Forest policy in India during the colonial period was one where forest management was attuned towards the redistribution of economic gains for the benefit of the British Empire. Forest management was mainly state-led and was primarily undertaken in terms of control over resources and people. This involved commercialisation of many forest resources, large scale deforestation and restrictions on the rights of local populations (Aravindakshan, 2011).
The first National Forest Policy in India was formulated in 1894. Since then there has been a marked shift in focus away from mostly state-led forest policy to forest conservation with community-based agro and social forestry and also concerns for the local populations. This signals a change in perspectives in managing forest resources in forest policy in India.
Forest Policy in India Post-Independence
The National Forest Policy of 1894 was based on the Voelcker Report in 1893 on the improvement of Indian agriculture. The policy placed forest resources under state control with revenue generation as a major objective, along with importance given to furthering greater agriculture. Although protection of forests was a component of the National Forest Policy of 1894, this consisted mainly of technical foresters looking at conservation of forests for the national good with a state-custodial approach. The policy was born out of the need to be systematic. As such forest management was bureaucratised (Schug, 2000).
Many a time, the rights of local communities became subdued against the attention paid to forest resources. Even while the focus was on systematically managing forest resources, much activity was involved in the extraction of forest resources. The major attention for example, was in exporting quality timber as well as in using timber for expanding the rail network.
Post-independence, there was a shift in timber extraction to the production of wood industrially. Although social forestry programmes were introduced, forest degradation was spreading at an alarming rate due to increasing population and large-scale conversion of forest-lands (Balaji, undated) to aid human activities such as for agriculture or urbanisation.
The first forest policy in India since independence was the Indian Forest Policy, 1952 in which it was argued that after the widespread deforestation and forest degradation in the colonial era, better forest management necessitated a comprehensive forest policy to check the exploitation of forests. Although the emphasis was on better management of forest resources than by the British, a low priority given to local communities remained. Apart from this, certain elements of the British forest policy continued especially in terms of bureaucratic organisation. However, the 1952 forest policy fixed a target in increasing the area under forests to about one-third of total land area. As was the case with the state-driven policy of colonial times, national interest was paramount and many developmental projects following World War II and independence intersected with forest management either in terms of the need for resources or for use of forest land. Land use became a very important issue and as such the issue of the area under forests gained prominence.
The policy understood forest management as a key concern and looked at controlling denudation in mountainous regions, invasion of sea sand in coastal tracts, erosion of river banks, shifting of sand dunes in desert areas, and so on. The policy was also to ensure a supply of small timber, fodder and fuel-wood for local populations. The policy stated that forestry has no intrinsic right over land, but that forests can be permitted on residual land used for no other useful purpose.
The 1952 forest policy in India classified forests according to their distinct uses. Forests under this policy were classified as national forests, protected forests, tree lands and village forests. This distinction was important, for it differentiated between forests meant for preserving their ecological and physical conditions with forests marked for meeting commercial needs. The village forests were meant to address the needs of forest dependent communities. Many of these programmes however, did not fare well at the time because of a top-down approach.
With growing recognition of community engagement in forests, the Forest Conservation Act was passed in 1980 in order to check the diversion of forest lands for purposes that pertained to non-forestry usages. The Act stipulated that permission from the centre is necessary for the practice of agro-forestry in forest areas, the violation of which would be treated as a criminal offence. Apart from this, the Act also aimed to conserve biodiversity, limit deforestation and safeguard wildlife. The Act could not however, bring about effective reductions in the exploitation of forest resources and many times the regulations were ignored. The Act also bypassed the needs of local people in many locations in accessing forest resources for survival and many times local populations among rural folk and forest dwelling populations ignored regulations to extract forest resources.
The latest National Forest Policy of 1988 tried to redress the needs of local populations in accessing and using forest resources in a regulated manner. The policy aimed to encourage the participation of local people in the protection and management of forests throughthe Joint Forest Management Programme. The programme envisages a process of joint management of forests by the state governments and by local people. Under the programme, the protection and management of forests was entrusted to nearby village communities.
Apart from being the first forest policy to substantially look into the needs of local people living nearby forests, the National Forest Policy of 1988 also took a comprehensive view on forest conservation. Encouraged by preceding legislations such as the Forest Conservation Act and the Wildlife Protection Act, the policy also looked at the environmental stability and restoration of the ecological balance in terms of the conservation of forests. The policy however, made no changes to the goal of increasing land under forests to 33 per cent of total land area in India as per the earlier policy of 1952.
Grey Areas in Forest Management
The National Forest Policy of 1988 attempted to undo the limitations of the earlier forest policies, particularly in terms of forest conservation and the role and rights of local people in forest management. With the preponderance of the concept of sustainable development in recent times many wasteful practices related to the management of forest resources have been accentuated. Substantial extents of forest lands have been degraded by wasteful practices such as pressures of an increasing human population, encroachment or diversion of forest lands, forest fires, overgrazing and so on. The pressures imposed by an increasing human population and livestock can add to the fuel-wood extracted from forests and also increase overgrazing by livestock that can degrade forest lands.
Deforestation of forest lands is a major issue concerning forest conservation and conflicts directly with developmental activities. Often there is a greater pull in socio-economic policy to develop forested land than in preventing deforestation. Although efforts to increase forest cover are ongoing, they often lag behind deforestation. Reversing the processes of degradation of forest lands is another challenge which requires greater commitment of developmental resources.
Forest policy in India offers opportunities to place regulations against the social pull of developmental activities without which forest conservation is difficult. An approach towards forest conservation and resource extraction from forests along with the participation of local communities that is balanced has become possible which can be developed into a useful tool for imposing regulations on human interference on forest ecosystems.