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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 18, New Delhi, April 23, 2016

Indian Forest Act and Democracy: Effect on the Traditional Tribal System

Monday 25 April 2016


by Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee

The Indian Forest Act and Democratic India are two sides of the same coin; both concern the Indians, special mention to the aboriginals, the tribes, whose traditional system of livelihood were affected by the inception of the Act, remain unchanged even after declaration of India as a democratic State, post-independence.

The Indian Forest Act was enacted by the British Government in 1865 as amended in 1878 and finally in 1927. India declared itself democratic in 1947, till such time India was ruled by the British and the tribal people of India were mostly neglected and disregarded.

The illiterate, innocent tribes were absolutely unaware regarding the forest laws and their implications relating to the forest. The forest was their own abode, wherein they enjoyed age-old rights generation-wise. But the Forest Act restricted their longstanding right over it. Ignorant of the law, as they were, movements were restricted for them within the forest unknown to them; their sustenance of livelihood faced an unwanted storm, and was in jeopardy. The Act prohibited their socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-religious life. They were in utter dismay. The dismal situation was continuing till the Indian independence. In 1947, India declared itself as a Democratic, Socialist, Republic. The strength of democracy in a country relies on its people; the tribes are an inseparable and integral part of it.

Prior to the British regime, the Indian forest was an all-round treasure for the then Kings, zamindars, Rajas and rulers. They enjoyed the forest, extracted from it, at the same time maintained and protected it in a proper fashion and manner. In 1760, the East India Company took charge of India, as British India. The forest was ruled by the then feudal power, law and legal approaches were managed by them over the forest. Gradually the British realised the immense potentiality of the Indian flora and fauna, contained in every nook and corner. They started extraction from it, comprehending their inadequate knowledge in comparison to local competitors regarding the forest. Uninterrupted commercial benefit necessitated them to form a legal bound over the Indian forest.

The tribes had continuous go with the forest. Forest was their own domain, their economy, social, religious and all found life-sustenance maintained by it. They had genuine claim on the forest and its produces. But the then administrators found that the tribal counter-parts were better acquainted with the forest. They initiated the governance to formulate a rule relating to the forest, finally an Act as the Indian Forest Act 1865, to establish absolute possession over the Indian forest.

THE 1865 Indian Forest Act represented the first attempt to a comprehensive forest law in India, its main aim being assertion of the monopoly of the British over the Indian forest land, and it gave the government undisputable power to regulate the forest and pastures. But the 1865 Act had many a lacunae; with all of it the Indian Forest Act was revised, amended and brought about new regulations for smooth functioning and scientific management of the Indian forest, as the Indian Forest Act 1878. The policy guidelines of the then Indian Government outlined forest classification giving a legal shape to the Act. It was made applicable to the Reserve Forests, Protected Forests and Village Forests. These forests were constituted legally for the first time. It enabled the Revenue and Forest Department to control the entire forest and grazing land. It gave the power to the state to effectively regulate the wasteland; it also allowed some privileges to the forest dwellers, specially the tribes, which was inadequate and negligible for the tribes in particular, affecting their traditional system of livelihood totally jerking the erstwhile situation and had no scope for maintaining the customary method of sustaining livelihood. Finally the 1878 Act was superseded with all law-relating factors and amended in 1927 which is known as XVI of the Indian Forest Act 1927, that is still in force.

The innocuous tribes had no other option to maintain their livelihood but from the forest, which was their inherent method of livelihood-sustenance. This situation pushed them into venture since 1865. Their traditional means of maintaining livelihood came to a halt, compelling them to search out new methods of subsistence activities. Continuing with this irksome condition they reached 1947. India became independent. India declared itself a Democratic, Socialist, Republic. The sovereign state saw the sunrise of Indian democracy and sunset of British feudalism. In a secular state the tribes became an inseparable part as our brother fellow citizens. They started inhaling their birthright as well as age-old rights over the forest.

In 1952, the first Indian Forest Policy in a sovereign state was declared; though the Forest Policy was implemented in 1894 by the erstwhile government, the tribes had inadequate importance there, keeping in view all aspects of the forest basically in scientific management.

The Resolution No- 13-1/52 F dt. May 12, 1952 by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture was formulated on the basis of six paramount needs of the country emphasising specially on scientific management, functional classification of the forests, afforestation, revenue collection etc. In 1988, the Indian Forest Policy looked into forest conservation, restoration of ecological balance, checking of soil erosion and denudation, scientific management etc. Chronologically it is observed that all Forest Policies had a special space for the tribes regarding their restoration and rehabilitation.

But factually very little was done for them; whatever was done was simply insufficient from the standpoint of their need. Moreover the Forest Rights Act 2006 also accepted that it was a “Historical Injustice” to our fellow citizens by the governance, the Act allowed 2.5 hectares of land to them, under specific criteria. The clemency shall depend upon three generations or seventyfive years of possession over the forest land utilised, but it is an enigma on the part of the governance. Certification by any Forest Official to identify three generations of such existence on the forest land or seventyfive years of occupancy is a far cry.

Thus, the forest-based tribes and their traditional system of livelihood have gradually declined and degenerated towards customary methods of livelihood sustenance. In a democratic system the wholehearted restoration of all sections of the population must be and should be ensured. But today’s tribal situation in India is a riddle with conflicting tendencies, which weaken the saliency and effectiveness of the democratic system.

This sequel does not solicit that these men be pushed back to history, it only points to the fact that if the traditional system is ignored and not taken proper care of, there is every possibility that the tradition may be obliterated, which is not what is propagated by democracy.

Dr Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee, M.Sc., M.Ed., Ph.D, is Secretary and Head of Education of Howrah Suparna, an NGO registered with the Planning Commission and the National NGO Portal of the Government of India. She is also the Chairperson and Managing Director of a Multiple Project at Salboni, West Bengal. She can be contacted at e-mail:

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