A Forest History of India by Richard P. Tucker. Sage, 2011, Rs 750.
History as we learn in school is often so boringly taught that one tends to avoid reading history altogether. It is only when confronted with complex issues in real life especially while dealing with natural resources management that one wishes having paid a little more attention to history. This volume, a collection of essays on the environmental history of India’s forests is hence most welcome for it throws light not only on why the forest wealth of India has deteriorated over time, but also why, overall there is degradation of the environment. The most obvious reason for depleting forests is the way we view them – they are meant to be ‘exploited’. This kind of thinking is not there amongst those who depend on natural resources for subsistence. The colonials brought in production oriented priorities that resulted in major restrictions of forest access for traditional users in rural areas. That is the first conflict – the subsistence needs of the local population versus the commercial needs of the state. This conflict continues but it is helpful to understand its origins and the meandering way in which it has only become stronger over time. Initially, there were plenty of resources being used by a distributed and sparse population. Forests appeared endless, what did it matter if a few acres here or there were converted into agricultural lands or settlements, especially cantonments? The supply of timber appeared endless – the demands of the ship builders and railways were easily met. However, this idyll could not last long. Forests do not regenerate or mature all that quickly. What was being removed was growth of hundreds of years – sort of like the deep ‘fossil’ groundwater that we think is there in plenty.
Ecology and economics rarely work together despite sharing an origin in ‘oikos’. Apart from the first set of conflicts of resource access, a second set of conflicts become steadily obvious as Tucker continues his case studies from different parts of India. The forest service was commissioned by the British to ensure that forests were conserved – the enactment of the Forest Act 1878 enabled the creation of protected areas. But then, forests are valuable not only for the timber, but the land itself. The next set of conflicts is between the forest department and its conservation agenda and the revenue department which measured its success on the basis of the taxation derived from crop production spurred by a rapidly growing population. This in turn meant decline of area under forests. Another major contributor to forest decline was the tea industry. Most of the plantations were established by clearing natural forest on lands purchased from the government or from private owners or commandeered from village commons. The second World War upped the ante – timber production in reserves during the war doubled while fuelwood extraction tripled. Whatever the reason, the decline was rapid.
The book is fascinating for the way the author weaves politics, history and economics together with snippets of what an able administrator could do or what could happen when the governance structures were not strong. Laws can be enacted but implementation is not easy. In fact the system of governance of forests, management by restriction ends up promoting bribery and dodging fines with the subsistence users easily caught while the big offenders go scot free and results in constant conflicts between foresters and villagers, whether in Kumaon or Kerala . The book is a welcome addition to understanding the complexities of natural resource management especially with the CBD CoP coming up in Hyderabad later this year where protected areas are to be discussed in detail, apart from the Rio+20 conference where governance is one of the primary discussion topics.