Uttarakhand has had a long involvement with forest protests, whose latest incarnation was Chipko. Villagers have been reacting primarily to policies of the State, either the hill durbar, the Lucknow authorities, or the government in New Delhi. The following description of forest policies in Kumaun and Garhwal is culled from social historian Ramchandra Guha’s book Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Oxford. University Press, 1989).
To accommodate the demand for strong timber with which to build the Indian railway network, in 1864, the colonial Government set up a Forest Department. In its wake came the Forest Act of 1865, which asserted the State’s monopoly over forests. A comprehensive all-India act was drafted 13 years later, under which forests were divided into two categories: Reserved, to enable timber production, and Protected, where the villagers could exercise their haque-haquooks.
Tehri Garhwal: Commercial exploitation of the forests in Tehri Garhwal started in the 1850s, when an Englishman got a lease for IRs 400 per annum and began felling deodar trees and floating them downriver. Fifteen years later, the North Western Provinces government negotiated a lease of all the forests for IRs 10,000 per annum. According to an 1888 report, from 1869 to 1885, the Yamuna woods exported 6.5 million railway sleepers. As the State exploited the woodlands for commerce, the villagers’ access to the forest declined.
The leased forests reverted back to the control of the Tehri Durbar in 1925. During the first three years of World War II, over 1.5 million cubic feet of timber was exported for use in the front (over 20,000 trees were exported annually from the Tons Valley alone) and over time forests became the largest (single) item of revenue for the Durbar. Extensive rules were made, wherein the villagers had to ask for permission even to pluck oak leaves.
Kumaun: The management of Kumaun forests, on the other hand, began with the setting out, in the early 1800s, of the village rights of grazing, cutting trees for timber and collecting firewood; this was welcomed by villagers who saw the rules as a method of addressing the inter-village feuds. Small blocks of Reserved forest to supply fuelwood and timber to Nainital and Almora administrative centres and Ranikhet Cantonment were to be set up with sal woodlands used to meet governmeet demand. A detailed survey of hill forests, and site selection for sawmills and roads were commissioned. On 17 October 1893, it was declared that all unmeasured land in Kumaun Division was District Protected Forest (DPF) and placed under control of the District Commissioner. In 1903, the Kumaon DPFs were divided into two classes: Closed and Open Civil forests; the villagers could exercise their rights only in Open forests while the Closed forest was considered important for regeneration.
In 1911, there was another settlement of forest and extensive reserves were carved out of the DPFs with 7500 sq km of forest in Kumaon declared Reserved. The practice of burning the forest floor for fresh crop of grass was banned within a one mile radius of the Reserved forest, and an elaborate system was invented for exercising the villagers’ haque-haquooks. For example, the number of cattle a family could graze and the amount of firewood and timber that a villager could collect was specified. With substantial areas being taken away from their control and handed over to the Forest Department, the villagers felt their rights were being unfairly encroached. While the increase in size and the strength of the forest bureaucracy led to better control on lopping and grazing, it also meant that the demand for begar (forced labour) was increased.
In 1921, the Kumaon Forest Grievances Committee to look into the grievance of the hill people. It recommended that control of forest revert back to the District Magistrate. with the condition that protected trees could not be felled without permission and forest produce would only be used for domestic purposes. Another recommendation was that the villagers be given free hand on the Revenue Department forests. With no monitoring, massive deforestation occurred in the mid-1920s in the Civil forests. When this was realised, the lands were transferred to Van Panchayats.
A few years of commercially working the Kumaun forests, and the monetary yield outdid the state’s expectations. Between 1910 and 1920, the number of resin channels rose from 260,000 to 2.1 million. With the capacity of 64,000cwts of resin and 240,000 gallons of turpentine, production was far exceeding the Indian demand and export possibilities to United Kingdom and South East Asia was explored. Three large resin processing centres were established in Tanakpur, Hardwar and Kathgodown where the Sarda, Ganga. and Gallia rivers entered the plains. Five thousand chir pines were felled annually and for the Forest Department its wartime activities was justification enough for the state control of the commons.
As early as 1916, J.C. Nelson, the Forest Settlement Officer, in Gharwal District’s Forest Settlement Report, wrote that for the villagers, forest management meant that “-.the government was taking away their forest from them and robbing them of their own property.
Nelson wrote, “The notion seems to have grown up from the complete lack of restriction or control over the use by the people of waste land and forest during the first 80 years after the British occupation. The oldest inhabitant therefore, and he naturally is regarded as the greatest authority, is the most assured of the antiquity of the people’s right to uncontrolled use of the forest; and to a rural community, there appears no difference between uncontrolled use and proprietary right. Subsequent regulations —and these regulations are all very recent — appear to them as gradual encroachment on their rights, culminating now in a final act of confiscation… (My) best efforts however have, I fear, failed to get the people generally to grasp the change in conditions or to believe in the historical fact of government ownership.”
The history of forest protests in Uttarakhand, thus. notes Guha, started with the state believing it necessary to usurp a previously non-existent ‘right’ of the Government to forest and wasteland. The Government believed that the forest belonged to them and the hill villagers regarded all forests within village boundaries as village property. This started a conflict of interests which was to become the legacy of Uttar Pradesh hills.”
“And Chipko,” adds Guha, “was but the latest in a series of movements against the State’s encroachment on their rights, its long standing denial of their moral and historical claims on the produce of the forest.”