THE FORESTS OF INDIA: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
By Nanki Singh
India, the peninsular country in the South East region of Asia, has stories etched in each grain of her soil. She saw glory when great empires rose, and she saw pain when partition divided her people. The soils not only mothered civilizations, but also a myriad of other life sustaining forms: the gushing rivers, the lush forests and the sundry wildlife. India is naturally endowed with natural magnanimity, cultural diversity and a rich traditional history. But, often missing in the study of India, is its ecology, specifically the forests which are fundamental to its existence.
Ecological Literature highlights the necessity of having an interdisciplinary, hence holistic view of the environment. You can’t understand the whole picture, without seeing all its parts. Ecological Literature in this sense, is a fundamental part of the environmental issue. So, if it is missing, an imperative portion of our understanding of the environmental issues is lacking.
In this light, how can India expect to tackle the growing issue of environmental degradation, pollution and de-forestation when the environment was a missing part of any discourse all along? How can we hope to find solutions, when we remain ignorant of where the problems stemmed from, to begin with?
In my paper, I explore the history of one of the several fundamental aspects of the environment in detail: The Indian forests. The forests have played an integral role in the history of India. They have only given to its people: a source of livelihood, but also a cornucopia of tradition and wildlife. Hence, a narrative of these forests becomes an utmost priority to amplify our understanding of their very existence.
In India, forests or the “jungle” are not merely regarded as an element of nature, they are associated and inextricably linked with lives of many in countless ways, especially those who are dependent on it.
When I studied history in High School, the role of forests and ecology were non-existent. I questioned why my textbooks never contained ecological literature. Why is the importance and impact of ecology so underplayed? India’s history and India’s present remain incomplete without the stories of the forest. Thus begins my enquiry into the Indian forests. I find his had a starting point in India’s pre-colonial and colonial past. It was here that large-scale impacts were generated, and most importantly recorded.
The history of Indian Forests is intertwined with stories of majestic splendor and stories of exploitation. The tribes of India had a reverential attitude towards the forests. They never considered the resources the forest gave them as commodities that belonged to them. Then came the Mughals. They took advantage of the plethora of wildlife that existed in the forests for hunting purposes. Additionally, they cleared a large number of green cover to build their monuments and palaces. However, none of the practices were as damaging as those that began to take place from the inception of the British Raj.
Various studies have shown how British intervention in the forest policies of India had a negative impact not only on the natural diversity but also the social structure of India. The primary agenda of the British was simply to increase commercialization and revenue generation via their forest policies. In reality, they neglected the ecological state of Indian forest. Along with it, came various methods and technological processes during Industrialization that led to the extraction of resources in a manner that was unseen and unknown before in India.
Colonial forestry did everything possible to extract almost every resource. This obviously had a far-reaching and devastating effect on the ecology and wildlife of India. It not only led to the depletion of the forests and natural resources, but it also had negative effects on the tribal communities that were dependent on these forests.
Sadly, the situation failed to improve post the Indian independence. Relations between the government and forest communities frayed even more. However, as of the recent past, the government has begun to understand the importance and need to address the issue of the forests, and its people. While the steps being taken are small, one can see they are steps in the right direction.
I. PRE-COLONIAL INDIA:
The Indian Kings and Princely States
There is no dearth of evidence to demonstrate that dense timberlands once covered India. The changing composition of the forests can be firmly attributed to the development and growth of civilizations. Throughout the years, as humans progressed the thick green covers began to decrease and get exhausted. It is human greed and over-dependence concurrent with a growing population that has been responsible for the depletion of these forests.
Around 2000 BC, the Aryans (an ancient race) came to India. Their fundamental occupation was pastoralism and agribusiness. To support their occupations, they recognized they could use a large amount of resources provided by the pristine forest cover in India. The Mahabharata (an Indian epic) records the first semi-historical evidence of forest destruction in India by them, when the Khundava forest was burnt by the Kshatriya people (Ghosal).
Wood and non‐wood products were collected throughout Vedic period. The Rigveda (one of the ancient Hindu holy scriptures) further confirms how plants and herbs and trees were utilized for medicinal purposes. Additionally, woodlands were also used to make agricultural implements, chariots and utensils. It can be contended that these practices didn’t really have a major impact on Indian forests. For, even during the Brahminical and the Buddhist period, most of the country was covered with forest (Edugreen).
“From the ‘Arthashastra’ of Kautilya (350 BC ‐ 283 BC) and ‘Indica’ by Magasthenese (350 BC ‐ 290 BC), it is found that the Mauryan Kings (321 BC – 184 BC) and the kings of the Gupta dynasty (280 – 550 AD) used to gather income from timber and non‐timber woods items. They even had a well‐organized Forest Department for the administration of forest resources!” (Ghosal)
The forest “officials” were appointed to take initiatives in order to increase forest cover and forest goods. In ‘Arthashastra’ a legal order of forests has been given and three main classes of forests have been named (Ghosal):
(1) Reserved forests
(2) Forests donated to eminent Brahmans
(3) Forests for public use.
Reserved forests were of two types:
(a) Reserved forests for the king mainly for purposes of hunting
(b) Reserved forests for the state which were open to the general public
A review of ancient Indian texts emphasized the centrality of forests and associated activities over the course of history. Forests were not only seen as commodities to exploit, but were revered by the people. Even today, a large number of religious services are in homage to trees and plants. The Agni Purana, a text expounded about 4000 years ago, stated that man should protect trees to have material gains and religious blessings (Ghosal). When Buddhism permeated the Indian subcontinent around 2500 years ago, Gautama Buddha preached that man should plant a tree every few years. The Mauryan Empire came into power around 300 BC. The first king of this empire was Chandra Gupta Maurya. Chandra Gupta had a deep understanding of all that forests gave to us, and thus appointed officers to look after the forest during his reign. Another such king was Ashoka. He believed and propagated the protection and preservation of the forests and animals. In this vein, he also launched many programmes that promoted the planting of trees on a larger scale (EduGreen). Today, many steets in India are lined by “Ashoka Trees” named after the king himself.
With the invasion of the Mughal tribes and rulers, a large portion of forest land in the Indian sub‐continent was destroyed. The persistent decimation of forests for around 750 years under the Mughals additionally hampered the livelihoods of the original forest dwellers , who had been living in these forests for thousands of years. (Singh)
When I was taught about the Mughals, the information I was given remained limited to their bloody wars, their riches and their heirs. I was taught about how they changed the lives of the people then, and their impact that we feel to this day. However, like with many other topics, the ecology and environment took a back seat. Few texts exist that truly highlight how dramatically the Mughal period altered the environment in India. But, even from these few texts, one can fathom just how so many aspects of the environment changed. And these changes, much like the direct changes on society, continue to impact our lives even today.
When the Muslim invasions began, countless people sought refuge and shelter in the forests. Thus began a phase of a new kind of migration into the forest. These refugees began clearing the forests to make way for their settlements. The Mughal rulers of India were also well aware of the potential revenue they could generate by cultivating lands. So they began clearing forests for cultivation for economic gains (Ghosal). The history of the Mughal empire is a testimony to their critical understanding of commerce and all assets they could use for profitable gain. However, they failed to take into account how much of the forest they cleared, or how many animals they killed. Thus the amount of forest land cleared by them remains speculative estimation.
Additionally, the Mughals loved to hunt. Carcasses of beasts of all kinds adorned their palace walls. So, they cordoned off areas of forests where only they could hunt. Although India lost a large population of its wildlife due to the rampant hunting- the hunting lands ironically prevented the trees in these areas from being cut. (Ghosal)
The Mughals also cleared forests extensively to build huge monuments and palaces. However, a trademark of Mughal architecture is their incorporation of gardens in everything that they built. For example: Akbar is known to have ordered trees of various kinds to be planted in different parts of his kingdom. King Jahangir was known for his beautiful gardens and penchant for nature. (EduGreen)
Until the Mughals and the British came into India, the indigenous tribal communities used to live in or around forest areas. They depended almost entirely on forest products. These people believed that god had given them the rights to use forest products for their subsistence purposes (Ghosal). However, they were also extremely respectful and thankful for all that they took from these forests. Thus, ritual, cultural as well as social celebrations were inextricably interlinked with the forest environment. For these people, the entire forest area was their home (Sinha). It has been recorded that they would nomadically move from one part of the forest to another collecting food, fodder, firewood, wild game and other products, in accordance with the seasons. They would sell or barter very little to outsiders to get non‐forest products.
- TRIBAL STORIES AND BELIEFS:
David Frawley beautifully puts forward an understanding of “Hindu Dharma” in his article “A Hindu View of Nature”. According to him, Ecology in the west draws from religious thought. This in turn, has its roots in the bible, which views nature as god’s creation. He further explains: that in this light, if nature is sacred it is only so as a creation of god. But, Hinduism views nature as sacred in its own right. The Hindu view of nature has its roots in what is propagated by the holy ancient scriptures of the Vedas, Upanishads and Vedanta. “According to Hindu thought, there is no separation between the divine and nature. They are two parts of the same reality. Here, the cosmic reality is like the ocean and nature, the waves on the surface” (Chowdary)
The Hindu Upanishads say “Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma” this translates to Everything is the Earth. This does not imply that Hinduism reveres the powers of nature on an external level, out of superstition and fear. Hinduism sees a sacrosanct proximity, working behind the types of nature as their inward soul, which is the genuine protest of their worship. (HinduWisdom)
In his article “Ancient Vedic Environmental Protection” Koti Madhav Choudhry beautifully writes:
“God, soul and the world are aspects of one reality, but not in a limited way. Each shares the entirety of the underlying reality. Each is sacred and holds the same deeper nature of Being, Consciousness and Bliss Sat-chit-ananda). The Hindu Yogi can discern the same supreme Reality in the human being, a snake, a particle of dust or a distant star, as well as beyond all time and space”
This Vedic vision of oneness, is the underlying thought of the ecological approach in which Hindu’s honor the nature, as part their own higher Self.
This Hindu view expresses an idea that exists beyond the duality of god and the creation. God does not create the world out of nothing. “The world, god and the soul are inherent aspects of the same Eternal Being. We need not protect nature as we would an inferior creature. We can honor nature as our own greater life and expression.” (HinduWisdom)
When people visit India, they find mystifying the reverential attitude Indians have towards animals, plants, rivers etc. There remains a bafflement as to why the cow is “holy” or a river is prayed to every morning. This is because Hindus see gods existence beyond all that is human. For them, god is not confined to human terms like mother or father. God in Hinduism takes the form of the big and small pebbles, the gushing stream, the naughty monkeys and lush forests (Chowdry). This idea of “god in all” can be understood as put forward in an article by HinduWisdom. It reads:
“This sense of the Divine in all of nature is the reason why Hindus find sacred places everywhere. The Hindus have sacred mountains and hills, sacred rivers and lakes, sacred trees and groves, sacred flowers and grasses. They can honor the Divine not only in the human form but in all the forms of nature. This Hindu devotional attitude is not mere primitive idolatry as the western religions would like to project. It is not a worship of nature externally. It is a recognition of the Divine reality within all things.” (HinduWisdom)
For Hindus, the Earth is sacred as it is a manifestation of a Divine Mother.
In Hindi the earth is referred to as “Bhumi Devi” or the Earth Goddess. It is interesting to note that one of the reasons Hindus find cows holy is because the cow represents to them the energies and qualities parallel to that of the Earth (HinduWisdom). The cow takes nothing in return for all the nourishment she provides (ie. all milk products, that are a staple of Indian diet)
This leads me to question further: for a nation, whose predominant religion preaches so much about respecting nature, why are we not doing anything? It is a common sight to see cows eating plastic garbage on Indian roads- is this how we treat the “holy mother”?
The current deplorable environmental crisis demands a response. We have reached a point, where it does not matter if this response is spiritual or not- as long as it is in the correct direction: to undo the decades of damage we have done to our earth.
II. THE BRITISH RAJ
In the 15th century a large portion of India’s land began to be used for cultivation As the population grew exponentially, so did the demand for food- and accordingly the land under cultivation. According Chapter IV of “Forest Societies and Colonialism”, during the colonial period cultivation increased for the following reasons:
- The British promoted the growth of commercial crops like jute, sugar, wheat and cotton. These particular crops were high in demand in the growing urban population and the industries that used them as raw material for other goods.
- From the 19th century, Indian forests and their “conservancy” began to be taken into view by the Colonial government. But there was no “conservation” per se. Indian teak was in great demand due to the depletion of teak forests in Europe. They thus played an important role in the maritime expansion that took place during the Anglo-French Wars.
- The Railways were introduced to India in 1853. This led to rapid exploitation of Indian forests and resources. However, the colonists made acute calculations. They understood that if the Indian forests depleted, they (the British) would suffer greatly in terms of revenue. Hence, a Forest Department was sought to be established.
- So, in 1864 a Forest Department was established with the help of German Foresters. This led them to make regulations, under the Forest Act of 1965. This laid down many rules and jurisdiction for forest land, but lasted for just about 13 years.
- In 1878 an even more rigorous act was initiated by the British. This was known as the Indian Forest Act of 1878. This Act however, was detrimental to the rural communities of India. While it safeguarded the interests of the British, including their expansionist policies- the rural communities lost all their land rights.
As a result, this senseless exploitation degraded all agricultural and hunter-gatherer activities
(Source: Chapter IV: Forest Societies and Colonialism)
While the East India company was just beginning commerce in India, much of their business was related to spices like pepper and ivory (elephant tusks). This did not hamper the native hunter gatherer’s practices and use of the forest. Alas, once the British began to increase their trade of timber, the consequences faced by the natives were detrimental to their lively-hoods. (Sinha).
The baseline for Colonial forestry was to use the Indian forests in a way that would be profitable and garner a high market value for them. They gave forest produce such as timber, teak and cedar priority. Accordingly, they did not hesitate to tamper with the natural ecological state of forests to meet their objectives.
THE EFFECT OF COLONIAL RULE ON FOREST COVER
The British were of the view that all uncultivated land should used for more commercial purposes. In this vein, the production of commercial or cash crops like jute, sugar, wheat and cotton increased during this period (EduGreen). This can be mainly attributed towards the exponentially growing population in Europe, that had a concurrently increasing demand.
Food grains were required to feed the growing number of people and raw materials were needed for in order to sustain growing industries. Resultantly the “cultivated area increased by 6.7 million hectares between 1880 and 1920 in India” (Ghosal). “The depletion of oak forests in England in the 1900’s created a scarcity for the ship (building) industry in Britain” (Ghosal).
Ships were obviously a necessity for the military power of the British (EduGreen). The British saw an untapped potential of wood for shipbuilding in the Indian forests, and began cutting trees on a large scale (EduGreen).
Decline in Forest Cover due to Railways
It comes as no surprise that the building of railways played an important role in the decline of forest cover. Wood was used as fuel to run locomotives and sleepers were required to hold the tracks together. Timber was required for making sleepers for the railway lines/tracks. Each mile required between 1760 to 2000 sleepers (Forest Society and Colonialism, Chap. IV). By 1890, approximately 25,500 km of track had been laid. By 1946, the length of the tracks increased to over 765,000 km. (Forest Society and Colonialism, Chap. IV). As the railway tracks spread through India, the number of trees began to steadily decrease.
“The Forest Department hired adivasis (orginial inhabitants) of Chhotanagpur to cut trees and make smooth planks which would serve as sleepers of the railways. The department at the same time banned them to cut trees to build their own houses. Between 1880 to 1920, cultivated area rose by 6.7 million hectare.” (Forest Society and Colonialism, Chap. IV)
The Colonial government took land away from the natives, and sold it to the European farmers at extremely low prices to turn into plantations. (Edugreen). Plantations eliminated the natural ecological diversity, in lieu for monoculture. Thus, large areas of land were cleared of the natural flora to grow a single commercial crop. For example: tea, coffee, rubber etc.
As the forest lands began to be used rapidly, the British appointed a German expert, Dietrich Brandis, as the principal Inspector General of Forests in India. He was supposed to control and deal with the timberland assets in India. But instead, Brandis presented a new framework and started to train people in the “conservation” of forest assets. “The Indian Forest Service was set up in 1864 and the Indian Forest Act was introduced in 1865” (Forest Society and Colonialism, Chap. IV).
Under Brandis a number of futile laws were put in place. He made grazing animals, felling of trees and utilizing forest resources by the natives against the law, and culpable offense. In the name of “Scientific Forestry” he supplanted normal vegetation with a single sort of vegetation like sal or eucalyptus. The present day conservationists call this framework monoculture and contend that not only is it terrible for the ecology, but there is nothing “scientific” about it.
The Indian Forest Act was amended twice: in 1878 and then in 1927 (Ghosal). The 1878 Act divided forests into three categories (Ghosal).:
(iii) village forests
The natives till this point had derived their sustenance from the forests. They used to take food, medicines, firewood and many other raw materials from forests. The new laws made their lives deplorable. They could not longer take their herds for grazing nor collect food. They were now forced to steal wood from the forests- they had no other option to survive.
Shifting cultivation had been a prevalent practice among many tribal communities in India. This is a type of subsistence farming where “a small patch of land is cleared by slashing and burning the vegetation. Ash is then mixed with the soil and crops are grown. The patch of land is utilised for a couple of years and is then left fallow for 10 to 12 years.” (Joshi)
According to the colonial officials, this practice was harmful for the forests. However, their true fear lay in the idea that, an accidental fire could destroy valuable timber. Moreover, it was difficult to collect revenue from the shifting cultivators. Ultimately, the government banned shifting cultivation (Sharma).
After the introduction of the Forest Act, everyday practices like cutting wood for personal use, collecting fruits and nuts, hunting and fishing became illegal. The villagers were forced to steal and if caught, they had to go at the mercy of the forest guards. Women who collected fuel wood were harassed by the guards who demanded free food from them. (Sharma)
“The new forest laws changed the lives of forest dwellers in yet another way. Before the forest laws, many people who lived in or near forests had survived by hunting deer, partridges and a variety of small animals. The forest law deprived the forest dwellers of their customary rights to hunt, but hunting became a big game for aristocrats. The Maharaja of Surguja alone shot 1157 tigers and 2000 leopards upto 1957. A British administrator George Yule, killed 400 tigers.” (Forest Society and Colonialism, Chap. IV).
POST COLONIAL CHANGES
India got its independence from the British in 1947. Progressing to the post-colonial period embroils a connection between the forest policies of the period of the British Raj and post colonial policies. It has been known that “The National Forest Policy” of 1952 could draw a parallel to the forest policy of 1894. Only it was reframed to in a way that it would suit a larger number of people (Correspondent.). To elucidate further, the State still had a monopoly over forest lands and continued to exercise control in the name of sake of national interest. The forest communities were not given any significant rights as imagined in a free state (Correspondent).
One crucial distinction was the development of forest based enterprises like the Paper Industry which demonstrated a resurgence post 1947 (Banerjee).
The government has tried multiple interventions to tackle the issue of low productivity and biodiversity in the forests. However, my problem with the Indian government is that not only is the conservation and improvement of the environment not a primary concern, but also that their interventions are often ill-thought out and futile.
Additionally, urbanization has led to the building of roads and other networks into previously inaccessible (forest) areas. This although made transportation easier, it most importantly led to the ecological degradation of these areas, due to the improper planning and construction combined with deforestation. These problems are seen even today in hill-stations like Shimla and Kullu-Minali.
“MFP emerged as a high foreign exchange earner and became a product of great value for the economy. Majority of the MFP came from the tribal areas, and the forest dwellers who worked as labour and put their hard work sold their products to the traders at a meager scanty price who in turn sell the same product after finish in an exponentially higher price. Chief among them were: chirang seeds, sal seeds, bidi leaves etc. hence, the traders, contractors and the industries were the actual beneficiaries. Private Contractors were profit oriented and exploited the labours. Five Year Plans by the Government had even addressed this issue in 1952 to look into tribal grievances and problems. However, forest operations show a disjoint with government policies and on numerous occasions these forest contractors were able to politically influence the State. Forest exploitation and Deprivation of Rights have led to various uprisings and protests” (Sinha)
Large plots of forest land have been cleared extensively for various agricultural or infrastructural purposes. Once again, Indian forests were being harmed by the greed for commercial and profit maximizing policies. It comes as a surprise, that despite our progression in all spheres- we as a nation still fail to see the large amount of harm we are causing to our environment. This is the product of purposeful ignorance and blind greed by our representatives. The issue of the environment is more pressing than ever, and it is beyond morally wrong to go on ignoring it.
- FOREST RIGHTS ACT 2006
The issues encompassing the plight of the forest dwellers, were tended to through an act that was recently passed. This act recognized the rights of forest dwellers and aims to make conservation more liable.
http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/ind77867.pdf shows that On Dec 15, 2006 ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’ was passed in Lok Sabha and subsequently in Rajya Sabha. (Lower and Upper Houses). This act also gave the rights to people and other communities to voice their opinions regarding forest and wildlife conservation. Forest dwellers got the following three rights under the act (Correspondent.):
- Those practicing cultivation before December 2005 are entitled to their land. The land cannot be sold or transferred, but can be inherited.
- Traditionally collected MFPs, grazing grounds and water bodies, along with pastoralist community areas can be used by them.
Right to Protect and Conserve
- They have the right to protect and manage the forests and wildlife against any threat.
(Via: India State Forest Report 2015 Is Out: All You Need to Know)
The history of the Indian environment and the conversation of Indian forests would be incomplete without the Chipko Movement. In my mind, it is one of the most important and critical aspects of the history of the Indian environment.
“In April 1973, peasants of an interior village in Garhwal Himalaya successfully interrupted the commercial felling of trees by threatening to ‘hug the trees’. It was the result of their dissatisfaction and frustration towards state forest policies supporting Commercialisation and neglecting the needs and dependency of forest communities on the forest they live by. This was followed by a series of similar protest in the region; it was a powerful movement and gathered huge attention and fame along with bringing environmental issues, violation of rights by the government and the forest policies which were doing more harm than good into the limelight. Along with the reason mentioned above, these protests were the manifestation of immense dissatisfaction of forest policies which conflicted their livelihood interests and traditional rights and practices they were involved since generations and it also showcases their resistance towards the tampering of their way of life as they were reliant on forests for many resources such as fruit, fodder, meat, timber, wood, herbs etc. this infringement was the primary reason for rebellions and protests as a way of showing disapproval of negligence by government” (Ghosal)
This movement was a clarion call, not just to the concerned authorities, but also to the common man. It brought to light the reckless harm that was being done to our forests. It also brought to light that there were people who were willing to put up a fight against this wrong doing. The environment had borne the pain in silence all this time, now people had become voices for them.
INDIAN FORESTS TODAY
Since 1991, India has successfully reversed the trend of deforestation that was prevalent before (Banerjee). The United Nations report of India’s forest showed an increase in the woodland cover. A 2010 study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation ranks India amongst the 10 countries with
- the largest forest area coverage in the world
- the largest primary forest coverage in the world
- By 1981 the annual rate for deforestation in India was at an all time low of 0.6% in terms of agricultural practices (Wikipedia).
- 1990 to 2000 the Food And Agriculture Organisation also found India to be the fifth largest gainer in forest coverage in the world.
- By 2010, India ascended to become the third largest “gainer” in forest coverage (Wikipedia).
- It is also interesting to note that, the Forest cover of India increased by a whopping 5,081 square kms between 2013 and 2015 (Banerjee).
The advancements may seem small, however I believe that even though progress is slow, it is in the right direction. Change takes time, and slowly the Indian government is beginning to place greater emphasis on forest conservation. These efforts need to keep prevailing. We cannot afford to stagnate now, clinging to models of the past.
The India State Forest Report was released recently in 2015, by Union Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar. This showed (via: India State Forest Report 2015 Is Out: All You Need to Know)
- India follows a policy of keeping one-third of the country’s total land area under forest and tree cover
- The forest cover of India has increased by 21.34 percent in the last two years
- Very dense forests in India cover 2.61 percent of the total forest area, moderately dense forests account for 9.59 percent while open forests stand at 9.14 percent
- Among all the states and Union Territories, Mizoram has the highest forest cover with 88.93 percent of the total area, followed by Lakshadweep
- However, northeastern states have experienced a decline in forest cover except Manipur
- The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have gained around 1,930 square kilometre of very dense forests, Uttar Pradesh has added 572 square kilometre of very dense forest cover and Tamil Nadu has reported a net gain of 100 square kilometre of very dense forest cover
- The mangrove cover in India has increased by 112 square kilometre following acute conservation in the Sundarbans and Bhitarkanika forest. (Correspondent.)
However, not all in the report is positive. The following points highlight the areas we are still lacking. They show that we still have tremendous efforts to make to improve current conditions.
- Around 2,510 square kms of very dense and mid-dense forests have been wiped out since 2013
- States of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana have suffered huge loss of forest cover
- Around 2,254 square kilometer of mid-dense forest cover has turned into non-forest lands in the past two years. (Correspondent).
The Indian forests have thus been a silent witness to the history of India and its people. From a reverential attitude displayed by the tribal people , to the philosophical Hindu view of forests, to the reserved forests of the Mughals and Scientific Forestry of the British- all components of the history of the Indian forests are necessary to understand. This is fundamental to solve the weighing issues we face today of increasing levels of pollution, and deforestation. The government needs to understand that the roots of the problem run deep, and need to be addressed urgently. However, scarce data and un-awareness in this topic are clear signals of ignorance- how can we expect to solve any problems with such a poor understanding?
Ecological literature plays a huge role in this light- I feel that environmental studies should be incorporated into the school curriculums at a younger age, so that children do not grow up ignorant. The study about the ancient forestry and the forest based livelihoods, occasionally thus become convenient to understand the present trend of forest features.
The forests, the animals, the nature in its entirety are the very essence of life. They are what sustain us. How do we call ourselves the most intelligent, when we are failing to recognize the relentless damage we have done, and are continuing to do? I hope things change in the times to come, sooner rather than later.
Ecological Literature: Rabindranath Tagore
(Read about Rabindranath Tagore: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1913/tagore-bio.html)
Having studied various stories, and poems in EcoLit 290S, I felt my paper would be incomplete without including some Ecological literature. Tagore is one of my favorite writers, and I felt his works would be most apt as he is one of the few Indian authors whose work is concerned with the environment. Not only are his poems simple in their message, but they have a nuanced power that motivates and urges change.
What made Tagore choose this theme for his writing? I often wondered, that at a time Indians struggled for Independence, what made Tagore so concerned about nature? According to an article by Rahaman, Tagore witnessed an oil spill at sea on his way to Japan. He notes, that it is important to understand that this was at a time when, the environmental movement had not even begun abroad. Witnessing this deeply perturbed and provoked Tagore (Atiur Rahman). Tagore’s writings were in Bengali, a dialect of India. However, the following is Atiur Rahaman’s translation of Tagore’s poems to English.
“Tagore’s thinking on fresh water and public health is reminiscent of his thoughts on the environment. Tagore wanted to implement the call to satisfy all his wants in the village, through the medium of model work at Sriniketan. Classes in Santiniketan were in the shade of trees, not simply as a romantic idea but as a deliberate way of bringing students closer to nature so that they would unconsciously learn to respect it. He also started an annual celebration of the arrival of the monsoon at the end of the dry season (borsha mongol). Environmental issues like river erosion and deforestation may be hot topics today, but Tagore had been conscious about the exploitation of environment even a century ago.” -Atiur Rahman
“The sensitive Rabindranath perceived the presence of a spirit that moved in all things within Nature. The creative urge and joy of this spirit permeated his creative consciousness, unleashing a range of poems celebrating the variety within Nature. But Tagore was alert also to realizing the fact that a random exploitation of Nature could spell disaster. His creative and pedagogic instincts thus combined to create a series of festivals and poems that could use the aesthetic to remind us of the dependence of human life on the natural and the consequences of neglecting this bond. In this attempt, he developed a distinct formal idiom for these poems that sought to combine the mythical, the joyous and the spiritual. It is this complexity that provides such a density to Tagore’s nature poetry.” –Sen
I plucked you Flower
“I plucked your flower, O world!
I pressed it to my heart and the thorn pricked.
When the day waned and it darkened, I found that
the flower had faded, but the pain remained.”
(Translated by Atiur Rahman)
I understand this as: humans exploit and keep taking from nature believing it their birth right. However, we cannot continue doing this forever. Although nature never avenges, we will drive nature to collapse, and in its ruin will be the ruin of human beings too.
Human beings have touched, and in some way altered every single place on planet earth. Today, more than ever the changes we are making are resulting in disaster. Whether Tsunamis, or Hurricanes or even the temperature that is higher by a few degrees. We are making a difference but a bad difference. We need to stop now.
From the deep bowels of the earth you heard
The call of the Sun, O Tree, you witnessed
The first beat of life, you uttered
The call of life in the dreariness.
Brave son of the earth, you declared
War to liberate the soil from the
Sterility of the desert; the battle continues
To establish the throne of the green
On every page of rock
You extend your path to every space.
Your life and shade sustain me
I come forward, a messenger of Man;
Dressed in your garland I offer,
My poetry to you as my humble offering.
(translations Atiur Rahman)
Taking from the view expressed by the Upnishads- Tagore understood the need to recognize and emphasize Nature as the force that sustained man. Man is nature, and nature is man. (Sen)
In this light, whatever harm we cause to nature, we will cause to ourselves. A threat to people of all castes, creeds and color. Tagore touched many people with his nuanced writing, and continues to do so even today. This goes to show that Environmental concerns are not a “fad” as some people believe it to be. They pose grave problems that need to be addressed. In the end, whether we make a change through literature/ activities/general habits, we need to understand that even the smallest push in either direction will make a big change. So, let us push in the right direction, and make a change for the better.
India needs to do a lot more to preserve what we have left, and to make better what we have ruined of the environment. The time for discourse has passed, and urgent action is required. Instilling this education in children allows them to be responsible adults. Comprehensible policies at the state and national level will also help ameliorate the current situation. We cannot continue to stagnate because the future is now.
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