Filling in the historical gap on forestry

History of Forestry in India Edited by Ajay Rawat Publisher: Indus Publishing Company, New Delhi, 1991 Price: Rs 350

By Ramachandra Guha
Published: Thursday 15 July 1993

ECONOMIC historians writing on India have usually focussed on two crucial sectors -- agriculture and industry -- and left out of their purview forestry, which provides crucial inputs to both these and is of some importance in its own right. History of Forestry in India, edited by Ajay Rawat who is a historian at Kumaon University, goes some way towards redressing the neglect. Rawat has assembled a useful collection of articles written from a variety of perspectives and covering several important forests in India.

However, as in most edited volumes, the quality of the individual contributions vary greatly. The editor himself contributes two essays, a somewhat sketchy overview of wildlife in Indian history and a more focussed and substantial one on forest management in the Uttarakhand Himalaya.

The book opens with Madhav Gadgil's much reprinted speech, made on the Foundation Day of the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, on the historical forces behind forest destruction in modern India. Not all chapters match this standard. A couple of retired forest officials counterpose the "scientific" forestry they claim was introduced by the British to the allegedly wasteful and irrational practices of local communities. And these claims come immediately after Gadgil's convincing demonstration of the manifold social and environmental limitations of scientific forestry as practiced in India.

The other good pieces include one by J Jha, the veteran historian of tribal resistance movements, who contributes a compact overview of forest management and social conflict in colonial Bihar. Also commendable is Richard Tucker's essay on the Gaddi tribals of Himachal Pradesh, which juxtaposes a careful analysis of livestock rearing and resource use patterns with a consideration of the factors making for deforestation and soil erosion in the last century. Both essays underline the central role played by colonialism in the disruption of the social and ecological fabric of rural communities.

But the volume does not do justice to the rich range of sources available to the trained historian. Several contributions are poorly researched, others hastily written. Not one essay makes use of the forest department's massive provincial records, essential for constructing a fuller picture of traditional resource use practices and the changes introduced by a regime of strict state control. There is much work ahead for historians of Indian forestry.

Ramachandra Guha is a fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi.
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