Deforestation in Uttaranchal in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

The British began extending their control over forests in India (including Uttaranchal, or Uttarakhand) after passing the Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878.

This was driven by the increasing demand for timber, and hence the growing significance of forests as a source of revenue. Forests also acquired strategic importance with the growing requirement for timber for the expanding railway network. During the period of colonial rule tree-felling in Uttaranchal can be distinguished into three phases. In the first phase (1815-1865) the demand for wood was low and there was only limited interest in managing forests. The demand for timber began to grow toward the end of this period, and it gained momentum in what can be seen as the second phase (1865-1913). During this phase the government built roads and improved waterways to ensure rapid transport of wood. As a result, between the 1860s and the early 1910s timber production, on average, increased from 0.72 to 4.5 million cubic feet per annum. In the third phase (1913-1947), timber out-turn fluctuated and was quite low between 1925 and 1935. However, the felling of trees peaked during World War II.

Several factors contributed to the increased extraction of wood from forests. Some scholars attribute increased extraction to the growing local population. However, they overlook the fact that the amount of timber exported out of the region far exceeded local consumption. Villagers definitely collected large quantities of fuelwood from forests, but this was mostly in the form of dry fallen wood. Other demands for wood came from urban centres; the forests of Uttaranchal constituted the main source of timber and firewood for the inhabitants of the Gangetic plains. Moreover, in the twentieth century, the establishment of industries increased the demand for raw material and fuel from these forests.

Nevertheless, it is largely unknown that the demand for timber and fuel by the railways during the colonial period put tremendous pressure on these forests. According to one estimate, the railways consumed approximately one-third of the timber out-turn of the country in the early twentiethcentury. Wooden sleepers were used to lay tracks. Initially, only sal, deodar, and teak were used; later, creosoted chir sleepers were alsofound to be sufficiently durable for use as sleepers. As the railway network expanded (from 1,349 km in 1860 to 65, 217 km in 1946-7) the demand for wooden sleepers increased many fold. Moreover, as it was expensive to transport coal over great distances, wood was also used as fuel for trains in many place.

Till recently, only the conversion of forest land to other uses has been regarded as deforestation. Such an approach does not take into account the declining quality of forests. However, in reality forests were overexploited, since wood extraction was unsustainable. This would have led to forest degradation, if not denudation, though the degradation would not have been apparent till much later. I suggest that recognizing the degradation of forests due to timber extraction links deforestation to the production of wood, and not just to land conversion. This historical dimension to deforestation has not been adequately analysed by scholars.

Originally published as:
Dangwal, D.D. 2005. Commercialisation of Forests, Timber Extraction and Deforestation in Uttaranchal, 1815-1947. Conservationand Society 3(1):110-133.

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2008 Mar