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:

  • Railways

  • Shipbuilding

  • Agricultural expansion

  • Commercial farming

  • Tea/Coffee plantations

  • Adivasis and other peasant users

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(a) Railways: These were a necessary mode of transport for colonial trade and movement of troops. To run the locomotives, wood was needed as fuel and also for railway sleepers. As railways spread throughout India, a huge number of trees were felled. In the Madras Presidency itself, 35,000 trees were cut annually for sleepers, in the 1850s.

(b) Shipbuilding: This was also important from the perspective of colonial trade. When England’s own forests began to deplete, teams were sent to India to explore timber resources here. New ships were needed for the continuance of the English imperial power. Being an island nation, England had an essential need for timber for shipbuilding, and huge quantities of this timber was being exported from India.

(c) Agricultural expansion: In order to expand production of cash crops, whole forests were cut to make way for cultivation of crops that brought in revenue. Commercial agriculture fast replaced shifting agriculture.

(d) Commercial farming: This was a direct corollary of agricultural expansion. In commercial forestry, a particular type of tree was grown for trade purposes. Older forests which had a wide variety of trees were no longer considered of use. These were cut down and replaced with “managed” forests.

(e) Tea/Coffee plantations: They hired displaced village community members on low wages. The forest tribes no longer lived where they had been located for generations. Shifting cultivators would sow seeds in burnt out forest land and re-grow trees. When they were gone, there was no one left to tend to the forests, something they had done naturally in their home villages.

(f) Adivasis and other peasant users: As mentioned in the previous note, when they were forced to leave their forest homes, the forests became victim to trade avarice. Industry did not worship the earth or its resources like the adivasis had done.

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