World Rainforest Movement

Legal and illegal logging behind deforestation in India

According to the most recent official estimates (Forest Survey of India, 2003 State of Forests Report), India continues to lose its forest cover. The 2003 estimates record a net minus change of nearly three million hectares of ‘dense forests’, which means serious and continued deforestation in forests with canopy density of 40 percent and above. Because satellite imageries acting as source of these data are still treated as ‘classified’ in the country, and ‘ground-truthing’ (if any) exercises are carried in a similar clandestine manner, one never knows exactly how much forest vanishes each year, and where. From the State of Forests Report, it can be seen that degradation of forests is not confined to any particular province/region, but it is happening, almost uniformly, everywhere. For instance, while the province of Uttar Pradesh in the North records a loss of 2969 sq. kms of dense forests, Assam in North East, and Andhra Pradesh in the South record 2788 and 1788 sq.kms.

Huge foreign investments and technological strategies of past decades have had relatively little impact on stemming deforestation. After spending several billion dollars on forestry projects in Asia between 1979 and 2004, the World Bank’s investments have had a negligible impact on borrowers’ forestry sectors as a whole. Even in the well-funded, best-protected ‘Project Tiger’ parks in India, amount of forest land classified as degraded reportedly increased by nearly 200%.

Official agencies in charge of environmental information in India seldom use the term ‘deforestation’, a harsh, taboo word. Usually it is ‘degradation’, a much softer term that hides endless stretches of lost forests, hacked, plundered, looted, mined, built upon, submerged. Factors that cause deforestation are hidden in layers of vague terms like ‘anthropogenetic interventions’ and ‘biotic factors’, and ‘illegal logging’ is something for which no coherent, centralized records have ever been kept, as if it does not exist.

However, logging—both legal and illegal—exists, and is the most tangible and definite causative factor behind deforestation events in India. It has been so since colonial days, when the British first came and usurped people’s forests to log them for railroads, shipyards, and profit. Forest legislation like Indian Forest Acts (1865, 1927) later legitimized what was pure plunder to begin with, and introduction of the so-called scientific forest management in British-held forests, ensured that most of Indian forests would be lost forever. After Independence, contrary to popular belief, plunder of the country’s forests not only continued, but with even more aggressiveness than before, as urban markets expanded. Independent India was quick to assert the continuity of the colonial structures in forestry. The Forest Policy Resolution, 1952, asserted that the fundamental concepts underlying the colonial policy were sound; these just needed to be reoriented. Thus in the new policy, ‘public good’ was replaced by ‘national interest’. The reorientation was to accommodate the demands of industry for raw material. Extraction of industrial wood jumped from 4.46 million cubic metres in 1956-57, to 9.28 mcm in 1966-67 and fuelwood [extraction was already significant] to 10.19 mcm in 1956-57. Paper mills had a dramatic increase during 1966-77. The consumption of printing and writing paper increased from 100,000 tons in 1948 to 405,000 tons in 1970, and paper board from 46,000 tons to 158,000 tons.

The expanding urban centres also required large quantities of timber and fuelwood. The Forest Department responded to the increasing demands in various ways: acquiring more land through merger of princely states and reservation of new areas, by which the area under the Forest Department increased from 71.80 million hectares in 1950-51 to 74.60 in 1979-80, despite a loss of 4.3 million hectares for various purposes, stepping up extraction of forest products, by which revenue of the Forest Department multiplied 5 times from 1951-52 to 1970-71, creating markets for less commonly known species that were earlier left alone. The revenue generated from forests increased manifold. However, the production of timber and firewood reached a plateau after 1966-67. Tree felling since the Second World War had affected the sustainability of the stock and there are natural constraints beyond which extraction cannot be increased. The plateau signified that the forests could not meet any further growth in demand. This was ‘officially’ admitted when the new forest policy of 1988 declared a ban on logging of remaining forests.

Organised illegal logging has become commonplace in many forest areas, including protected areas. Forest legislations in the country have not been able to make even a dent in the activities of the mafia-political groups-forest staff nexus. Instead, this nexus —the most pressing danger to Indian forests— gets stronger everyday. During the last 5-6 years, several major timber scams have been unearthed in various parts of the country. Buxa Tiger Reserve, demarcated a biodiversity hotspot in the extreme North-Eastern corner of West Bengal, lost about 10 sq. kms. of forest cover in 1998-1999 alone, as a result of a scam. Protected Area authorities issued false transit passes for illegally felled trees. Timber coming from the Tiger Reserve was shown as timber from private forests. In another important Protected Area, Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, adjoining Buxa Tiger Reserve, senior forest and police officers were found to be directly involved in illegal trade. In Madhya Pradesh, the forest minister and senior forest officers’ involvement in large- scale illegal timber trade came to light in 1999; when it was found that prime Sal forests were being illegally felled under the guise of pest control. Many important Protected Area s like Rajaji National Park in Uttar Pradesh, Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka, Palamou or Betla Tiger Reserve in Bihar and many other forest areas of the country report similar incidents. In Rajaji National Park, it is on record that the local forest mafia killed about 8 forest Guards between 1996 -1999. What is off the record but common knowledge in the area is that the killings were the result of disputes over share of profits between the mafia and guards.

Declining productivity of forests and the lull in forestry activities gradually destroyed livelihoods of millions of economically deprived families living in forest areas and in many cases starving, impoverished people are forced into aiding the very forces that are destroying forests for commercial profits. Hence the myth that that forest people are responsible for deforestation, and governmental remedies like harsher and more stringent forest laws that limit people’s access to forests. The major argument that the state, environmentalists and the mainstream media use over and over again is that increase in human population, cattle population and so-called ‘biotic pressure’ is chiefly responsible for destruction of the country’s forests and biodiversity. What is forgotten is that forest people have shared a strong cultural and spiritual bond with forests that never allows them to exploit and degrade out of choice. Non-sustainable and commercial use of forests is something that the urban elite and the state force upon the forest people, by denying them basic, subsistence-level access to their traditional resource-base on the one hand, and continuing with intensive commercial exploitation on the other.

By Soumitra Ghosh, National Forum of Forest People And Forest workers (NFFPFW), E-mail: