The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Just another instance of the tragedy of the commons

Till well into the 1960s, Indian railways used steam engines. The Bombay-Poona line and the local trains in Bombay and Calcutta had been electrified; but leaving those aside, billowing clouds of smoke marked the passage of trains across the Indian countryside. The sound of engines' exhausts was so familiar that children played steam engines, imitating their phush-phush sound and emitting a high-pitched whistle.

Steam engines used coal; the coalfields of Jharia were opened up for them. Before coal came to be mined, they used wood; they just bought wood at stations and dumped it into the boiler. Steam engines were never very fuel-efficient; even in the 1970s, their fuel efficiency hardly exceeded 20 per cent. When they first arrived in the 1850s, it was less than 5 per cent. So they used huge quantities of wood; their arrival created an entire wood-cutting industry ' and rapidly denuded India of forests.

Their impact was so drastic that the government soon began to think of growing wood. Animals are important in India's rural areas even now; herding was even more important in the nineteenth century. Animals were seen as a serious threat to growing forests. So in 1871, the government passed the Cattle Trespass Act which authorized the government to impound trespassing cattle; cattle comprised elephants, buffaloes, camels, horses, mares, geldings, ponies, colts, fillies, mules, bulls, bullocks, cows, heifers, calves, asses, pigs, rams, ewes, sheep, lambs, goats and kids. The owner could retrieve his animals by paying a fine.

The 1871 Act only referred to tame elephants. The government found that wild elephants were threatened as people killed them for ivory or meat. So in 1879 it passed an Elephant's Preservation Act which made wilful killing of elephants a crime.

However, the 1871 Act was still not enough. It was not just plantations that needed to be protected, but all forests. And they needed to be protected, not against cattle alone, but against any consumptive or destructive use. So the government passed the Indian Forest Act, 1927. It took powers to declare a forest reserved. In a reserved forest, anyone who made any fresh clearing, set or kindled a fire or left any fire burning in such manner as to endanger such a forest; trespassed or pastured cattle, or permitted cattle to trespass; caused any damage by negligence in felling any tree or cutting or dragging any timber, felled, girdled, lopped, or burnt any tree or stripped off the bark or leaves from, or otherwise damaged the same; quarried stone, burnt lime or charcoal, or collected, subjected to any manufacturing process, or removed, any forest-produce; cleared or broke up any land for cultivation or any other purpose in contravention of any rules made in this behalf by the State Government, hunted, shot, fished, poisoned water or set traps or snares; or in any area in which the Elephant's Preservation Act, 1879 was not in force, killed or caught elephants in contravention of any rules so made, was punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which could extend to five hundred rupees, or with both, in addition to such compensation for damage done to the forest as the convicting Court may direct to be paid.

The 1927 Act recognized a number of potential rights ' rights to pasture, shifting cultivation, removal of forest produce, watercourses and right of way. Forest produce was defined as trees and leaves, flowers and fruits, plants not being trees (including grass, creepers, reeds and moss), and all parts or produce of such plants, wild animals and skins, tusks, horns, bones, silk, cocoons, honey and wax, and all other parts or produce of animals, and peat, surface soil, rock and minerals (including limestone, laterite, mineral oils, and all products of mines or quarries).

Forests could be either reserved or protected. In a reserved forest, users' rights were recognized provided that they had been exercised before the forest was declared reserved; no new users could come and claim rights. And old users' rights had also to be recognized in writing by the forest officer in charge. Further, the government could declare any part of a reserved forest protected. If it did so, all users' rights in that part were suspended while it remained protected. The idea was to prohibit all human access to severely degraded forests until they had recovered.

The government could not afford to police a forest so strictly that everyone who illegally removed forest produce could be caught. So it declared all forest produce its property unless the possessor could prove that it was his; and it took powers to control the transport of forest produce. Despite the 1927 Act, India's forest cover shrank. The Government of India decided that this was because state governments had allowed the plundering of forests out of greed or negligence. In 1980 it passed the Forest Conservation Act and took away state governments' power to do anything with forests. The Act even says that any government department or official that breaks the law will be proceeded against.

This Act did not stop the forest cover from further contraction and degradation. But it gave forest officers enormous powers, which they used to stop or sell access to forests. So now an agitation has started calling for recognition of 'tribal' rights to and 'communal' management of forests. This is not peculiar to India. In many parts of the world, forest is being destroyed; the worst cases are those of Brazil and Indonesia. And the destruction has created a flourishing world community of forest lovers who consider the felling of a single tree a crime and a sin.

But the vanishing forests are just another instance of the tragedy of the commons. What belongs to no one gets plundered. It does not matter whether the government declares it to be its own property; it does not have the resources to protect its property.

Will transfer of forests to local communities reverse the plunder' All communities have to earn a livelihood; they are not going to take time off to protect forests unless the forests became sources of greater income than they are earning now. And even if they do, they will not have the resources to protect forests.

We must ask ourselves whether we are interested in the woods or the trees. By restricting or prohibiting the cutting of trees, we have made trees valueless. People will grow forests if they are allowed to cut them and sell the wood. West Bengal should stop making laws about when trees can be cut or not cut; it should have no restrictions at all on the cutting of trees on private land. Not only that; it should lease out wasteland for growing tree crops. Rosewood, for instance, is extracted from Brazilian forest; rosewood furniture is worth its weight in gold. West Bengal could make far more by growing rosewood, sandalwood and sisal than it ever would from rice. If it grows such high-value timber and exports it all over the world, it will be able to import all the rice it needs from Punjab and have plenty of money left over.

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