– Historical Background of Forests

Environmental history writings attempted to address impact of colonial modernity in the spheres of political, social, economic and cultural fields. The efforts have been made to understand administrative and economic aspects of colonial forest policies, but scientific aspects received little attention. Consequently scientific dynamics of British forestry remained a less focused domain in the literature on colonial forest history. By examining the history of forest policies in South India, this paper proposes that scientific.[1] There is enough evidence to show that dense forests once covered India. The changing forest composition and cover can be closely linked to the growth and change of civilizations. Over the years, as man progressed the forest began gradually depleting. The growing population and man’s dependence on the forest have been mainly responsible for this.

All ancient texts have some mention of the forest and the activities that were performed in these areas. Forests were revered by the people and a large number of religious ceremonies centred on trees and plants. The Agni Purana, written about 4000 years ago, stated that man should protect trees to have material gains and religious blessings. Around 2500 years ago, Gautama Buddha preached that man should plant a tree every five years. Sacred groves were marked around the temples where certain rules and regulations applied. When Chandra Gupta Maurya came to power around 300 BC, he realized the importance of the forests and appointed a high officer to look after the forests.[2] Ashoka stated that wild animals and forests should be preserved and protected. He launched programmes to plant trees on a large scale. These rules continued even during the Gupta period. During the Muslim invasions a large number of people had to flee from the attacks and take refuge in the forests. This was the beginning of a phase of migration to the forest. They cleared vast areas of forests to make way for settlements.

The Muslim invaders were all keen hunters and therefore had to have patches of forests where they could go hunting. This ensured that the trees in these areas were not felled, and the forest ecology was not tampered with. The Mughals showed more interest in gardens and their development. Akbar ordered the planting of trees in various parts of his kingdom. Jahangir was well known for laying out beautiful gardens and planting trees.[3]

Forests in India under Colonial Rule (1800s)

During the early part of the British rule, trees were felled without any thought. Large numbers of trees such as the sal, teak, and sandalwood were cut for export. The history of modern Indian forestry was a process by which the British gradually appropriated forest resources for revenue generation. Trees could not be felled without prior permission and knowledge of the authority. This step was taken to ensure that they were the sole users of the forest trees. But after some time, the British began to regulate and conserve. In 1800, a commissioner was appointed to look into the availability of teak in the Malabar forests. In 1806, the Madras government appointed Capt. Watson as the commissioner of forests for organizing the production of teak and other timber suitable for the building of ships.

In 1855, Lord Dalhousie framed regulations for conservation of forest in the entire country. Teak plantations were raised in the Malabar hills and acacia and eucalyptus in the Niligiri Hills. In Bombay, the conservator of forest, Gibson, tried to introduce rules prohibiting shifting cultivation and plantation of teak forests. From 1865 to 1894, forest reserves were established to secure material for imperial needs. From the 18th century, scientific forest management systems were employed to regenerate and harvest the forest to make it sustainable. Between 1926 and 1947 afforestation was carried out on a large scale in the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In the early 1930s, people began showing interest in the conservation of wild life.

During World War I forest resources were severely depleted as large quantities of timber were removed to build ships and railway sleepers and to pay for Britain’s war efforts. Between the two wars, great advancements in scientific management of the forests were made, with many areas undergoing regeneration and sustained harvest plans being drawn up. Sadly, emphasis was still not on protection and regeneration but on gaining maximum revenue from the forests. World War II made even greater demand on the forest than World War I had done. With the independence of India in 1947, a great upheaval in forestry organization occurred. The princely states were managed variably, giving more concessions to the local populations. The transfer of these states to the government led to deforestation in these areas. But some forest officials claim that the maharajas cut down a lot of their forests and sold them. This may have been the case in some instances, but a lot of forest had existed and has been lost since the government took over these states.

The new Forest Policy of 1952 recognized the protective functions of the forest and aimed at maintaining one-third of India’s land area under forest. Certain activities were banned and grazing restricted. Much of the original British policy was kept in place, such as the classification of forest land into two types. The next 50 years saw development and change in people’s thinking regarding the forest. A constructive attitude was brought about through a number of five-year plans. Until 1976, the forest resource was seen as a source of earning money for the state and therefore little was spent in protecting it or looking after it.,In 1976, the governance of the forest came under the concurrent list. ‘Development without destruction’ and ‘forests for survival’ were the themes of the next two five-year plans, aiming at increasing wildlife reserves and at linking forest development with the tribal economy.

National Forest Policy, 1894

The term forest policy connotes actions of a Government for the preservation, maintenance, enhancement of forests and the optimum utilisation of forest resources to attain national welfare. It is defined as a set of principles or guidelines adopted by a Government to attain fixed objectives in forestry for the welfare of the nation. Forest policy has to undergo changes according to the changed circumstances. Initially, the orientation was mostly towards obtaining the required timber.[4]

Subsequently efforts were made to plant for replacing the felling. This was later followed by systematic conservation of forests through protective steps to guard against unregulated felling. Then regeneration and afforestation had become an integral part of forest conservation policy to compensate for the felling and also to augment resources. In the present times, forest policy has attained a new dimension to solve problems arising out of rising trends of environmental hazards caused mainly by deforestation. The British administration remained indifferent towards the problem of forestry in the early years of their rule. They, themselves, were new to ideas of systematic forestry as they had no developed forest organisation then in England. Reckless exploitation of forests had continued and they were under the impression that the forest wealth of India was inexhaustible. [5]

Scientific forestry started in India by the end of the nineteenth century. The forests were demarcated and surveyed. It necessitated to lay down general principles for management. It was at the time, Voelekar, Superintendent of Forests, submitted a report to the Government on “Improvement of Indian Agriculture”. In it, he stressed the need for formulating a forest policy with a definite objective of serving agricultural interests. On the basis of these recommendations, the Government of India declared the forest policy on 19 October 1894. Prior to the advent of this policy, there was no uniform system for the management of the forests which were mostly the properties of the Princely States, nawabs and zamindars. The Circular noted that the forests of India were the property of the State. The sole object of the management of forests was to promote the general well-being of the people as a whole and regulate benefits to the people living within and in the vicinity.  Indian forests were classified into four groups. They were :

  • Forests the preservation of which is essential on climatic or physical grounds;
  • Forests which afford a supply of valuable timber for commercial purpose;
  • Minor forests containing somewhat inferior kinds of timber and managed for the production of wood, fodder, grazing and other produce for local consumption and
  • Pasture lands. Forests of the first group were situated on hill slopes. They must be preserved on account of their indirect effects and without any reference to their commercial value.

These indirect effects of forests are on climate, rainfall, water storage and prevention of denudation. The forests of the second group included the great tracts which provided valuable timbers like teak, deodar, sal and so on. They were to be managed mainly on commercial lines as valuable properties in order to obtain revenue to the State. People dwelling on the margins of such forests were to be provided small timber, fuel wood, fodder, grazing ground and minor forest products either at low price or free of cost. It was also stated in the Circular that “the claims of cultivation are stronger than the claims of forest preservation” and wherever an effective demand for culturable land exists and can only be supplied from forests area, the land should ordinarily be relinquished without hesitation.


After the advent of the British Raj in India, India suffered losses on all fronts. The major blow was on the forests as they were exploited and horribly misused for their greedy purposes. During the World War II, major part of the forest cover vanished from the lands of the country as timber and teak were exported back to United Kingdom for the making of battle ships which was beneficial to them in the war. Whilst staying in India, they removed and uprooted most of the forest cover for laying down railway tracks for easy and faster transportation of troops during the war. They snatched dwellings from people who had been residing in the forests for generations for their purposes. They appointed officials for the sole reason to rule the perimeters of the forest cover. Very gradually, the national forest policies were introduced which lifted the burden on the people little by little as the year went on.

-By Ipshita Vedajna,
School of Law, Christ University,







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