The Burden of History and the Mirage of Permanent Boundaries

In the summer of 1999, approximately 750 sq. km. of territory in the Western Himalayas, in the district of Kullu in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, was declared closed to local populations and notified as the Great Himalayan National Park. Following the procedure laid down in the Indian Wild Life (Protection) Act, the rights of any claimants to the resources inside the Park were extinguished; out of the more than 15,000 users, a small compensation was ordered for those whose names appeared in the records that were consulted to determine legitimate users.

Curiously,this legitimacy was derived from records dating to 1897, from the first forest settlement in the region that determined and codified the nature and extent of rights in all of these forests. Following the notification and the extinguishing of rights, local populations immediately organised themselves to lobby their political representatives for redressal. Through a combination of claims to a moral economy and electoral arithmetic, local residents were successful in securing access to the legally denied resources inside the Park, circumventing the restrictions and threats posed by the Forest Department and the law. This result resonates with a similar effort in the 1880s, when the Forest Department attempted to reserve large tracts of forest in the same region and was frustrated in similar fashion.

In 1876, a team of three high-level forest officials led by the Inspector-General of forests, Dietrich Brandis, surveyed the area and provided detailed suggestions for the demarcation of the best forests in Kullu. They estimated that of the total area of approximately 1,200 square miles (~3108 sq. km.), only about 400 could be said to be under forest. In their report, they suggested that about 150 square miles (~ 388 sq. km.) be demarcated and subsequently managed for timber production. They also emphasised the need to separate the lands that could be made available for the expansion of cultivation from those to be maintained permanently as forests. Over the next two decades, actors at the local, provincial and national levels interpreted the report differently in light of the brand new Indian Forest Act of 1878. The legal categories were deliberated, interpretations were disputed and fault lines emerged within the state apparatus. A strict application of the legal categories prescribed in the 1878 law was thwarted by the provincial Revenue Department through a characterization of Kullu as anomalous. Besides the Forest Department-Revenue Department rivalry, there emerged a strong local bureaucratic response to central direction, in interaction with the resistance of the local populations to the proposed restrictions on forest use. As the debate moved from an inter-departmental conflict, through the centre-local tensions, to the formulation of a compromise during 1882-86, overt peasant resistance in the late 1880s again foiled attempts to implement and enforce the new boundaries around permanent forests.

The case throws light on historical contingencies in the evolution of property rights in forests, and their influence on the success of current conservation policies. The three dimensions of conflict – between departments, between centre and states, and between conservationists and local populations – continue to define the contours of debate around conservation in India today, as evident in the case of the Great Himalayan National Park and numerous other protected areas.

Originally published as:
Chhatre, A. 2003. !e Mirage of Permanent Boundaries: Politics of Forest Reservation in the Western Himalayas, 1875–97. Conservation and Society 1(1): 137-159.

This article is from issue


2008 Jun