Forest rights and wrongs


By Mahesh Rangarajan
Published: Saturday 15 July 2000

India's forests have been a site of conflict for centuries. But it is only over the last decade that their history has become the subject of serious enquiry. The first wave of work focussed on the struggle put up by resistance movements against imperial and post-independence power structures from the grassroots and secondly, on the structure and motivations of policy from above. It is only recently that a more refined and nuanced approach has begun to evolve -- one that pays more attention to the specific features of different regions of this vast sub-continent and to the vagaries of nature and society that often defied and sometimes defeated bureaucratic plans. In this respect, Bengal has a significance that few states can perhaps match. Its record of participatory management has been both a cause celebre and a hotly controversial scheme. But historically, it was the first region in all of South Asia to come under British sway. Forested areas within its bounds included the sub-montane areas near Darjeeling and the mangroves of the Sundarbans delta. The sal forests of the western edge that are virtually indistinguishable both ecologically and culturally from the great central Indian forest belt.

But Modern Forests is a fascinating study for reasons other that the choice of subject. Among the dozen or so full-length studies on these lines that have been completed and published, this one stands out for the clarity of the argument and lucidity of style. There is no compromise on the complexity of the story. It proceeds at several levels being based on a doctoral thesis that examined the links between forest, governance and politics in Bengal across two centuries. In this volume, Sivaramakrishnan is only concerned with the colonial period, but he whets the reader's appetite.

Under British rule, agricultural and forested lands were recast in a new mould. Their central objective in the early years was to control what they saw as disorderly incursions on the edge of the cultivated spaces. The jungle was potential cultivable land, with only desultory efforts at encouraging the zamindars or rent receivers to plant teak saplings. Yet this was a qualitatively different regime from those of the past. An earlier continuum of forest-savannah-farm began to break down under concerted pressure. Even the great schemes to wipe out large wild animals have to be seen in this light. Plough-based cultivation had to be encouraged to replace the waste with revenue yielding croplands. Simultaneously, the forest was to be re-ordered to maximise the output of timber and non-wood products for industry and for cash for the government. The 'agro-forest', a new but illuminating term he uses to describe the zones of transition, had no place in the new scheme of things. In these ways, the stage was set for major changes in the land even before the annexation of forests as part of government's wooded estate in the 1870s and after.

It is here that regional features become important. The spread of state forests in Bengal was about the same as in the Central Provinces, about 20,000 square miles. But there was a significant difference. A very small proportion in the eastern province was reserved forest where all local user rights were extinguished. There were larger zones where the forest was declared 'protected' or simply 'unclassed'. Here, there was more scope for contests between various claimants to the land and its produce. Rights had been recorded but not settled. This point is of contemporary relevance, for virtually all the Joint Forest Management schemes in the state lie in these lands.

The three-fold classification of forested lands was itself a great advance on the earlier East India Company policy of simply auctioning off blocks of forest for tree-felling. But in the Adivasi-inhabited areas of the Jungle Mahals, the choices were more difficult. One point that emerges clearly is that the tribals were not a homogenous mass. There were major differences between the populous Santhals, who were pioneer cultivators, and the Paharias of the Rajmahal hills with their own brand of slash and burn agriculture. In turn, tribals lived on a mix of activities, including trade in forest products, the sale of labour and agriculture. In many ways, the colonial impact on their lives was deep and irreversible. As a British official put it, the object of policy was to add to the value of the forest estate by assisting nature in multiplying her wealth. This often entailed direct interference with the ways people used the same lands.

Still, even officialdom was divided and its policy shot through with contradictions, some of its own making. Controls on grazing near the hill station of Darjeeling led to problems of milk supply in the urban settlement. Large-scale projects to wipe out venomous reptiles rarely made a dent on their populations. More seriously, for decades, the control of fire and cattle grazing was the cornerstone of management of forests across British India. It was the main device used to increase the growth of marketable tree species in the woodlands. But by the end of the period studied by the author the shortcoming in these policies had become evident. The complex ecology of the forest often derailed official plans. There was much soul-searching and serious debate on what had gone wrong. Exclusion had not produced the kind of cash-rich and timber-studded forest it was designed to.

The wider significance of the book lies in the attention to detail. Too much of our debate has been on generalities, but the writer brings to bear a formidable set of skills. To his credit, he wears them lightly, and the intelligent lay reader should have no problem in assimilating his insights. A set of carefully chosen portraits and photographs from the old records serve to illustrate many points made in the text. On a more serious note, there is a moving away from polemics that shed little light and much heat and an attempt to lay bare the processes by which power was wielded -- with varying degrees of success -- on the forest floor. The regional agrarian economy has rarely been the framework for looking at the ways in which our forests have been remade: this is precisely the gap filled by this study.

There is a second, equally important contribution, easy to miss but no less significant. 'Nature' is a category easily bandied about in conservation circles. Sivaramakrishnan not only shows it means different things to different people. He also demonstrates that natural cycles of renewal, decay and life have been reshaped through centuries of human intrusion. No pure, pristine forest exists though there are still intelligent choices to be made on how to intervene and where.

Make no mistake. This is a book that sets standards that will be hard to equal, let alone surpass. It is a must for anyone interested in going beyond the superficial in knowing about the past and future of our forests. In the forthcoming volume, the author will bring the story to the present. At the end of this book, the reader is left waiting for and wanting more.

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