Indian Forests and Forestry under British Colonialism

Colonialism in India initiated fundamental changes in patterns of resource use, notably forests, and has been described by some workers as a ‘watershed’ in the history of the subcontinent (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). Prior to the arrival of the British, forest land was a common property resource. Far from being an open-access system that Hardin (1968) describes, India’s forests were managed, and their use was strictly mediated by social institutional structures such as caste (Gadgil and Guha, 1992) and cultural traditions (Gadgil et al, 1993).

In east India the area under forest began to shrink as part of the process of colonialism. The British empowered local zamindars (landowners/landlords) to tax and control indigenous communities during the nineteenth century, and encouraged local communities to clear forest for cultivation. Sometimes the clearing of forest for agricultural land was undertaken by migrant tribal labourers, such as the Santals in West Bengal, and financed by the zamindar until the land became productive. In this way, forest loss facilitated the creation of villages which then became subject to the collection of revenue (Poffenberger, 1995).

As the process of colonialism advanced, natural resources came to be increasingly commodified, and, in serving the needs of the empire, began to flow out of the subcontinent. Trees such as Indian teak were highly prized, notably at times of conflict, such as the Napoleonic war, and facilitated the maritime expansion (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). Perhaps the most notable resource intensive undertaking by the Raj, was the use of timber in the construction of the Indian railway system. In the fifty years between 1860 and 1910, railway track increased from 1349 Kms to 51,658 Kms (Government of India, 1964). For every mile of track laid, 860 sleepers were required, which had an expected lifespan of approximately 12 to 14 years. In the 1870’s, it was calculated that every year one million sleepers were needed. Indian trees, particularly sal, (Shorea robusta), deodar, (Cedrus deodara) and teak, (Tectona grandis) were preferred as sleepers, for their perceived strength over other Indian timbers, so it was these three species that were intensively exploited. Much sal (Shorea robusta), was extracted from the forests of the Jungle Mahals of West Bengal and Bihar for the construction of local railway lines, and the main line Bengal-Nagpur railway in 1898 (Poffenberger, 1995). While sal was initially found to occur in abundance near to the sites of railway construction in the Indian peninsular, its overharvesting necessitated procuring other species, notably deodar from the forests of the north-west Himalaya (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). The demand for timber, most notably for railway expansion was seen to intensify and necessitated extraction of timbers much further afield, whilst also stimulating and facilitating commercial demand. In some zamindaries, such as Midnapore in West Bengal, timber merchants rushed to purchase and lease large tracts of forest land, reflecting the increasing value of forests (Poffenberger, 1995).

Somewhat inevitably, the Raj experienced a resource crunch, and the intensive extraction of a few species could not be sustained indefinitely. The shortage of useful timber created by the demand for rail expansion was the first indication that, contrary to the belief of the time, India’s forests were inexhaustible. The prospect of a diminishing resource base and a need for plentiful raw materials on which to expand the empire must have been behind the colonial drive to manage and control forest resources more effectively. To achieve this aim would necessitate the creation of a suitable organisation, thus in 1864, the Forest Department was formed.

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