Every time the government of India attempted to modernize forestry legislation, critics jumped into the fray and derailed all initiatives by alleging the government of perpetuating imperialist legacy of depriving rights of forest dwellers. While their criticisms of state control may be right in some particular conditions, they cannot serve as broad generalizations in all situations.
Political economy of British India’s forest policy and legislation has seen many scholarly works after independence. Some populist critics of the state have criticized the British Indian government of bringing forestry policy, laws and practices that deprived rights of communities and increased powers of bureaucracy. Every time the government of India attempted to modernize forestry legislation, these critics jumped into the fray and derailed all initiatives by alleging the government of perpetuating imperialist legacy of depriving rights of forest dwellers and other indigenous communities. While their criticisms of state control may be right in some particular political and economic conditions or even against a policy, they cannot serve as broad generalizations in all situations.
According to successive reports of the Forest Survey of India, biomass and biodiversity is highest in notified forest areas, sanctuaries and national parks under state management than common and village lands under no regulation. This only proves the central thesis of Garret Hardin in his influential book the Tragedy of Commons. It is a common knowledge that forest serves as sink for sequestration of atmospheric carbon contributing to reducing the problems of climate change. India has rightly committed in its NDC of creating additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030 though it is an over ambitious commitment.
On a broader level, many eminent authors have questioned reasons and motives of state intervention in forest management by the British and their continuation in India after independence. It is worthwhile to examine the conditions precedent to the proclamation of first forest policy in British India, called as “Charter on Indian Forest” issued by Lord Dalhousie in 1855. Many policies, laws and management practice often became subject of polemic by the critics. They often ignored to see the context and import of policy interventions in the mid nineteenth century India. Many later works have bridged the gaps prevalent in previous studies. Notable among them are by Richard Grove, Gregory Barton, Haripriya Rangan and Raymond Leslie Bryant etc.
Main reasons for the issue of the Charter
There were three main reasons for the issue of Charter on Indian Forests in 1855. These reasons were philosophical, scientific, and imperialist interests of the British as discussed in details below. Adam Smith’s ‘the Wealth of Nations’ in 1776 and David Ricardo’s ‘On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation’ in 1817 had influenced governments of every country and the intelligentsia.
Philosophical Basis of the Charter
Adam Smith argued that the sovereign had only three essential duties- defence, justice and certain public works and institution “for facilitating the commerce of society and… the instruction of people”. His ideas led to governance based on the concept of laissez-faire giving birth to private enterprises. This meant allowing private businesses to develop without government control. He adamantly supported the implementation of free trade. David Ricardo opposed the imposition of any kind of duties or fee on timber. When stakeholders’ power and influence is uneven, vested interests get to control the resource, and when institutions are also weak or deliberately weakened by the same vested interests the result is resource plunder, institutional erosion and breakdown of the rule of law and concentration of wealth in a few hands. This situation existed when the British continued exploitation of teak forests in Malabar, Bengal and later in Burma. Timber merchants’ insatiable greed and their influence with the Court of Directors of the East India Company were responsible for the state of affairs in degradation of forests in India in the mid nineteenth century.
On 3 August 1855, Lord Dalhousie issued a famous memorandum, which was termed as the Charter of Indian Forests. By issue of the Charter Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of India reversed previous laissez-faire policy based on the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo and went on to establish Indian Forest Department for management of forest by the state. He annexed large areas of sparsely populated land in India and declared them protected forest managed by foresters, rangers and administrators. The change in environmental practice in India was an outcome of decline of entrepreneurial ideal of exploiting resources for private gains.
The reversal of laissez-faire policy was influenced by utilitarian philosophy of English political theorist Jeremy Bentham who privileged the common social good over indiscriminate individualism. In this shift from Adam Smith’s individualism to Bentham’s collectivism and general welfare of the majority of people, new environmental interventions emerged first in British India, then in other British colonies and the United States that were paternalistic, radical and previously untried.
Scientific basis of regulation in forests
The conditions, which preceded issue of the Charter on Indian forests, included use and abuse of forest resources by people in general, timber merchants and the vested interests in the British Empire. The pernicious practice of shifting cultivation in hilly parts of the country was highly destructive to the environment. It led to loss of topsoil and biomass, erosion and reduction in water absorption capacity of cleared forestlands finally causing floods in the downstream.
The hotbed of early forest intervention in British India was Burma where wanton exploitation of teak forest was in progress supported and aided by Calcutta based timber merchants. Following the Second Anglo Burmese War of 1852, Britain acquired control of valuable teak forest of Pegu from the Monarch of Burma. Pegu’s annexation coincided with publication of two important reports that were critical to laissez-faire forestry in Burma. As early as 1827, Nathaniel Wallich, Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden warned of ecological perils of laissez-faire forestry. He opposed destruction of empire’s largely unexplored tropical forests. Falconer’s report in January 1851 recorded the depletion of Tenasserims’s teak forests.
British Administrators in India were alerted by their own scientists about the potential long-term environmental effects of deforestation caused by indiscriminate logging driven by private profit. J.D Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew in London had alerted Dalhousie to the potential economic and climatic effect of deforestation. Likewise, Scottish Arboricultural Society had argued in favour of protecting forests in India for long-term economic benefits of the empire.
Prior to issue of the charter on forests, Scottish trained doctors were some of the earliest to express environmental anxiety about the effects of deforestation. These trained medicos were the early members of forest bureaucracy that was yet to be organized at the federal level. Their concerns gave urgency to the government to attend to as their reports were backed up by the field studies and supported by the then accepted theories of forest management in Continental Europe. Notable among the medico turned foresters were William Roxburgh, Alexander Gibson, Hugh Falconer, Edward Balfour and Hugh Cleghorn. All of them reported prior to issue of the charter by Dalhousie. Mixing utilitarian ideas and messianic arguments, they pressured East India Company to reserve forests for direct management by the state.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Dalhousie saw utility in the state intervention in forest, and it was in Pegu that an organized system of Imperial forest management first developed. Between 1852 and 1855, the government introduced preliminary measures to regulate Pegu’s forests. On 26 September 1853, the government declared those forests state property and prohibited unauthorized teak extraction.
Imperialist reasons in forestry intervention
The East India Company enjoyed monopoly in trade and earned surplus from its various commercial activities in India. However, free trade lobbies always rivaled the company and had been applying pressure on the Crown to end the monopoly. The free trade lobbies finally succeeded when the East India Company Act 1813, also known as the Charter Act 1813, ended the company’s commercial monopolies, except for the tea and opium trade and the trade with China.
The St Helena Act 1833, also known as the Charter Act 1833, ended the activities of the British East India Company as a commercial body and it became a purely administrative body. In particular, the company lost its monopoly on trade with China and other parts of the Far East. Because of the charters, the company faced financial crisis. Reduction in profits from international trade necessitated finding out new avenues of revenue in India.
By the mid-1830s, the company had launched several infrastructure projects for expanding its business in India. Investment in irrigation canals, roads, plantations, agriculture and finally expansion of railways around mid-nineteenth century required funds. These infrastructure and other developmental projects also put demand for timber and fuel wood. As a result, exploitation of forested areas were resorted that were within easy reach. Exploitation of teak timber continued unabated to meet demands of the shipbuilding in British Royal Navy. The supplies of timber declined and at times, the company had to face timber famine. The company administration feared that they might have to import timber to meet their rising demands. This realization led to the necessity of conserving forest for sustained supply of timber and for earning revenue for the company.
To be continued