own rule, are written in broad letters upon a thousand hills, and no where are they written more plainly… than upon the uplands of Southern India…The final issue, then is simple. If the Council prefer the principle of the Bill to any such theory, then I submit that the details are well calculated to carry out that principle.

Enumerating the defects of the 1865 Act, Mr. Hope continued:

It drew no distinction between the forests which required to be closely reserved, even at the cost of more or less interference with private rights, and those which merely needed general control to prevent improvident working. It also provided no procedure for enquiring into and settling the rights which it so vaguely saved, and gave no powers for regulating the exercise of such rights without appropriating them. It obliged you, in short, either to take entirely, or to let alone entirely. On control over private forests in the general interests of the community, it was absolutely silent. For duties on timber, even those actually levied, it gave no authority. Protection for Government forests, so interlaced with private ones as to be in chronic danger of plunder, there was none. In various minor points also it was deficient.[40]

We shall now present extracts from the Forest Act (Act VII) of 1878, which essentially continues to be the law of the land today:

Extracts from the Forest Act (Act No. VII) of 1878

Chapter II: Of Reserved Forests

3. The Local Government may from time to time constitute any forest-land or waste-land, which is the property of Government or over which the Government has proprietary rights or to whole or any part of the forest-produce of which the Government is entitled, a reserved forest in the manner hereinafter provided.

4. Whenever it is proposed to constitute any land a reserved forest, the Local Government may publish a notification in the local official Gazette:

a) declaring that it is proposed[41] to constitute such land a reserved forest;

b) specifying, as nearly as possible, the situation and limits of such land; and

c) appointing an officer (hereinafter called ‘the Forest-Settlement Officer’) to inquire into and determine the existence, nature and extent of any rights alleged to exist in favour of any person in or over any land comprised within such limits or in or over any Forest-produce and to deal with the same as provided in this Chapter.

8. For the purpose of such inquiry, the Forest-Settlement Officer may exercise the following powers, that is to say:

a) power to enter, by himself or through any officer authorised by him for the purpose, upon any land, and to survey, demarcate and make a map of the same; and

b) the powers of a Civil court in the trial of suits.

9A.[42] (1) In the case of a claim relating to the practice of shifting cultivation, the Forest-Settlement-Officer shall record a statement setting forth the particulars of the claim and of any local rule or order under which the practice is allowed or regulated, and submit the statement to the Local Government, together with his opinion as to whether the practice should be permitted or prohibited wholly or in part.

(2) On receipt of the statement and opinion the Local Government may make an order permitting or prohibiting the practice wholly or in part.

(4) The practice of shifting cultivation shall in all cases be deemed a privilege subject to control, restriction and abolition by the local Government.

25. Any person who-

a) makes any fresh clearing prohibited by section 5, or,

b)[43] sets fire to reserved forest, or, in contravention of any rules made by the Local Government, kindles any fire or leaves any fire burning, in such manner as to endanger such a forest; or who, in a reserved forest-

c) kindles, keeps or carries any fire excepts at such seasons, as the Forest Officer may from time to time notify in this behalf;

d) trespasses or pastures cattle, or permits cattle to trespass;

e) causes any damage by negligence in felling any tree or cutting or dragging any timber;

f) fells, girdles, lops, taps or burns any tree, or strips off the bark or leaves from, or otherwise damages the same;

g) quarries stone, burns lime or charcoal, or collects, subjects to any manufacturing process, or removes any forest-produce;

h) clears or breaks up any land for cultivation or any other purpose; or,

i) in contravention of any rules which the Local Government may from time to time prescribe kills or catches elephants,[44] hunts, shoots, fishes, poisons water or sets traps or snares;

shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with a fine not exceeding five hundred rupees, or with both, in addition to such compensation for damage done to the forest as the convicting Court may direct to be paid.

Chapter III: Of Village Forests

27. The Local Government may from time to time assign to any village-community the rights of Government to or over any land which has been constituted a reserved forest, and may cancel such assignment. All forests so assigned shall be called village-forests.

The Local Government may from time to time make rules for regulating the management of village forests, prescribing the conditions under which the community to which any such assignment is made may be provided with timber or other forest-produce or pasture, and their duties for the protection and improvement of such forest.

All provisions of this Act relating to reserved forest shall (so far as they are consistent with the rules so made) apply to village forests.

Chapter X: Penalties and Procedure

52. When there is reason to believe that a forest offence has been committed in respect of any forest-produce, such produce together with all tools, boats, carts and cattle used in committing any such offence, may be seized by any Forest-Officer or Police-Officer.

63. Any Forest-Officer or Police-Officer may, without orders from a Magistrate and without a warrant, arrest any person against whom a reasonable suspicion exists of his having been concerned in any forest offence punishable with imprisonment for one month or upwards.

Chapter XI: Cattle-Trespass

69. Cattle trespassing in a reserved forest or in any portion of a protected forest which has been lawfully closed to grazing shall be deemed to be cattle doing damage to a public plantation within the meaning of the 11th section of the Cattle Trespass Act, 1871, and may be seized and impounded as such by any Forest-Officer or Police-Officer.

Chapter XII: Of Forest Officers

72. All Forest-Officers shall be deemed to be public servants with the meaning of the Indian Penal Code.

73. No suit shall lie against any public servant for anything done by him in good faith under this Act.

Overruling the objections from Madras Presidency

Most of the provincial Governments were quite satisfied with the 1878 Act. But, as with the 1865 Act, the Madras Government was unhappy with the various provisions of the new Act. It sent the following telegram to the Governor General in early February 1878:

The Government unanimously consider that [proposed Forest] Bill pointing directly to arbitrary absorption of private rights and property will cause great dissatisfaction and create serious disaffection. If passed at all, essential that it be declared in the Bill itself inapplicable to Madras. [45]

We had earlier noted the objections that the Madras Board of Revenue had to the Act VII of 1865. The Board had reiterated its stand on August 5, 1871 as follows:

There is scarcely a forest in the whole of the Presidency of Madras which is not within the limits of some village, and there is not one in which, so far as the Board can ascertain, the State asserted any rights of property… until very recently. All of them, without exception, are subject to tribal or communal rights which have existed from time immemorial, and which are as difficult to define and value as they are necessary to the rural population… Here forests are, and always have been, common property. [46]

On September 17, 1875, the Madras Government appointed a committee for the preparation of a separate draft forest bill which was to deal with forests separately under the heads of state forests, communal forests and proprietary forests. The proposed draft bill was vetoed by the Government of India. Below, we present extracts from the detailed minutes written by the Governor of Madras Presidency, the Duke of Buckingham, and members of his Council, Sir William Robinson and Mr. W. Huddleston, which set forth in detail their objections to the Act VII of 1878. The Governor stated in his minute of February 9, 1878:

I believe that the Bill if passed, will in this Presidency, give rise to grave dissatisfaction,. and will create serious disaffection. I believe that it will do so, not because the native people are averse to the maintenance and protection of forests, but because the basis and principle of the bill is the ultimate extinction of all private rights in or over forest or waste land and their absorption by Government¼

As regards interests of the villages… it is a Bill for confiscation, instead of protection…

If existing and proved rights of ownership to land and produce are such that the Forest Settlement Officer finds it impossible, with due regard to the maintenance of a reserved forest, to settle or allow continence of existing rights… he shall commute such rights as he thinks fit. This is probably much the same process which the Norman kings adopted in England for their forest extension.[47]

The powers proposed to be given to the Police are arbitrary and dangerous, viz., arrest without warrant or order by any policeman of any person suspected of having been concerned at some unknown time (two years previously) of being concerned in a forest offence (taking some wild bee’s honey from a tree or the skin of any dead animal)…

Village communities should… be encouraged to preserve and improve their own customary forests or jungles by reaping to their village benefits therefrom…[48]

Sir William Robinson wrote in his Minute of 3.2.1878:

The Board of Revenue have, I believe, justly characterised our Forest Department as ‘eager to destroy all forest rights but those of Government’…[The Bill] seems scarcely appreciative of the fact that the ancient village system, of South India at least, possesses immemorial prescriptions of communal property which are more valued than any novel assignment of a local Government ever can be –

prescriptions, which cannot be traversed, abridged or meddled with, more especially in the direction of confiscation and commutation in the interest of the State, without leaving a deep feeling of injustice and resentment amongst our agricultural communities…[49]

Mr. W. Huddleston wrote in his Minute of 14.2.1878:

That…[this] law is of the most arbitrary character, is capable of being worked in the most oppressive manner to the destruction of private rights, and that it is liable to the grossest abuse, does not really admit of question… In this Presidency, there is not an acre of land which does not lie within the limits of some village, and in the unreclaimed portion of which the villagers have consequently, from time immemorial, claimed and exercised certain common rights of procuring timber for building their houses or constructing agricultural implements, collecting fuel or grass or leaves for domestic and agricultural use; of hunting, fishing and grazing their cattle; and from time to time have, in accordance with local custom, extended cultivation, subject to the Government and village dues. [50]

Brandis wrote a detailed rebuttal of the criticism of the 1878 Act, in his memorandum of 15 August 1878, from which we quote below:

It is clearly the duty of the State, as the guardian of all public interests, to enforce the maintenance in a good state of productiveness of all common lands, and to exercise an effective control over the management and, if anywhere, this duty is important in India. All over the world, municipalities are apt to be short-sighted, the pressing demands and difficulties of the moment too often outweigh a prudent regard for the future; but in India, short-sighted apathy, ignorance and imprudence exist in a higher degree than in Europe; and unless the state interferes and insists upon the maintenance and proper management of the common landed property of towns and villages, such a property is sure to deteriorate, and will certainly not improve.

The correctness of these views cannot be gainsaid; they are not based upon theories and Utopian schemes; they have stood the test of long experience in some of the most civilised and progressing countries of Europe…

Paragraph 15 of the Minute by his Excellency the Governor recommends that village communities should be encouraged to preserve and improve their own customary forests and jungles by reaping to their village benefits therefrom…This is excellent as far as it goes… But unless the communal forests are placed under good management by professionally trained officers, they will neither be preserved nor improved; they will continue to deteriorate. Whereas, if Government recognises its duty, as the guardian of the public interests, and insists on an efficient management of the common woodlands, the village authorities, it may be hoped, will gradually acquire that knowledge which will enable them to take a share in the management of those lands. [51]

It is interesting to note that at this stage Brandis is not attempting to counter the statement of the Madras administrators that traditionally most of forests there have been communal property. He is only insisting that it is ‘unscientific’ to leave the forests to be managed by the communities that are after all ignorant and prone to be short-sighted. His claim is that this view is not based upon theories, but on the practical wisdom coming out of centuries of European experience.

The Government of India waited till a change in the Government of Madras was effected, after which the new Government was persuaded to have Brandis, now about to retire as the Inspector General Of Forests, as a special adviser on forest conservancy from November 1881. A committee was set up under Brandis’ stewardship to draft a forest bill for the Presidency. In its Joint Report on Forest Legislation (Madras, June 10, 1882), the Brandis committee stated:

We now submit, as a result of our deliberations, the accompanying bill, with the following explanatory remarks… [There is no need] to enter in detail upon the question which has been so long agitated in this Presidency, whether the use of forest lands, which the people have enjoyed has arisen out of right, privilege or custom. Such use of waste and forest land for collection of firewood and thorns for fences, for procuring timber for domestic and agricultural purposes, and for pasturing cattle free of payment or otherwise, undoubtedly exists, and has long existed.

If the user is exercised by virtue of a right, the right is vague and undefined…We believe that, in most cases, it is not exercised consciously as such but only under the supposed sanction of custom; that it has been tacitly permitted rather than expressly recognised; and that strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a private right of user in Government waste lands and forests. We are further of opinion that there are no Communal forests in this Presidency. [52]

The question of the proprietary rights of the communities over the forests was thus taken to be settled. For the benefit of those who were still sceptical, Brandis wrote that:

The Committee appointed by Government to frame the Forest Bill stated their deliberate opinion that there are no Communal Forests in this Presidency, and I may add, as the result of the enquiries made by me in the districts through which I have marched, that I have not been able to discover any facts indicating existence of communal forests...Under these conditions no provisions concerning communal forest were required in the Act. [53]

Madras Presidency was fortunate to have a Forest Bill drafted by Sir Dietrich Brandis, the ‘father of scientific forestry’ in India. This Bill, which was passed by the Legislative Council and became Act XXI of 1882, was even more ‘progressive’ than the Forest Act of 1878; in the Madras Act there was no reference at all to village-forests.[54] The introduction of a forest Act in Madras Presidency removed all obstacles in the way of the emergence of modern forestry in the country. With the promulgation of the Act, the forest revenue of Madras Presidency went up from Rs. 9.5 lakhs in 1883 to Rs. 23 lakhs in 1899. The forests under Government management went up from 1182 sq. miles in 1882 to 19,649 sq. miles in 1899 of which 15,862 constituted Reserved Forests.[55]

V. Impact Of Modern Forestry

Growth in Forest Revenue

Table-1 below gives the phenomenal growth achieved in the forest revenue with the inception of scientific forestry for quinquennial periods from 1864 to 1939. The revenue for India (excluding Burma) was Rs.30.19 million in 1937-38, and Rs.124.37 million at the end of the war in 1944-45. On the eve of Independence in 1946-47, revenue from forests in India excluding those of Pakistan, was Rs.104.80 million.

Table-2 below gives the growth in the area of forests under the control of the Forest Department and especially the progress achieved in the demarcation of Reserved Forests from 1878 till 1935. The total area classed as forests including private and other forests and waste lands etc. was over 4,50,000 sq. miles in 1897-98. After forty years, in 1935-36, this figure had come down to 3,19,286 sq. miles, of which around 58,000 sq. miles constituted private forests and only 854 sq. miles constituted forests under the proprietorship of corporate bodies.

Table-1: Average Quinquennial Growth in Forest Revenue and Expenditure


Average Annual


Revenue (in million Rs.)

Expenditure (in million Rs.)














































Table-2: Growth in Area of Forests under the Forest Department (in sq. miles)















































The greatest achievements of the Forest Department should be placed during the first 20 years after the enactment of the Forest Act. From a total area of 14,000 sq. miles of government forests, the total was raised to over 100,000 square miles, of which over 80,000 sq. miles were constituted into Reserved Forests. The steady progress achieved in various states is best illustrated by the case of Assam, which had 269 sq. miles of Government forests in 1878, after the first 18 years of ‘conservancy’. By 1894, 3,683 sq. miles of Reserved Forests were constituted, which had risen to 5,380 sq. miles in 1918 and to 6,596 sq. miles by 1939. A major acquisition by the Forest Department, in this period, happened to be the huge forests of Upper Burma. The conquest of this province by the British in 1887 was largely instigated by forestry-linked commercial interests.

The Exploitation of Forests

Modern management of forests contributed significantly to the rapid expansion of railways, from 1,349 kilometres in 1860 to 14,745 kilometres in 1880 to 51,658 kilometres in 1910.[57] The forests provided both the sleepers for railway lines-each mile of construction requiring about 1,800 in number, each lasting for about 12 years-and also the fuel, till enough coal could be procured from the coal mines.[58] The second major contribution of forestry was in providing valuable timber for export as well as for the growing cantonments and cities. It was noted in 1920 that the average annual export of teak to Europe during 1914-19 was 29,255 tons valued at £3,79,378.[59]

A great impetus to the working of forestry towards the maximum development of industries came from the setting up of the Forest Research Institute at Dehradun in 1906. The Institute shifted to a new building built at a cost of £750,000 and was inaugurated by the then Viceroy Lord Irwin in November1929. On that occasion the Inspector General of Forests Sir Alexander Roger declared:

The aim of Forest Research here has always been to work on lines which would prove of advantage, not only to the Forest Departments of all the Provinces in India, but also to all users of timber and other forest products, especially the Railways, and other large customers of timber, such as Government Gun Carriage and other factories.

Complementing the Institute for its achievements the Viceroy said:

Spars for aeroplanes, poles for gun carriages, stocks for army rifles, sleepers for railways, are all the subject of exhaustive research, at Dehradun, and thanks to that research, have attained a considerably higher degree of efficiency… After many years of work at Dehradun, bamboos are coming into their own for paper pulp and two companies are now being floated in London to work the enormous bamboo forests in Burma… It is expected that these two companies will be the forerunners of others which will work the extensive bamboo forests of India and Burma which are now standing more or less idle… Proposals are now being considered for extensive experimental work and for a survey for the forests which contain potential match woods so that India may, as for as possible, produce all her own matches. In other ways, too, such as in assisting the manufacture of turpentine, oils from grasses, medicinal drugs, gums and other products, the Economic Branch [of the Institute] has done work of the greatest practical utility.

By far the most notable service performed by the Indian forests was towards the war effort. It is often recalled with pride that “teak from Idayara [In Kerala] sent by Mathu Tharagan was used in connection with the battle of Trafalgar [1805]”.[60] It was however during the two world wars that the Indian forestry really grew. During the time of the first world war, approximately 1.7 million cubic feet of timber, mostly teak, was exported annually to the various theatres for war operations.[61] The indigenous raisin industry came into its own during this period. The revenue of the Forest Department shot up from about Rs.3 crores in 1915 to over Rs.5 crores by 1919.

A publication of Government of India stated in 1948, that it was only during the ‘Great War’ that the potential value of India’s forests was fully realised.[62] Such a potential was realised at the expense of deforestation of 6,326 square miles of forest land according to official estimates.[63] For instance, in the Himalayas, “In the Sal forests early attempts to confine the extra fellings to regular coupes marked as laid down in the working plans and felled in advance soon proved impossible. By the end of the war most of the utilisable larger trees had been felled in all the more accessible areas. By felling in six years a volume that should have lasted fifteen to twenty years, or even longer, tremendous inroads were made into capital.”

The Revenue from the forests excluding those of Burma, went up from about 3 crores in 1939 to over 12½ crores by 1945. Table-3 shows the contribution of Madras Presidency to the war effort during 1942-46, the total supply during this period amounted to over Rs.5 crores.

The supplies from Bombay Presidency during 1940-46 were valued over Rs.1.7 crores, those from the Eastern States over Rs.4 crores, those from Central Provinces, over Rs.3 crores, etc. From U.P. the supplies were more than 25 times as much as in World War I. At the end of the war the Government was faced with the problem of disposing large stocks of timber. It was decided to purchase the entire stock valued at over Rs.1 crore from the Defence Department.

Table-3: Forest Supplies from Madras Presidency, 1942-46


1942 - 43

1943 - 44

1944 - 45

1945 - 46

Teak logs (tons)





Hard wood logs






Sawn timber (tons)





Sleepers (nos.)




Total value (Rupees)





Curbs on Unscientific Practices

The first to go was the traditional practice of the local population freely collecting wood from the forests for fuel and various other purposes. As Brandis notes, ‘Up to 1860, firewood was free throughout the country. In 1860, in order to defray the cost of jungle conservancy, which was established about that time, what was called a fuel tax was ordered.’[64] The rate fixed in Madras Presidency was 6 anna per 1000 lb. and in 1868 the Government changed it to 10 anna per 1000 lb. for the Railway companies. Meanwhile the consumption of wood-fuel by the Railways, which was only 9,821 tons in 1863, had risen to 54,358 tons in 1868, and in July 1869 Government raised the rate from 10 anna to 1 rupee per ton for all purchasers. It was only after a lot of public ‘clamour’ that in October 1873 the rate of seigniorage for the public was brought down to the old rate of 6 anna per 1000 lb.

This policy led to more or less complete destruction of all the traditional forest-based industries. In 1870, the question arose in Kurnool district whether seigniorage should be paid for firewood used for sugar-boiling, and the manufacture of indigo, or whether it should continue to be free as hitherto. Commenting on this Brandis says:

The orders of 31st October 1873, which stated, that it is in accordance with immemorial usage to permit villagers to cut firewood free… Industries such as iron-smelling, sugar-boiling and the manufacture of indigo should certainly by all means be encouraged, but this must be done by promoting the growth of wood, and by discouraging its waste. And there is no doubt that the payment of seigniorage on fuel tends to make people more careful in the use of it. [65]

While such arguments justified the imposition of seigniorage on firewood for traditional industries, the Government continued to issue annual licenses up to 1879 to the Aska Sugar factory in Ganjam, the scientific manufacturers of sugar, authorising them for the use of unlimited quantity of firewood at a nominal fee of one rupee per license. When in 1879 it was contemplated that a charge of 4 anna per ton may be levied, the sugar manufacturers pleaded that it was impossible to carry on business whose annual requirement was 10,000 tons. Hence the special indulgence to this factory continued.

The traditional iron-smelting industry was most severely affected by these constraints in the availability of fuel-wood. In this context Brandis writes:

The famous wootz or Indian steel made in crucibles is manufactured in Mysore and in some of the adjoining districts of Madras, and native-made iron is to this day preferred by the people for many purposes to the cheaper iron from England¼ In many places the old native iron-smelting industry has died out through the competition of iron from England, and through the gradually increasing scarcity of fuel. Mr. R. Bruce Forte in a note [Memories of Geological Survey, Vol. IV 1864] …correctly states that it is owing most likely to the greatly increased price of charcoal that the number of native iron-smelting furnaces in the Salem District has decreased of late years. Mr. Forte informs me that in 1878 he noticed considerable traces of an old iron-smelting industry in the south of the Puducottah state… but could hear of no smelting in progress… The same remarks apply to… the Sivaganga Zemindari in Madura… Similar traces of a lapsed iron industry occur to the north-north west of Cape Comorin. There is however, still a large native iron industry in existence [especially in Bellary and Salem districts]. [66]

Unfortunately the measure suggested by Brandis following the above discussion - the constitution of reserved forests which could supply charcoal for the iron-industry - sounded the death-knell for the industry, as there were other more urgent demands on the reserved forests from modern industries like the railways.

The impact of modern forestry on agriculture has been discussed in detail in the preceding article, Indian Agriculture before Modernisation. The basic needs of the cultivators - those of fuel-wood, small timber, wood for implements, fodder and grazing - had been met freely from time immemorial from the neighbouring village forests. After the beginning of modern forestry these were no longer available free and in fact were not available at all in most of the reserved forest areas. Some of these hardships the cultivators faced were highlighted by Sir William Wedderburn, who wrote a very serious indictment of forestry in India in 1884, from which the following is extracted:

We have all heard of the alarming denudation that has been going on for many years, and we have also heard of the hardships which have been inflicted upon the people by means of forest laws in the attempts to repair this mischief… Now this mischief also has arisen from disregard of old village methods. The original method was that each village had its own tract of communal forest available for grazing purposes, and to supply villages with wood for fuel and other domestic purposes. Under our land administration no care has been taken to preserve these communal forests or to help the peasants… to manage them to the best advantage. On the contrary our land system has encouraged the breaking up of these ancient reserves… The cultivators are thus stinted both in grass and wood, and are driven to use as fuel the droppings of cattle which are their only manure…

Now what is the remedy …? It is simply to return to the old order of things to restore the communal forests… The remedy is thus simple enough if we are content to be guided by ancient custom and experience. [67]

A detailed analysis of the anti-agriculture policy of the Forest Department was presented by J.A. Voelcker in his Report on the improvement of Indian Agriculture (Calcutta 1893). Referring to the enormous stress under which Indian agriculture is functioning, Voelcker called for an immediate constitution of ‘Fuel and Fodder Reserves’. In response to the hardships being faced by agriculture and traditional industry, the Government came forward with a statement of Forest Policy which was passed as a Resolution on October 19, 1894. In essence, this somewhat rambling document advocates a slightly flexible approach on the part of forest officials so that agricultural and other local requirements could be satisfied as long as they did not affect the imperial interests.

However, the situation for agriculture and other local interests continued to worsen. As an instance of this growing stress on agriculture, we can consider the rapid increase in the forest area where grazing was prohibited. Ribbentrop stated in 1900 that:

The aggregate and percentage of forest areas, both permanently and periodically closed [to grazing], have constantly increased, and amounted by the end of 1897-98 to 33,738 square miles closed against all animals, and 28,146 square miles closed to browsers in addition. [68]

The area closed against all animals increased to 45,010 square miles by 1925 and to 46,304 square miles by 1930. Just before Independence, in 1946-47, the area closed to grazing constituted about 1/6th of the total forest area under the Government of India.

One can similarly discern the various constraints put on agriculture due to almost total alienation of forest resources from the villagers from the Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture (Bombay 1928). As was to be expected, the Commission could not make any suggestions to alleviate the situation. In the following period, 1924-1947, the number of annual forest offences tried ranged between 1.03 lakhs and 1.43 Lakhs per year, of which unauthorised grazing represented roughly one-third of the cases.

Finally, we may mention the enactment of a new Forest Bill, the Act XVI of 1927, which is the law in force today. This attempted only minor modifications of Act VII of 1878. According to Stebbing:

The changes were small and consisted mainly in redrafting the previous Act and its amendments. The small changes included, in Section 30(b), permission to enclose portions of protected Forests and suspend rights therein for a maximum period of thirty years compared with the twenty years fixed in the 1878 Act. In Section 79 the duties of the public to prevent and extinguish forest fires and help Forest or Police Officers in preventing forest offence were clarified and made somewhat more extensive. [69]

One important change that Stebbing does not mention consisted in the replacement of all reference to ‘rights of communities’ by ‘rights and privileges of persons’.

Opposition to Modern Forestry

The people most affected by the encroachment of forests by the colonial Government, were the forest-dwellers, or ‘tribal’ people, who had lived in forests for centuries. Forests were an integral part of life of these communities. There are several accounts showing how these communities owned and managed the forests.[70] The colonial forest policy rendered them aliens in their own homeland; their practice of shifting cultivation was declared un-scientific and banned wherever possible; produce of their own forests was declared the property of the State; their culture, religion and life-styles were dubbed primitive, etc.

The history of modern forestry in India is also the history of tribal revolts against it; for the tribal people inhabited some of the ‘most valuable forests’. After the insurrection in Chhota Nagpur area in the 1830’s, the British declared the region a ‘Non-regulated Area’. Later the tribal areas were demarcated as ‘Agency Areas’, and still later as ‘Scheduled Areas’; their administration has always been a separate affair. The tribal people never gave up the struggle for their rights.

Equally significant opposition to modern forestry was offered by the Non Co-operation and Civil Disobedience movements. The popular opposition to the unjust forest legislation and the inhuman forest management got strong expression in the various resolutions passed by the Indian National Congress. Stebbing presents the imperialist assessment of these movements as below:[71]

The Non-Cooperation Movement

Whilst the non co-operative movement was at its height considerable damage was committed in some of the forests…The troubles experienced during the non co-operative movement are summarised from information obtained at the headquarters of the provinces in 1925…

Bengal: Under the non co-operative movement considerable damage was done by fire to the forests and forest buildings in 1922-3 in the Chittagang Civil District…

[Uttar Pradesh]: The policy of the Government in Kumaun United Provinces (The Kumaun Forests were made reserve forests in 1915) has met with violent and sustained opposition¼ As a result of the non co-operative movement large tracts were wilfully burnt in Kumaun, thus destroying many years of careful work by the Department…[72]

Bihar and Orissa: During the height of the non-cooperative movement in 1921-22 a larger proportion of the forests were burnt in the annual fires…In Puri there were a number of raids on the forests and trees were cut down. In common with other provinces, where such raids were made, it was attributed to the impression amongst the populace that the British Raj had had come to an end.

Assam: Under the non co-operative movement there was some trouble in Kamrup, and in Goalpara all the forest villages went on strike, instigated thereto by agitators.

Central Provinces: Some trouble was experienced in January 1922, in South Raipur from the non co-operative movement, the people entering the forests and committing damage, under the impression that all authority on the part of Government had ceased. In most divisions a larger proportion of fires occurred, attributing to the same cause.

Madras: The non co-operative campaign brought about organised defiance of the forest law. This was especially serious in the Guntur District, were many cases of violence against forest officials occurred… During the Mappilla rebellion in 1921 the Nilambur Division was for several months in the hands of rebels…

Bombay: The year 1920-21 was a year of bad fires, especially in the southern circle… the agitation against the Department was strongest in Kanara, aided by the non co-operative movement¼

The Civil Disobedience Movement

[Bombay Presidency]: This movement launched in 1930/31, and defiance of the forest laws was one of its chief expressions. It assumed an aggressive and at times violent form in many parts of the Presidency. Mass meetings were held in various places, urging people to cut trees and grass in the forests, to graze cattle in closed forests, to refuse to purchase timber or grass areas, not to pay grazing fees for cultivation, and not to help Forest Officers in any way. Everything possible was done to create in the minds of the villagers a belief that forest laws could be broken with impunity. At two places where forest satyagraha took a violent form, the police were compelled to open fire…

[The Central Provinces and Berar]: In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi launched a Civil Disobedience campaign. He selected the Salt Laws as the main target but as defiance of this Law provided little scope in the Central Provinces, the provincial Congress leaders selected the Forest Laws for attack. The main part of the organised ‘Law Breaking’ consisted of token offences, such as cutting a few bundles of grass, or branches of trees. The general public did not always understand such fine distinctions and more serious offence were committed but the deterrent punishments accorded were sufficient to convince them that the Forest Act was still in force.

VI. Forest Policy In Independent India

Modern forestry practices had, as we have seen, led to an unprecedented exploitation and destruction of Indian forests, especially during World War-II, and reduced the villagers and forest-dwellers to a miserable state. Therefore, it was natural to expect that the Government of Independent India would recognise the inefficiency and injustice inherent in the forest policy, and would attempt to restore to the people some rights over the resources that had been forcibly taken away from them. This inefficiency and injustice was in fact recognised by the Congress during the Independence struggle; it was an important issue during the Non Co-operation and Civil Disobedience Movements. But Independence brought no changes in the forest policy along these lines.

The National Forest Policy Resolution (1952) of the Government of India largely re-asserted the methods and objectives of forest management that had been established by the British during the previous hundred years or so. In fact, the Resolution opened with the bland assertion that ‘the fundamental concepts underlying the existing policy [as enunciated by the Forest policy Resolution of 1894] still hold good.’

It has often been claimed that “much labour was put in by M. D. Chaturvedi, the first Indian Inspector General of Forests [1949-54], in the framing of the new policy.”[73] Mr. Chaturvedi was among the first batch of native officers to be trained at Oxford in 1920’s when the Indian Forest Service was opened to the natives for the first time. However, much of what appears new in the 1952 Resolution is derived from the document, Post-war Forest Policy for India, prepared in 1944 by Sir Hubert Howard, the then Inspector-General of Forests.[74] The Resolution also borrows from the writings of various forest administrators of the British period. As a document, National Forest Policy Resolution of 1952 is remarkable for the forthrightness with which it expounds and defends the principles of modern forest management initiated by the British. Below, we present extracts from the resolution, which seem to need no comment:

Extracts from the National Forest Policy of India (1952)

In their resolution No.22-F dated the 19th October, 1894, the Government of India in the late Department of Revenue and Agriculture enunciated in broad outlines the general policy to be followed in the management of State forests in the country. During the interval that has since elapsed, developments of far reaching importance have taken place in the economic and political fields. The part played by forests in maintaining the physical conditions of the country has come to be better understood. The country has passed through two world wars which disclosed unsuspected dependence of defence on forests. The reconstruction schemes, such as river-valley projects, development of industries and communications, lean heavily on the produce of forests.

2. While the fundamental concepts underlying the existing forest policy still hold good, the Government of India consider that the need has now arisen for a re-orientation of the forest policy in the light of changes which have taken place, since it was enunciated.

3. Vital national needs: The National Forest policy of India is formulated on the basis of six paramount needs of the country, namely:

1) The need for evolving a system of balanced and complimentary land-use, under which each type of land is allotted to that form of use under which it would produce most and deteriorate least;

2) The need for checking -

(a) the denudation in mountainous regions, on which depends the perennial water supply of the river system whose basins constitute the fertile core of the country; (b) the erosion progressing apace along the treeless banks of the great rivers leading to ravine formation, and on vast stretches of undulating waste-lands depriving the adjoining fields of their fertility; (c) the invasion of sea-sands on coastal tracts, and the shifting of sand-dunes, more particularly in the Rajputana desert;

3) The need for establishing treelands, wherever possible, for the amelioration of physical and climatic conditions promoting the general well-being of the people;

4) The need for ensuring progressively increasing supplies of grazing, small wood for agricultural implements, and in particular of firewood to release the cattle-dung for manure to step up food production;

5) The need for sustained supply of timber and other forest produce required for defence, communications and industry;

6) The need for the realisation of the maximum annual revenue in perpetuity consistent with the fulfilment of the needs enumerated above.

These vital needs indicate the functions forests are to fulfil, and provide the fundamental basis of the policy governing their future.

4. Functional Classification of forests: Having regard to the functions aforestated, the forests of India, whether state or privately owned, may be conveniently classified as follows:

a) Protection forests, i.e., those forests which must be preserved or created for physical and climatic considerations;

b) National forests, i.e., those which have to be maintained and managed to meet the needs of defence, communications, industry, and other general purposes of public importance;

c) Village forests, i.e., those which have to be maintained to provide firewood to release cow-dung for manure, and to yield small timber for agricultural implements and other forest produce for local requirements, and to provide grazing for cattle;

d) Tree-lands, i.e., those areas which though outside the scope of the ordinary forest management are essential for the amelioration of the physical conditions of the country.

This classification is merely illustrative and is by no means mutually exclusive. In fact every forest performs more than one function, and has, therefore, to be so managed as to achieve the highest efficiency in respect of the chief functions assigned to it. This functional classification has also no bearing on the classification of the forests distinguished in the Indian Forests Act XVI of 1927, which is based on the degree of control exercisable in them.

6. Two possible considerations: Two considerations, plausible, no doubt at first sight, but, if given undue weight to, may be destructive of national well-being in the long run, should be combated. They are-(1) Neighbouring areas are entitled to prior claim over a forest and its produce; (2) Agricultural requirement has a preferential claim over forest lands.

7. Claims of Neighbouring Communities: Village communities in the neighbourhood of a forest will naturally make greater use of its products for the satisfaction of their domestic and agricultural needs. Such use, however, should in no event be permitted at the cost of national interests. The accident of a village being situated close to a forest does not prejudice the right of the country as a whole to receive the benefits of a national asset. The scientific consideration of forest inevitably involves the regulation of rights and the restriction of the privilege of user, depending upon the value and importance of the forest, however irksome such restraint may be to the neighbouring areas. The Himalayan forests, for instance, are the greatest of national assets; to them we owe the richness of the country. The denudation and under-development of the Himalayan slopes leads to greater intensity and frequency of floods, recurrent erosion, and to coarse detritus being deposited on the fertile submountane tracts. This process inflicts immeasurable loss and misery on the unsuspecting millions in the Indo-Gangetic plain, and brings about a progressive and permanent impairment of soil fertility, and a cumulative reduction in the agricultural potential of the whole land. While, therefore, the needs of the local population must be met to a reasonable extent, national interests should not be sacrificed because they are not directly discernible, nor should the rights and interests of future generations be subordinated to the improvidence of the present generation.

8. Relinquishment of forest land for Agricultural purposes: The indiscriminate extension of agriculture and consequent destruction of forests have not only deprived the local population of fuel and timber, but have also stripped the land of its natural defences against dust-storms, hot desiccating winds and erosion. The old policy, which envisaged the relinquishment, subject to certain safeguards honoured only in their breach, of even valuable forest land for permanent cultivation, has resulted in general deterioration of physical conditions to the detriment of national interests, and must, therefore, be given up. In the abstract, the claims of agriculture undoubtedly appear stronger than those of forestry. The notion widely entertained that forestry, as such, has no intrinsic right to land but may be permitted on sufferance on residual land not required for any other purpose, has to be combated. The role of forests in national economy, both protective and productive, entitles forests to lay claim to an adequate share of land. The importance of treelands in the rural economy of this region where agriculture constitutes the mainstay of the vast bulk of population can scarcely be over-emphasised.

13. National Forests: ‘National Forests’ constitute the basis of India’s strength and wealth; for they comprise valuable timber bearing regions, the produce of which is indispensable for defence, communications and vital industries. They have to be managed chiefly in the interest of the nation as a whole, and their organisation and development is one of the most important functions of the States. Their management on scientific and business lines is essential for maintaining a sustained supply of wood for industry and of large timbers for defence, communications and other national purposes. The basic policy, so far as such forests are concerned, must be to attain national self-sufficiency in these vital supplies. Future development should, therefore, be directed to that end. Cultivation should not be permitted to encroach upon these valuable timber bearing tracts. The solution of the food problem of an ever-increasing population must be sought primarily in intensive cultivation and not in weakening the very basis of national existence by encroaching upon such forests.

14. Village Forests: ‘Village forests’ popularly termed ‘fuel forests’, are intended, in the main, to serve the needs of the surrounding villages in respect of small timber for housing and agricultural implements, fire-wood, leaves for manure and fodder, fencing thorns, grazing and edible forest products. The supply for such requirements should be made available at non-competitive rates, provided they are utilised by the villagers themselves and not traded in. The management of such village forests should aim at meeting the present as well as the future needs of the local population. Removal of the produce in excess of its annual growth should not, therefore, be permitted. Restrictions should be imposed in the interests not only of the existing generation but also of posterity. These considerations render the entrusting of the management of village forests to panchayats, without appropriate safeguards, a hazardous undertaking as has been demonstrated in some of the States. The co-operation of panchayats should be enlisted in the protection and creation of village forests, and in the distribution of forest produce assigned to meet the needs of the local population, but not at the cost of economy and efficiency. While the profit motive in the management of these forests should be relegated to the background, there is no justification for allowing them to become a burden on the general tax-payer; the expenses for development and maintenance of such forests must come from their own income.

27. Forest Education: ¼A common forest education is a very effective means of incubating an esprit-de-corps among officers; of developing a common outlook in forest matters; and of ensuring concerted and integrated policies throughout the country. Openings in the profession of forestry being limited the decentralisation of forest education will militate against economy and efficiency and encourage fissiparous tendencies, create unemployment, and render planned development of forest resources difficult.

The forest policy of Independent India thus remained essentially what it was during the British times, with similar consequences. The forest revenue went up from around Rs.15 cores in 1947 to around Rs.472 cores in 1980. The Government took over almost all forestlands and the extent of reserved forests went up from around 1 lakh square miles in 1947 to over 1.5 lakh square miles by 1976-77. Meanwhile, the total forest cover in the country came down drastically.

The National Commission on Agriculture (1970-76) carried out a reappraisal of the forest policy, only to further assert and emphasise those features of the policy that tend to take away the rights of the communities and vest the management of forests exclusively in the hands of the forest bureaucracy. In its Report of 1976 the Commission looked into the surviving rights of local population, called the ‘Nistar rights’, to collect forest produce for domestic and agricultural purposes, and suggested:

All unclassed and protected forests should be constituted into reserved forests at the earliest possible, in order that nistar rights could be extinguished as far as possible in the manner provided in the forest law. [76]

The Commission further declared:

Free supply of forest produce to the rural population and their rights and privileges have brought destruction to the forests and so it is necessary to reverse the process. The rural people have not contributed much towards the maintenance or regeneration of the forests. Having over-exploited the resources, they cannot in all fairness expect that somebody else will take the trouble of providing them forest produce free of charge. [77]

As regards the tribal people, the Commission’s view was:

Considerable damage is caused to the forest by them by the wasteful practice of shifting cultivation¼ [which] should be regulated, contained and replaced as expeditiously as possible, by resorting to agri-silvi-culture methods… Tribal welfare should also be ensured by… recognising the priority of their employment in forestry operations, so as to establish better symbiotic relationship between the tribals and the forests. [78]

The National Commission on Agriculture also suggested drafting of a new Forest Act to vest greater powers in the forest officers and the police, to revise the provisions for constituting village forests, to enhance the existing set of forest offences and their punishments, etc. Such a draft forest bill was indeed prepared by the Government of India in 1980. However, it was withdrawn without being enacted into legislation due to the widespread protests against it. The proposed bill had fifteen chapters consisting of 143 sections which included all the sections of the Indian Forests Act XVI of 1927, excepting the preamble, and fifty new sections.

The forest policy in Independent India continues to be informed by the colonial attitudes towards the people of India, which is most eloquently summarised in the following quotation of Baden Powell:

First as regards the people, they are ignorant as we have seen of the practical truths established by forests science, the more so as they are blinded by a short-sighted idea of their own immediate interest. All forest conservancy is therefore disliked. It is not to be supposed for one moment that people at large are less hostile to forests conservancy in Europe, than they are in India… And hence it is idle to speak of ‘carrying the people with us in our efforts to conserve’, such phrases are mere folly. All that in India we can hope to do is, from a stand point of necessarily superior knowledge, to ascertain facts and define restrictions and the areas within which they are enforced, with strict justice…[79]


[1]One Hundred Years of Indian Forestry, Vol. II, Forest Research Institute, Dehradun 1961, p.1-2.

[2] Report of the National Commission on Agriculture, Vol. IX, Delhi 1976, p.350.

[3] C.C. Wilson: ‘My Memories of the Forests of India’, in One Hundred Years of Indian Forestry, Vol. I, Forest Research Institute, Dehradun 196, p.64.

[4] P.N. Chopra (ed.), The Gazetteer of India, Vol. II, Delhi 1990, p.384.

[5] One Hundred Years of Indian Forestry, Vol. II, cited earlier, p.13.

[6] D.Brandis, Indian Forestry, Oriental Institute, Woking 1897.

[7] Of the Devara Kadus of Coorg, Brandis gave the following account: “The Devara Kadus or sacred groves, [are] 822 in number, the larger proportion measuring under 10 acres, but a few as large as 50 to 100 acres. These groves are found scattered in all six talukas of Coorg. They are not temple forests, but have been held in veneration by the people from time immemorial. Latterly, however, they have been encroached upon. Many of them have been turned into coffee plantations.” (D.Brandis, Memorandum on the Forest Legislation Proposed for British India other than the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay, Simla 1875, p.6)

[8] D.Brandis, 1897, cited above, p.12-14.

[9] M.J.Bhandary and K.R.Chandrashekar, ‘Sacred groves of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka’, Curr. Sc. 85, 1655, 2003.

[10] D. Brandis: Suggestions Regarding Forest Administration in Madras Presidency, Madras 1883, p.68.

[11] Quoted from, S. N. Ramawamy, Karnataka Aranya Vrikshagalu (in Kannada), Mysore 1969, p.24.

[12] G. P. Majumdar: Upavana Vinoda, Calcutta 1935, p.2-5.

[13] Quoted from Indian Forester, 19, 262, 1893.

[14]For further details, see, F. C. Osmaston, The Management of Forests, London 1968.

[15] For instance the number of oak trees in the royal forests, Whittlewood and New Forest, came down from 51,046 and 123,927 in 1608, to 32,611 and 5,211 respectively in 1783. The situation with most other royal forests was even worse. (Data from Albion, cited below, p.136).

[16] R.G.Albion, Forest and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy 1652-1862, Harvard 1926, p.106-107 and 136-8.

[17] E. P. Stebbing, The Forests of India, Vol.I, London 1922, p.38, 62-3.

[18] E.P.Sterbbing, Vol. I, cited above, p.69.

[19] E.P. Stebbing, Vol.I, cited above, p.64.

[20]The one and only precedent for this, which is repeatedly cited by the Imperial historians of forestry, is the alleged declaration of Tippo Sultan that teak trees of Malabar are royal property, after his conquest of the area in 1784. Thus Stebbing (Vol. I, cited above, p.69) states that: ‘Within a few years after the first attempts to extract teak from the Malabar forests by the European syndicates, grounds arose for believing that, whilst Tippoo Sahib held sway over this part of India, the right of felling teak had been… an exclusive royal privilege.’ According to a report of Mr. Underwood the Collector of Malabar in 1839 (cited in Stebbing, Vol.I, cited above, p.84): ‘Under the former rajahs the trade was free, and the right of private individuals unfettered… the only interference by the ruling authority being the levy of a small duty of about one rupee per candy. When Tippoo Sahib took possession of the province of Malabar, he, in the exercise of his rights as a conqueror, annihilated the private right… He however so far recognised the rights of the proprietors as to make them an allowance of two fanams per tree of 18 inches diameter.’

[21] Cited from H. Falconer (ed.), Selections from the Records of the Bengal Government, Calcutta 1853, p.178-9.

[22] E.P.Stebbing, Vol.I, cited above, p.107.

[23] E.P.Stebbing, Vol.I, cited above, p. 190.

[24] Use of teak for ship building in India precedes the British rule. As Albion notes: “Ships built of teak were famous for their durability and safety. It had long been valued highly in India. The Maharattas and other Indian powers had navies of teak, and in the last days of the Bourbons, Hyder Ali built warships for the French Navy. However the traditional ship building activity did not lead to a destruction of forests, nor did it require their reservation. It may also be noted that the Indian teak ships lasted fifty years, while the British ships had to be renewed every twelve years. No European built ship was capable of doing more than six voyages in safety, Indian-made ships, on the other hand, were hardy enough to be bought by the Navy even after having been on the seas for 14 or 15 years. In Bombay, Goa and Malabar, the indigenous ship building industry continued on a fairly large scale till the demand for wooden ships stopped around 1870.” (R.G.Albion, 1926,cited earlier, p.365).

[25] E. P. Stebbing, Vol.I, cited earlier, p.298-9.

[26] E. P. Stebbing, Vol. I, cited earlier, p 206.

[27] Cited from E. P. Stebbing, Vol.I, cited earlier, p.524-7.

[28] One Hundred Years of Indian Forestry, Vol.I, cited earlier, p. 67.

[29] Cited from E. P. Stebbing, The Forests of India, Vol.II, London 1923, p.8-10.

[30] Incidentally, while the Madras government raised objections to the introduction of the Act in Madras Presidency, the Forest Conservator of the Presidency, Cleghorn, wrote in 1867 that the introduction of the Act would have beneficial results. He also wanted that all forest officers of higher grades should have the powers of a subordinate magistrate.

[31] Cited from E. P. Stebbing, Vol.II, cited earlier, p.14-15. Citing the above statement of the Madras Government, Stebbing bemoans, “It will be observed from the above that the Madras Board of Revenue, in spite of sixty years of forest destruction, had not yet been able to appreciate the fundamental basis of forest conservancy. That if an ignorant population failed to realise that their improvident acts would result in totally destroying forest areas and reducing them to barren lands, thus leaving nothing for their successors, it was, at least the duty of a Government to take such steps as would remove the danger.” (E. P. Stebbing, Vol.II, cited earlier, p.17).

[32] E. P. Stebbing, Vol.II, cited earlier, p. 70.

[33] B. H. Baden Powell and J. Sykes Gamble (eds.), Report of the Proceedings of the Forest Conference at Allahabad 1874, Calcutta 1874, p. 3-30.

[34] Proceedings of the Forest Conference at Allahabad, cited above, p.112-113

[35] C.F. Amery, ‘On Forest Rights in India’, in D.Brandis and A.Symthies, (Eds.), Report of the Proceedings of the Forest Conference Held at Simla, October 1875, Calcutta 1876, p.27.

[36] This happens to be the only other precedence, apart from the declaration of Tippoo Sultan that all the teak trees in the Malabar forests are state property, which is often cited.

[37] D.Brandis, Memorandum on Forest Legislation Proposed for British India Other than the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay, Simla 1875, p.13. Brandis expresses the same view in his later book Indian Forestry (Woking 1897): “My deliberate opinion from the beginning [has been], that the growth of forest rights in India had been analogous to the growth of similar rights of user in Europe.”

[38] On the status of the rights of Common in Europe, we have the following description from Brandis: “In Europe, rights to wood and pasture in the forest of another are, as a rule, and unless there is an agreement between the persons concerned to the contrary, subject to certain limitations arising out of the nature of these rights¼ The continental forest laws recognise a further limitation of customary forest rights in another respect¼ that is, the exercise of these forest rights may be reduced in accordance with the condition and the possible yield of the forest. With regard to pastures, this is defined in Articles 67 to 69 [of the French Forest Law Code Forestier] which prohibit¼ pasture in any blocks which have not been declared¼ safe against cattle, by the forest administration.” (D.Brandis, 1875, cited above, p.13).

[39] D.Brandis, Memorandum on the Demarcation of the Public Forests in the Madras Presidency, Simla 1878, p.36-7

[40] E.P.Stebbing, Vol. II, cited earlier, p.469.

[41] Indian Forest Act 1927, substitutes ‘it is proposed’ with ‘it has been decided’.

[42] Inserted by Act V of 1890.

[43] Inserted by Act V of 1890.

[44] For this, a separate clause was inserted later.

[45] Cited from D.Brandis, Memorandum on the Demarcation of the Public Forests in the Madras Presidency, Simla 1878, p.40

[46] Cited in Brandis 1878, cited above, p.39.

[47] We may recall that Thomas Munro had also mentioned the Norman precedence in his minute of November 26, 1822.

[48] Cited from Brandis 1878, cited above, p.41-2

[49] Cited from Brandis 1878, cited above, p.42-3. It may be of interest to note that an earlier decision by Robinson to recognise rights of ownership in forests cultivated in rotation by agriculturists in South Kanara drew sharp rebuke from the then Agricultural Secretary to the Government of India, A.O.Hume – later to be the father of Indian National Congress – who, in his note of June 26, 1876, cautioned “the government of India to watch carefully and satisfy itself that [Robinson’s] kindly and warm-hearted sympathy for the welfare of the semi-savage denizens of the Kanara forests does not lead him into a too lavish dissipation of the capital of the state”.

[50] Cited from Brandis 1878, cited above, p.45

[51] Cited from Brandis, 1878, cited above, p. 48.

[52] D.Brandis, Suggestions Regarding Forests Administration in Madras Presidency, Madras 1883, p.277.

[53] D.Brandis, 1883, cited above, p.20. Having made this categorical assertion to settle the issue under consideration, Brandis, however, goes on to note that what he means is that Communal Forests, in the sense in which they are understood in Europe, were not found by him in the Madras Presidency: “The villagers are in the habit of collecting firewood, thorns for fences, and of pasturing their cattle on, driving them across, and themselves passing over wastelands…and to this extent they may be said to exercise rights of pasture or other rights of user in the waste and forest lands included in their village areas, but this is nothing else than what we find in the public forests of all countries. Such rights of user are vastly different from property rights, and their existence does not constitute the forests in which they are exercised communal forests. A practice exists in the South Arcot, and in several other of the southern districts, under which the members of the village community hold pattas for fruit-trees, fisheries, and grass beds for thatching in common (Samudayam pattas); but Communal Forests, in the sense in which the word Is understood in the continent of Europe, do not, so far as I am aware, exist in this Presidency.” (Brandis, 1883, cited above, p.20)

[54] Still, there are anglophile scholars in India who, though quite aware of much of the debate cited above, would like to portray Sir Dietrich Brandis as a visionary of “community oriented system of forest management”. Brandis’ vision, it is contended, was torpedoed by the likes of Baden Powell (see for instance, Ramachandra.Guha, ‘Dietrich Brandis and Indian Forestry: A Vision Revisited and Reaffirmed’, in M.Poffenberger and B.Mcgean, (Eds.), Village Voices, Forest Choices (Oxford 1996) p.86-100.)

[55] E.P.Stebbing, The Forests of India, Vol. III, London, 1926, p.25.

[56] Based on the data in E.P.Stebbing, The Forests of India, Vol. II, p.530; Vol. III, p. 620.

[57] Data cited form, Government of India, History of Indian Railways, Delhi 1964.

[58] The first coal mine at Raniganj, which went into production in 1880, and all the later mines themselves required enormous quantities of timber for their underground structures.

[59] Cited from Statement of Forest Conditions in British India, London 1920, p.23.

[60] One Hundred Years of Indian Forestry, Vol. II, cited earlier, p. 7.

[61] During 1917-18 alone, 2,47,500 tons of timber, excluding railway sleepers, were supplied through the specially created ‘timber branch’, while 50,000 tons of fodder grass were exported to help war operations in Egypt and Iraq. From Burma alone, over half a million sleepers had been shipped.

[62] Cited from, Ministry of Agriculture: India’s Forests and the War, New Delhi 1948. The National Commission on Agriculture later noted that: “Many varieties of timber which were not used previously in any appreciable quantity began to be consumed in large quantities. The plywood industry came into its own during this period and many new plywood factories were started, especially in the Calcutta area.” (Report of the National Commission on Agriculture, Vol IX, New Delhi 1976, p.6)

[63] This and following statistics are based on E. P. Stebbing: Forests of India, Vol. IV, H.G. Champion and F. C. Osmaston (eds.), Oxford 1962.

[64] D. Brandis, Suggestions Regarding Forests Administration in Madras Presidency, Madras 1883, p.32

[65] D. Brandis, 1883, cited above, p.33-34.

[66] D. Brandis, 1883, cited above, p.52-53.

[67] Indian Agriculturist, July 12, 1884. Wedderburn’s paper was partially reproduced in the Indian Forester (Vol.10, 510, 1884) with a sharp rejoinder that forests were never managed by villagers, and in any case they can no longer be left to their management

[68] B. Ribbentrop, Forestry in British India (Calcutta 1900) p.165.

[69] E. P. Stebbing, Vol. IV, cited earlier.

[70] For instance C. F. Amery noted in his paper presented at the 1875 Forest Conference at Simla that: “The Bheels of Satpura range…until their conquest by the British, …afforded an instance of people having common rights to the whole region they were settled in.”

[71] E.P. Stebbing, The Forests of India, Vol. III, cited earlier, p.257-260; see also, Vol. IV, cited earlier.

[72] Nearly 828.8 square kilometres of forests were affected in Kumaun Division. Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant, later to be Home Minister of Independent India, who was the Secretary of Kumaun Association from 1916 declared in his book, Forest Problem in Kumaun (Allahabad 1922), that the forest policy of the British was merely one of encroachment and exploitation and that the forest legislation should be drastically amended allowing local population to take freely all minor forest produce and fuel wood, except perhaps some special species of high commercial value.

[73] 100 Years of Indian Forestry, Vol. I, cited earlier, p.84.

[74] See G. F. Taylor, ‘The development of Forest Policy in India-The Forgotten Policy: Sir Hubart Howard’s Post War Policy of 1944’, Indian Forester, Vol. 108, 196-201 (1982). We may note that, in the same way, the National Health Policy of Independent India was based upon formulations made by a committee headed by Sir Joseph Bhore and instituted by the British administration in 1946. Similar pre-Independence formulations formed the basis of the policy statements of the Government of Independent India in most other sectors.

[75] Government of India, Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Resolution No.13-1/52-F, dated 12th May 1952, reproduced here from One Hundred Years of Indian Forestry, Vol. II, cited earlier, p.329-336.

[76] Report of the National Commission on Agriculture, Vol IX, New Delhi 1976, p.376.

[77] Report cited above, Vol. IX, p.25.

[78] Report cited above, Vol. IX, p.267.

[79] Indian Forester, 2, 1, 1876.