Between 1880 and 1920, forest cover in the Indian subcontinent declined by 9.7 million hectares, from 108.6 million hectares to 98.9 million hectares. Discuss the role of the following factors in this decline:
2. Shipbuilding
Agricultural expansion
Commercial farming
Tea/Coffee plantations
Adivasis and other peasant users

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(1) Railways played a vital role in the decline of the forest cover in India. For laying railway tracks forest land had to be cleared. Apart from clearing area for tracks, railway locomotives required timber for fuel and sleepers. For all these needs forests had to be cut down. The British government gave contracts to individuals to supply the required quantity of timber. These individuals cut down trees indiscriminately.

(2) By the end of the 19th century, oak forests in England had almost disappeared. This created a shortage of timber for the Royal Navy. If the imperial power was to be protected and maintained, the building of ships was the first priority. So, search parties were sent to explore the forest resources of India. A large number of sleepers began to be exported to England annually. This further led to the indiscriminate cutting of trees year after year which caused deforestation on a massive scale.

(3) The population was on the rise and the demand for food increased. Peasants extended the boundaries of cultivation by clearing forests. This gave them more land available for cultivation. In addition, there was great demand for cash crops such as tea, cotton, jute, sugar, etc., which were needed to feed the industries of England.

(4) The British directly encouraged the production of commercial crops like jute, sugar, wheat, and cotton. The demand for these crops increased in the 19th century in Europe, where foodgrains were needed to feed the growing urban population and raw materials were required for industrial production. Hence, large tracts of forest land were cleared to make land available for commercial farming.

(5) The colonial state thought that forest land was unproductive. It did not yield agricultural produce nor revenue. Large areas of natural forests were hence cleared to make way for tea, coffee, and rubber plantations to meet Europe’s growing need for these commodities. The colonial government took over the forests and gave vast areas to European planters at cheap rates. The areas were enclosed and cleared of forests and planted with tea or coffee.

(6) The Adivasis and other peasant users, gather forest products and graze their cattle. Their livelihood mainly came from forest produce. This does not destroy the forests except sometimes in shifting agriculture. In fact, now the new trends that promote forest conservation tend to involve local villagers in conservation and preservation. Adivasis and other peasant communities regard the forests as their own and even engage watchmen to keep a vigil over their forests.

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