Forest policy needs change

Daughters and sons of woods should have the ultimate rights over forests says PATRANGA BASU.

Forest policy needs change

Who owns our forests? Adivasis of India have traditionally been the sons and daughters of the woods. History tells us they were born, brought up in and lived with nature for centuries, and depended on forests for their livelihood. Besides food, fodder and fuel, forests also provided them with medicine, building material and agriculture implements. Adivasis have an emotive, cultural and spiritual relationship with the forests.

With the emergence of British colonial rule, Adivasis started to lose their traditional rights over forests from about the late eighteenth century. They became marginalised in the so-called civilised society and were deprived of their rights over forest resources which they used in sustainable ways. Agrarian aggression of the British converted forest land occupied by Adivasis into large scale agriculture by outsiders.

Uprooted Adivasis were compelled to be displaced and many moved to Assam from Chhotanagpur and Manbhum for livelihood as labourers.


Forests and forest produce are the common pool resources that are being used by individuals or by groups.

The contentious question is whether and how these resources can be utilised without the fear of excessive consumption leading to depletion and at moderate administrative costs to the society. Well-defined individual property rights on such resources are absent.

Many economists and thinkers are of the view that problem of over consumption can be solved by privatisation of resources or by introduction of regulations imposed by government for management of such resources.

The issue is how best to limit the use of natural resources so as to ensure their long-term economic viability. In 1968 Garrett Hardin (1915- 2003) advocated in his article ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ that degradation in environment is expected when many individuals use scarce resource in common.

There is a common belief that every individual user of common resources thinks of his own good and bothers least about the common interest.

The standard theoretical analysis suggests that where a good number of users have access to a common-pool resource; the total units withdrawn from the resource will surpass the optimal economic quantity of the withdrawal.

The popular conclusion was that common property resource requires public control if economic efficiency is to result from their development.

It implies decisions of outside institutions be imposed on the affected individuals. On the contrary, Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), the first woman Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2009, showed by empirical studies over 15 years how common property can be successfully managed by users collectively.

Her extensive fieldwork focused on how people interact with ecosystems, challenging the conventional wisdom that ordinary people cannot successfully manage natural resources without any regulation or privatisation. She believed, and propagated in her book ‘Governing the Commons’, that people are perfectly capable of taking control of decisions that affect their lives.

The traditional Indian cultural overview on forests was of mutual dependence between man and nature. Nature includes flora & fauna and animals. There were equal footings on earth for human, nature, and animals. The Adivasi belief is that Gods reside in forests, in trees, in ponds and stones. Sacred groves in forest villages are the prime places of their worship.

Therefore, their every action is in full respect to the nature.

Nirmal Kumar Mahato in his book ‘Sorrow Songs of Woods’ wrote: “In case of Manbhum most Adivasis used to establish villages in the forest after clearing the forest patch with a nearby water resource. They did change and manipulate their surrounding landscape. These activities certainly brought some ecological impact. However, because of low population pressure and less per capita consumption, they did not result in ecological devastation. The rate at which they exploited their surrounding resource at a local scale could keep pace with the regeneration and restoration rate of natural and ecological process. Further local societies adopted some rules and regulations.”

For example, they debar themselves from cutting or injuring tender branches of trees on the advent of spring. Till the beginning of colonial rule, the Adivasis did not need any external assistance to maintain and preserve forests. The forest was not pristine but was not devastated either.

But the colonial rulers changed the overview and established commercial aspects in the forefront. They used forests as sources of revenue. Forest resources started to be utilised commercially. Huge quantity of timber for railway sleepers were required at that time in the late nineteenth century for establishing long distance railway lines. They utilised forests for this. Large scale destruction of forests must not match the natural rate of regeneration and restoration. British rule established in 1864 a separate forest department with the help of a German expert, for railway expansion.

In another move to monopolise absolute supremacy over Indian forests the British Raj introduced the first forest law in India, The Indian Forest Act 1865.

This Act declares forests as state property. Since then, the forests are owned by the Government. They further strengthened the Forest Act by inserting more stringent provisions through amendments in 1878 and in 1927. The main objective of the Act was to meet the demands of timber. Traditional forest dwellers’ rights over forest have been curtailed drastically.

They were practically evicted from their forest lands. Even felling trees, grazing cattle, removing forest products, quarrying, fishing, and hunting became punishable with fine or imprisonment. Mahato commented: “The colonial rule threatened people’s relationship with environment. The indigenous economy, politics and culture had begun to be dominated by high caste politics.”

He further wrote “‘Tribal’ culture was perceived as ‘underdeveloped’, ‘imperfect’, ‘childlike’, or even ‘criminal’ during the time…The Adivasis were poeticised and preserved as primitive.” Perception was that Adivasis cannot manage the forest, they don’t have expertise. This perception persists.

After independence The Indian National Forest Policy of 1952 seems to have come out as more stringent.

The prime focus of this policy remained on sustainable timber production. This policy stated that villages closely situated near forests are accidental and villagers have no right to use forest resources at the cost of national interest.

However, ‘The National Forest Policy 1988’ protected the rights and concessions enjoyed by the Adivasis residing in the vicinity of forests. According to this Policy their domestic requirement of fuel, fodder, minor forest produce and timber for construction should be the first charge on forest produce.

This is a significant and positive departure from the provisions of the National Forest Policy 1952.

This Policy document of 1988 accepted conversion to non-forest purposes and tendency to look upon forests as revenue earning resources are among major causes of depletion of forests.

The new policy emphasised on conservation of forests, maintaining ecological balance and afforestation. The Policy set a target of minimum one third of total land area of the country being under cover of forests or trees. But the Policy allows diversion of forest land for non-forest uses with the permission of the government – for national interest such as construction of dams and reservoirs, mining and industrial development, roads etc.

This means direct assault on the forests. The Adivasis – the sons and daughters of the woods – are stopped from entering the forest and declared encroachers. Grazing is regulated and controlled; grazing fees is suggested to be imposed on poor tribals.

On the contrary, the corporates are allowed mass destroying of forests for generating their revenue. Question arises if grazing is not allowed, then how can non-forest activities be allowed in the forests even with permission. Unabated construction of hotels on the Himalayan slopes in tourist towns destroys forests and trees at unimaginable speeds with dangers of growing soil erosion.

So, it is evident that it is not the Adivasis or the villagers or the forest dwellers but modern civilisation that destroys forests, ecosystems and with breakneck speed. Afforestation programmes against destruction for non-forest use are not transparent and raises the question whether full of desired quantity of afforestation had been done for each project undertaken in forests. Destruction is larger and speedier than afforestation.

The Indian Forest Policies are indicative ones. No target is fixed. Belatedly in 1980 by ‘Forest (Conservation) Act’ and in 2006 through ‘The ST and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act’, for sustainable forest management to be effective, cooperation of the local people, caring for their bona fide needs and rights have been given due importance at the institutional level. But the Forest Policy needs to be revamped in the interest of protection of environment and quickly achieving the target of at least one third forest lands.

The present per cent age of forest land in India is about 24.32 as of 2021 which was around 21 per cent in 2011. Peoples’ participation as individual and in communities is essential for governance of common resource and to halt a climate catastrophe. ‘Topdown control does not work. People can come up with many solutions to challenging problems.’ [Elinor Ostrom].

(The writer is a cost accountant who worked with a public sector power utility.)