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. 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 rule a large number of people migrated to 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 Muslims 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.
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. But a large gap between aim and achievement exists still.