Forest Governance in India: Revisiting History

Many of the current environmental woes of India have their roots in its colonial past. To understand, at least reasonably, the current natural resource governance regime in India, one must take a good look at its ecological history. This post takes a step back and looks at India’s forest governance through the lens of history and tries to explore whether our present biodiversity crisis is indeed a colonial legacy.

Colonial Environmental Governance

In the pre-colonial times, forests were mostly under the ownership and control of local communities. Traditionally, forest management was deconcentrated to ‘the household or a group of households or to the community level but the authority lay with the community’ (Banerjee, 2007, p.8).

According to Hazra 2002, the British brought with them their bourgeois outlook towards forests. The ‘state’ under the British saw forests as an important source of revenue and in order to maximize this revenue, it sought to assert its monopoly over the forests. In 1850, a report prepared by the colonial administration concluded that unsustainable and unscientific management by the local communities was destroying Indian forests (Agarwal, 1985 cited in Hazra 2002). Under the pretext of ensuring scientific management of forests, the state sought to usurp local communities’ rights over the forest. The Forest Department was created in 1864 and first Forest Act was passed in 1865. The Act mandated that ‘in the absence of recognized private rights of ownership, however originating, the [British] Government is, by ancient law, the general owner of all unoccupied or wasteland’ (Baden-Powell, 1882, p. 88 cited in Hazra, 2002). By definition, wasteland included all land covered by trees, brushwood or jungle. The customary rights of the communities had not been documented (and thus was not considered as ‘recognized rights of private ownership’) which allowed the government to establish its sovereignty over forest land hitherto under community control. The community access to government forests was curtailed by banning collection activities on government land and it was reserved solely for extraction of timber ‘earmarked most urgently for railway supplies’ (Guha, 1990, p.66 cited in Hazra 2002). Revenue generation and commercial exploitation became the foundation on which the Forest Department machinery operated. The state-market nexus came into play since the very beginning. Guha, (1990, p. 66) even commented that ‘the Indian Forest Department owes its origin to the requirements of railway companies’. Indian forests were being cut down at a massive scale not only for the expansion of railways but also for import into Britain. As late as the 1920s, ‘well over one million sterling worth of teak wood [were] being imported annually into England,’ (Gadgil and Guha, 1992). It was no secret that England owed its victory over Napoleon and its subsequent maritime expansion to the continuous supply of ship timber from India.

While the Forest Act of 1865 marked the beginning of centralization of forest ownership, the next act, the Forest Act of 1878 allowed the British administration to further tighten its grip over forest resources. The new act sought to improve upon the Act of 1865 which according to Brandis, was ‘incomplete in many respects – the most important omission being the absence of all provisions regarding the definition, regulation, commutation and extinction of customary rights.’

“The laws have totally destroyed the traditional systems of village management… have

started a free for all… The result is that village communities have lost all interest in their

management and protection… This alienation has led to massive denudation of forests”

(Agarwal and Narain, 1989, p.27).

With the express purpose of establishing absolute state property rights, the Act of 1878 classified the forest areas into Reserved Forests, Protected Forests and Village Forests. The areas valuable for timber were declared as Reserved Forests and the state had absolute rights over them. Although local people had use rights over the Protected Forests, these forests were a property of the state. It was clear that the Protected Forests were designated with the future goal of converting them to Reserved Forests. “There can be little doubt that the protected forest was by and large, a myth, and it is precisely this fact that shows that preservation was a farce” (Farooqui 1997, p. 27 cited in Hazra, 2002).

Sundar (2000), however, points out that customary rights were recognized by the Act to a certain degree. According to her, the Act represented neither the ‘annexationists’, who argued for ‘complete control by the state over all forests’, nor the `populists’, who advocated ‘those rights to be entirely vested in village communities’. The Act incorporated the views of the ‘Pragmatists’, represented by the first Inspector General of Forests, Brandis and mandated the creation of village forests which would be managed and harvested by the communities. The result, according to Sundar was a ‘complex mixture’ of land tenure ranging from complete state control (Reserved Forests and Protected Forests) to complete village control (village forests). Even within state-owned areas land, communities had ‘varying degrees of right’, such as the mafikat (right to free timber) in Gujarat and nistar (right to NTFP for non-commercial household use) in the Central Provinces (now the state of Madhya Pradesh) (Sundar, 2000, p.261).

The Act also made a distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘privileges’, recognizing only legally documented rights as ‘rights’ and labeling the customary undocumented rights as ‘privileges’, which were concessions bestowed and withdrawn by the government according to its own whims and fancies.  The distinction, ‘by one stroke of the executive pen, attempted to obliterate centuries of customary use by rural populations all over India’ (Gadgil and Guha, 1992, p. 134 cited in Hazra, 2002).

The subsequent act, the Forest Act of 1927, the last one before independence from the British rule was again highly commercial in nature, as suggested by its very title: “An Act to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce.” It can be concluded that ‘the British period created large-scale conflicts among forest managers and the local people, which marked the beginning of the breakdown of a symbiotic relationship between many communities and the forests in which they were situated (Vemuri, 2008).

The democratic government of independent India continued to live up to its colonial legacies of viewing forests as a source of revenue and undermining the customary rights of the forest dwelling people. Five years after independence, the government of India came up with the Forest Policy of 1952 which envisaged the increase in tree cover to 33% of the total land area of the country. Unmindful of the needs and problems of the local people, the Forest Department set about to meet this target by raising monoculture plantations of Eucalyptus, an exotic species, serving mainly to provide timber for industrial expansion. As Ramachandra Guha candidly says that before 1947, our forests were sacrificed at the altar of British imperialism, and after independence, they are being sacrificed to meet the ‘needs of the mercantile and industrial bourgeoisie’ (Guha, 1983 cited in Hazra, 2002).

The settlement of rights in the reserved forests was also arbitrary and incomplete. When a forest area was declared as reserved/protected, the notification seldom reached forest dwellers in the remote areas. Forest dwelling communities continued to use the forest as they used to. The de jure situation in such far flung areas was thus different from de facto situation. This confusion created conflicts among the Forest Department and forest dwellers even after independence, something which continues even until now.

From Coercion to Consent

The Forest Policy of 1988 marked a watershed in the state attitude towards community rights as it gave birth to ‘Joint Forest Management (JFM)’, the first co-management programme in the history of Indian forest policy. An attempt to promote and institutionalize the participation of forest-dependent communities in protection and regeneration of forests, JFM involves the creation of village-based forest committees. ‘In return for their protection activities, the villagers are promised some intermediate benefits and a share of the regenerated timber when it is finally harvested’ (Sundar, 2000). Sundar (2000) adds that ‘in most state resolutions, people’s protection is limited to forest land with less than 40 per cent crown density’ i.e. degraded forest land. According to Vemuri (2008), JFM was an embodiment of contemporary international paradigm of co-management of natural resources. Critics (e.g. Rahul, 1997) have pointed out that JFM has fallen short of its goal of decentralization because of the absence of genuine transfer of control over forests to the communities. Sundar(2000, p. 275) asserts that JFM is ‘not really joint’ – ‘the overall agenda is set by the state, and the policy is unable to answer many needs on the ground, such as the need for ongoing supplies of small timber’. In fact, the programme has been accused of strengthening the social hierarchies in villages. ‘Participation by communities is limited to matters such as the choice of species or how to patrol forests’ adds Sundar (2000, p. 276) and ‘where villagers do exercise initiative, it is under terms dictated by the overall framework of targets and activities prescribed by government rules, which in some sense distorts their agency.’

 A Look at the Current Forest Governance Framework of India

Several national-level legislations are in place that establish the ownership and legal status of natural resources in India, the primary ones being the Indian Forest Act, 1927 dealing with forested land and the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 dealing with Protected Areas.

Almost 23.4% of India’s geographic area (769,512 Km2) has been recorded as forest area in government records (forest department and/or revenue department records). This area is referred to as the Recorded Forest Area. On the basis of its legal status, the Recorded Forest Area has been classified into three categories: Reserved Forests (RFs), Protected Forests (PFs) and Unclassed State Forests (USFs).

Constituted under the provisions of the Indian Forest Act 1927, RFs and PFs include forests that are owned by the government, which regulates the extraction and movement of forest produce in these areas on the principles of sustainable use. The USFs appear as ‘forests’ in government records but are not notified as reserved or protected. Communities continue to consider these as a part of their commons.

Under the provision of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the government can also designate a Village Forest. In a Village Forest, although the land is owned by the government, the village community has management and extraction rights.

In RFs, activities such as logging, grazing and fuelwood and NTFP collection are prohibited unless permitted and in PFs such activities are permitted unless prohibited. (Forest Survey of India, 2009).


Recorded Forest Area (Km2)
Reserved Forests Protected Forests Unclassed Forests Total
430582 206219 132711 769512

Source: Forest Survey of India, 2009

Areas within reserve forest which are of ecological, faunal, floral, geomorphological or zoological value are notified as National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries for the protection of wildlife and its habitat under the provisions of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 (GOI, 1972).

National Parks correspond to Category II of the IUCN protected area categorization system and are accorded more protection than Sanctuaries that correspond to Category IV (Habitat/species management area). In the first amendment to the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 i.e. Wild Life Protection (Amendment) Act, 2002, two new categories of protected areas was introduced namely conservation reserves (IUCN category V) and community reserves (IUCN category VI).



Banerjee, A.K., 2007. Decentralization and Devolution of Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific. Asia-Pacific Forestry Sector Outlook Study Working Paper No: APFSOS/WP/21.

Gadgil, M. and Guha R., 1992. This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Guha, R., 1990. An Early Environmental Debate: The Making of the 1878 Act. Indian Economic and Social History Review, 27, 1.

Hazra, A. K., 2002. History of Conflict over Forests in India: A Market Based Resolution Working Paper, Julian L. Simon Centre for Policy Research.

Rahul, 1997. Masquerading as the Masses. Economic and Political Weekly, 32(7) pp. 341- 342.

Sundar, N., 2000. Unpacking  the `Joint’ in Joint Forest Management. Development and Change, 31, pp. 255-279.

Vemuri, A., 2008. Joint Forest Management in India: An Unavoidable and Conflicting Common Property Regime in Natural Resource Management, Journal of Development and Social Transformation, 5, pp. 81-90.


Note: This post draws from my Master’s thesis submitted towards the completion of MSc in Biodiversity Conservation at the University of Oxford.