Forests for the People: Hegemony of Governance

Surinder K. Shukla 1

What wood is this before us?
The wood of Birnam.
Let every, soldier hew him down a bough,
And bear't before him: thereby shall we shadow
The members of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us.
It shall be done.

(Macbeth-Act V, Scene IV)

"Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees caries the memories of the Red Man..."

(In 1854, `the wise Indian Chief of Seattle' replied to the offer of the `Great White Chief in Washington' to buy their land).

Can man be imagined without the environment of forest? Can man and forest be allowed to live without governance? Is depletion of forests a common problem faced by both the developing and developed countries? If so, why? Can the hegemonising government be entrusted with the task of development of forest or does the individual or community take on the role? This paper is an attempt to raise these questions generally, and more specifically within the context of India.


Can man be imagined without the environment of forest? Can man and forest be allowed to live without governance? Is depletion of forest a common problem for developing and the developed world? Can the hegemonising government be entrusted with the task of development of forest or does the individual or community take on the role? An attempt is made to raise these questions generally and more specifically within the context of India. Past recoreded and unrecorded trajectories of mankind reveal a strong linkage and dependence of man on forest for food, health, livelihood and shelter. But as the process of governance gained ground, it began to play the role of `bull in a China shop'. It is now believed that this problem of forests and hegemonising power of state is commonly felt by both the developed and the developing world. It needs to be highlighted in the present times that both forest and the individual need to be better understood.

Forest in the developing world especially have been understood till recently as disrupted due to `ecological imperialism' which came along with the imperial colonialism. With the ecosystem disrupted, fresh attempts at afforestation were made in the post-colonial period. The process of afforestation was however marred by man's greed and the consequent reductionist paradigm of producing wood for market and not for biomass. The rise of peoples' movements and tribal resistance has helped in sensitising both the people and government with the unjust nature of state domination and on the contrary a higher justice of nature. But the hegemonising state, having unity of two concepts of direction and domination, perhaps loses its perspective in its dual nature. The onus lies on individual and community to help maintain the ecological balance and provide a safe haven for the future generations that shall walk upon this earth.

Man and Forest

Past recorded and unrecorded trajectories of mankind reveal a strong linkage and dependence of man forest. In the great Hindu epic Ramayana, Garuda asks Rishi Bharadwaj: Is there some medicine which is a panacea for all diseases? He replies: `Ayurveda' - which is a system of medicine based a herbs and plants. Man's dependence on forest for food, health, livelihood and shelter is legendary.

Gathering of fruits, herbs, fuel-wood have been among the individual and later community rights, but this idyllic picture of state of nature was tampered when the sufficiency and spoilage limitations became overwhelmed by economic advancement through industrialisation on the one hand, and as the means of governance took greater control over man and his environment. Four historical modes of resource-use have been identified: gathering (including shifting cultivation), nomadic pastoralism, settled cultivation and industry. Each mode has been studied (Gadgil and Guha, 1993: 14) at length as having shades of what modern man understands as technology, economy, social organisation, ideology and finally the impact of nature of the ecological impact.

Gathering was the earliest technology employed by man for his subsistence. It continued to be significant during the phase of shifting cultivation as well. But the changing contours of governance by the nation-state employed the tool of domination over the common man in postcolonial era. The unjust nature of state domination and contrarily a belief in the justice of nature is evident in the following statement: Sarla Behn, called the `daughter of Himalaya' in 1975, and the mother of social activism in Uttarakhand, mainly worked in the hill areas during the independence movement reacted to the impact of governance thus:

`From my childhood experience I have known that law is not just: that the principles that govern humanity are higher than those that govern the state; that a centralised government, indifferent to its people, is a cruel joke in governance; that the split between the private and public ethic is a source of misery, injustice and exploitation in society.' (From Revolt to Construction in Vandana Shiva 1988: 72).

The role of governance has been described as `The Bull in the China Shop'. The term has been used by Joep Spiertz and Melanie G. Wiber in The Role of Law in Natural Resource Management, 1996: 1-16. Von Benda-Beckmann 1992, Van Eldjrk, 1992, Woodman 1992, have argued that the economist and administrator have preference for private property over common property arrangements and this is one of the core problems of socio-economic and political-administrative developments in both industrialised and developing countries. Forests being a common property are neglected and consequently affect the common man. Moreover, scholarly writings challenging the legal-centric governance with top to bottom perspective have emerged in the recent past. They argue that there are more than one legal system (including community law, folk law), operating within the state. This is true whether the state forms a part of the developed or developing conglomerate.

From the viewpoint of the common, there is a need to better understand how the individual who stands at the intersection point of several fields can be affected by the interaction (Wiber 1995). One of the features of the complex societies is that the various smaller organised fields to which the individual belongs, are linked together and interact in a complex chain; and one of the mechanisms by which they do this relates to the way that an individual simultaneously belongs to many different fields. Even more important is the recognition that people are constrained by three basic conditions under which humans exist: the temporal continuum, the natural environment, and the psychobiological character of humans (F. von Benda Beckmann 1995).

The state has become both: strong and weak at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The state has become strong as a result of series of developments, including the rise of more pronounced participative democracies on the one hand and sharper means of state control in the burgeoning e-society on the other. The state has become weakened due to the general disillusionment of the individual towards the state response to his needs of security and equality (social, economic and political).

Ecological Imperialism

Research on colonialism has established an intimate connection between western imperialism and environmental degradation. World ecology, according to them, has been profoundly altered by western capitalism in whose dynamic expansion other ecosystem were disrupted, first through trade and later by colonialism (Gadgil and Guha 1993: 116-117). They have referred to Alfred Crosbys' monograph (1986) of `ecological imperialism' which brought with it a complex of weeds, animals and diseases and also devastated the flora, fauna and human societies of the New World. (Congress Grass in sixties and mimosa in 2001-2) are recent examples of weeds that have invaded Indian ecological balance.

By 1860, Britain has emerged as the world leader in deforestation by felling its own woods and the forests of Ireland, South Africa and north-eastern United States to procure timber for shipbuilding, iron-smelting and farming. Sometimes destruction of forests was undertaken even to symbolise victory. It is only now that the ecological implications of this process are being unravelled.

With oak forests vanishing in England, a permanent supply of durable timber was required for the Royal Navy. Indian teak was found to be the most durable of shipbuilding timbers. Accordingly search parties were sent to the teak forests of India's west coast, in order to tap the likely sources of supply. As late as 1880s the Indian forest department was entertaining the repeated requests from the British admirably for the supply of Madras and Burma teaks (National Archives of India quoted in Gadgil and Guha 1993: 119).

Further the revenue orientation of colonial land policy also worked towards cutting of forests. `As their removal added to the class of land assessed for revenue, forests were considered an obstruction to agriculture and consequently a bar to the prosperity of Empire (Ribbentrop 1900: 60). The dominant thrust of the agrarian policy was to extend cultivation and `the watchwood of the time was to destroy the forests with this end in view'.

The building of the railway network system after 1853 further intensified the process of felling trees. The sub-Himalayan forests of Garhwal and Kumaon, for example, were destroyed to meet the demand for railway sleepers.

It is interesting to note that an early environment debate started in India in 1865 when an act (preliminary draft was prepared by Brandis) was passed to facilitate the acquisition of those forest areas that were earmarked for railway supplies. It attempted to establish the claims of the state of the forests it immediately required subject to the proviso that existing rights not be abridged. The peasantry was already using the `common property' not randomly but clearly governed and regulated by community sanctions. Consequently a firm settlement between the state and its subjects over their respective rights in the forest became a chief obstacle. According to Brandis, `Act VIII of 1865 is incomplete in many respects, the most important omission beign the absence of all provisions regarding the definition, regulation, commutation and extinction of customary rights by the State' (In Gadgil and Guha 1993: 124).

In the debate that followed, three positions emerged. These are important because although they were raised more than hundred years ago but they are of equal import even today. The first position was annexationist which aimed at nothing less than total state control over all forest areas. The second position, pragmatic, argued in favour of state management of ecologically sensitive and strategically valuable forests, thereby allowing other areas to remain under the community system of management. The third position - populist, completely rejected state intervention, thereby holding that tribals and peasants must exercise sovereign rights over woodland.

Upto 1947 the Forest Policy advocated state monopoly over forests for the production of commercial timber production. Along with it, certain limited rights were granted to `rightholders' who were allowed a specific quantum of timber and fuel, while the sale or barter or forest produce was strictly prohibited. The exclusion from forest management, therefore, was both physical (it denied or restricted access to forests) and social (it allowed rightholders' only a marginal claim on the produce of the forests).


As a scenario of depleted forests glared the post-colonial world, programmes of afforestation began to be launched, which helped in sensitising both the government and the people about the quality of higher justice of nature. The conservation struggle in India and elsewhere have aimed at protecting and regenerating trees as they are the life-support system. But the commercial aspect of forestry impels the market law to function so that the schemes like - social forestry or wasteland development, afforestation programmes begin to fall within the reductionist paradigm of producing wood for market and not biomass for maintaining ecological cycles or satisfying local needs of food, folder and fertilizer. This fear can be noticed in the following statement of people involved in conservation struggle.

Sarla Behn in Blueprint for Survival of the Hills 1980 after leading hill women in five districts: Tehri, Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Garhwal and Pitthoragarh (quoted in Shiva 1988: 72) exhorted the hill people not to reduce the forests to a commercial avenue and gives a warning in the event of misuse of forests. `We must remember that the main role of the hill forests should not be to yield revenue, but to maintain a balance in the climatic conditions of the whole northern India and the fertility of the Gangetic Plain. If we ignore their ecological importance in favour of their short term economic utility, it will be prejudicial to the climate of northern India and will dangerously enhance the cycle of recurring and alternating floods and droughts.'


Different models of democracy ranging from Protective Democracy to Developmental Democracy to Peoples Democracy to Guided Democracy have operated in the post-world war period. Yet even the mildest or most protective of democracies have not succeeded in fostering relationship between man and nature. That initiative has been left to common man and lately, peoples' movements of resistance in different parts of the world have forced the centralising governance to give a more serious thought to the man-nature ecological balance, which is the vital mainstay for the survival of man.

Peoples' movement and tribal resistance to planned reform has given a new meaning to `development' or `a business of sustainable development`. Especially in the developing world, planned reform as a critical process have brought upheaval in the lives of common. In some cases changes have taken areas out of common management, in others they have been put in control of the state, and in still others they have returned control back to local communities.

Interventions by the state in the name of development by the State, by the non-government organisation, international banks, and business continue to bring changes to economic and political context in which local practices operate. An example is not out of place here. During 1976-81 the pine project in Bastar, Madhya Pradesh (World Bank referred to it as `Ruhr of the East') was to be partly funded by World Bank. This was the first forestry programme in India to receive World Bank and the general assumption was that the in tribals would get employment, but neither the Forest Development nor any of the UN agencies involved had worked out how this was to be done (Sumi Krishna, 1996: 50). Since both sal and tropical pine require the same kind of soil, standing sal and miscellaneous forests were clear - felled. It was feared by Bastar Society for Conservation and Central Governments' Department of Environment that extensive felling of the natural forest would raise the temperature and lower rainfall in the area.

Integration of Markets = Fragmentation of Nature

As a result of integration of markets and local global level, nature has often borne the brunt of fragmentation. Among the developmental plans that were carried out to integrate the market force for better economic results the important ones in post-colonial India were the Green Revolution and White Revolution. Both, undoubtedly brought economic dividends but also severely upset the ecological balance by increasing soil and nutrient loss (due to uniform cropping patterns), water-logging, salinisation and drought and desertification. This has not only resulted in fragmentation of nature but forced the state to embark on a fresh endeavour towards reclamation programmes. World-Bank aided Kandi Project was launched in the eighties in the State of Punjab in order to rejuvenate the land by a process of de-salination.

The examples quoted above are not an attempt to derigrade the process of development, instead they are an attempt to highlight the pitfalls, sometimes, by the method of narrative, so that knowledge is transmited horizontally across disciplines, vertically to policymakers and grassroot activists, and temporally across generations. We heed to understand our forest, our resources better. We need to review afresh the key terms in the environmental fields, especially scarcity, sustainability, waste, pollution, value and indeed "nature" itself.

Institutional reforms towards good governance have been recently promoted as the solution to sustainable development and natural resource management challenges. In practice however, the manner in which political changes unfold, can both open and close the public policy process. The outcome can offer new opportunities as well as new barriers to effective local participation in management and decision-making. Certain elements in the institutional reform package include improved downward accountability, enhanced participation and decentralisation of power. But the question is, are these reform packages enough to perpetuate a new resource management regime which is more participatory and has the potential of a people - centred sustainable development also focused on the propagation of nature and forests. In the time to come, this is likely to emerge as a major issue in the post-colonial or post-socialism era.

But the task is not easy because as in the past, the process of governance rests on the Gramscian concept of hegemony as a `totality' constituted by the unity of two concepts - direction and dominance. These two moments or manifestations of its rule are never completely separated. It is called the `dual perspective' in political action and state life can be described as an `oppositional couple'. This dual perspective may be reduced theoretically to two fundamental levels, corresponding to the dual nature of Machiavellis' Centuar half-animal and half-human. They are the levels of force and of consent, authority and hegemony, violence and civilisation, of the individual moment and the universal moment, of agitation and of propaganda, of tactics and strategy (Sassoon 1980: 112).

Summing up:

The environment and especially forest are vital for the maintenance of the ecological balance and the onus lies with us to provide a safe haven for the future generations that should walk upon this earth. The onus lies on us to learn to survive, protect and share equally the resource, assets, income and the common heritage of mankind.


Benda-Beckmann, K. Von 1997. `The Environmental Protection and Human Rights of Indigenous peoples: A Tricky Alliance, pp 302-23 in Fand K von Bendo-Beckmann and AJ Hoekema (eds.). Natjural Resources, Environment and Legal Pluralism. Special Issue Law and Legal Plualism. Special issue law and Anthropology, Vol.9, Den Haag's Martinus Nijjhoff.

Gadgil, Madhav and Guha, Ramchandra 1993. The Fissured Land, An Ecological History of India, OUP, Delhi.

Hobsbawm, E.J. and Ranger, T, 1983. The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Krishna, Sumi 1996. Environmental Politics, People's Lives and Development Choices, Sage, New Delhi, pp. 15-28.

Lynch, Owen of and Talbott, K. (1995). Balancing Acts: Community-based Forest Management and National Law in Asia and the Pacific, Washington, World Resource Institute.

MoEF 1988. `National Forest Policy' Resolution No.3-1/86 FP, New Delhi, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.

MoEF 1990. `National Strategy for Conservation and Substainable Development - Report of the Core Committee', New Delhi, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.

MoEF 1992. `National Conservation Strategy and Policy Statement on Environment and Development, New Delhi, Ministry of Environment, Government of India.

MoEF 1993. Annual Report 1992-93. New Delhi: Ministry of Environment, Forests and Wildlife, Government of India.

Morris, M. 1982. Forest Traders, A Socio-Economic Study of the Hill Pandaram, The Altiline Press, London.

Sargent FO, Lusk, P. Rivera, J.A. and Varela, M., 1991. Rural Envornment Planning for Substainable Communities, Island Press, Covelo, California.

Sassoon, Anne Showstack 1980, Gramsci's Politics, Croom Helm, London, p.112.

Shiva, Vandana 1995. Stayuing Alive, Women Ecology and Development Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. Kjali for Women, New Delhi.

Spiertz, Joep and Wiber, Melanie G. 1996. The Role of Law in Natural Resource Management, the Haque: VUGA, pp.1-16.

Upadhyay, Ramkinker (Ramanavmi, Samvat 2040). Manas Pravachan, Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Calcutta, Vol.V, p.108.

Acknowledgement: I acknowledge with gratitude the secretarial assistance rendered to me by Mr. Ravi Kumar Sharma.

1 Panjab University
Chandigarh, India
E-mail: surinderkshukla@hotmail.com