From wood to jungle to forest

Published : Jul 15, 2005 00:00 IST

Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife: A History of Forests in Assam by Arupjyoti Saikia; Wild Areas Development and Welfare Trust, Guwahati, 2005; pages 372, Rs.595.

THE story that the author, who teaches history at the Cotton College in Guwahati, tells is not new. It is nevertheless worth telling again. This is because facts well known are not necessarily remembered, and the lessons from such facts are not necessarily learnt. So, while at times the narration might seem over-comprehensive to the point of the wood being lost for the trees, to use a metaphor apposite to the theme of the book, and the minutiae of its details may sometimes seem irrelevant and even incomprehensible insofar as the general reader is concerned, the story does hold one's attention.

Put simply, the story is about how the "jungle" of pre-colonial times got transformed, one would even say transmogrified, via the mediation of colonial intervention, into the "forest" of modern days, with everything that the two terms imply. There is, undoubtedly, an element of wistful make-believe in this portrayal of the ancient "wood", the archetype of all untamed vegetation that existed in harmony with its environment at the very beginning of plant and animal life on the earth, before jungles and forests, into the "pristine jungle" of romance and myth, raw and pure and possessing an elemental beauty and mystery and magic, all the qualities seen and ascribed by human beings who even in the earliest times were both awed by its mystery and drawn by its productive resources, to the "wild jungle" of pre-colonial India and in course of time to the more ordered and managed and profitable "forest".

The other, more solemn-sounding, objectives that the author sets for himself are to tell of the "making of the modern forests of Assam" and "to frame out the problematic environmental history of the region". Fortunately, little is heard of such "problematique" postmodernist jargon after the opening pages.

This "innocence", if one may call it so, of the "jungle" of pre-colonial times is contrasted with the "organisation" of everything that followed colonial conquest and the incursion of new varieties of control inherent in the civil and military administration that followed that conquest: the surveys, the enactment of laws, regulations and rules; the commercial exploitation of the forest's wealth for the market whose aim was to preserve the forest to the extent of and in order to get the optimum out of the forests, the classic "enlightened-self-interest-for-the-common-and-greater-good" approach, the adverse impact that these policies had on the original inhabitants of the forests, human and animal, whose exploitation of their environment was for their own sustenance, not for accumulation of surplus for the market and the creation of wealth for personal enrichment.

The book deals with all these subjects, and more. Organised under six chapters (not seven, as the author erroneously says on page 11) excluding the "Introduction" and "After Words" (sic) the story covers the period between 1874, when the territory of Assam came under direct colonial rule after being placed under a Chief Commissioner, and 1947. Technically, however, the cut-off point of the narration is 1950, the year of the great earthquake that had, in the author's words, "a tremendous impact on the forest resources of Assam in maters of loss of forest coverage and depletion of forest landscape". The lack of conceptual precision made worse by prolixity of the passage cited is typical of much of the author's "theoretical formulations" - which, again fortunately, taper off after a while, though examples of such prolixity and repetition abound. Here is an example from the very opening pages where the author speaks of the ownership of the forest and the exploitation of its resources, especially timber and elephant:

"Quite often the Ahom kingdom is known to have paid tributes to the Mughal emperor in the form of large number of elephants as war indemnity" (page 9). "The elephant often turned out to be the saviour of royal prestige as it was often given as a gift in the case of defeat of Ahoms" (page 10).

THE story begins with an account of what the author describes as the "mapping of the forests" by colonial officials, with a view to having "a fair idea of what was there and how it would be helpful to the imperial needs". However, there is very little description of any actual cartographical work done; indeed, the book does not carry a single map or even a rough sketch, old or new, showing the forest cover in Assam and the changes that have taken place over the decades. Rather, the "mapping" is about how the forest was "seen" by colonial officials, with a view to assessing the wealth it had to offer. In the author's words, "the gaze was politically motivated, imperially designed; and ... this observation (`gaze') changed the forest landscape of Assam". This is really scholarly density with a vengeance. Put simply, the mapping was almost entirely about determining the timber wealth of the forests.

But even this straightforward theme, that the rich forests were surveyed (mapped) with a view to exploiting their wealth, is presented with unwarranted complexities, obscurities and even plain internal contradictions. For instance, what does one make of a sentence like this - "The colonial forest department was in total command over the forest topography." The narration abounds with references that are never explained or, in some cases, plainly wrong - as when L.W. (Leslie Waterfield) Shakespear, the well-known author of History of the Assam Rifles, becomes "W. Shakespeare" in the bibliography, notes and index. Crucial sources cited in this chapter, such as "Captain Jenkins" and "Reid", the former (Francis Jenkins) referred to in a footnote as "agent of the governor-general in the Northeast frontier and commissioner of Assam" and the latter simply as "Reid" (probably one Captain Reid of the Artillery, mentioned in Moffatt Mills' Report on the Province of Assam) are never properly identified, though there is a reference to a "Francis, J" and his "Report on the Northeast frontier of India, 1835". One Masters, Deputy Collector of Golaghat and an Assistant Commissioner in charge of Nambor forests, appears on the same page where he makes his first appearance (page 38) also as Master. While on the subject of anomalies in the Notes and the Bibliography, Footnotes 30, 31 and 32 of the "Introduction" do not find any mention in the Notes and Reference section attached to the Chapter where the Notes end at 29.

Some rigorous revision and professionally competent editing would have helped. Referring to the practice of woodcutters from Bengal entering government forest areas and cutting timber, the author says that in order to discourage the practice, the Deputy Collector of Kamrup suggested the levy of a timber tax. "He admitted that this was a rampant practice of the time. He also advised the commissioner that there should be minimum [emphasis added] restrictions on the felling of the young trees of valuable species" (page 28). Fortunately, this egregious blunder is not repeated subsequently (page 30) where the author correctly refers to the "prevention of destruction of young trees" and "prevent the felling of small trees of certain species".

The transition from the jungle to the reserve was part of the process of forest administration, where the exploitation of its wealth had to go hand in hand with some ideas of conservation. Thus emerged two categories of forests: the reserve forests and the open or protected forests. The distinction between the two is described thus: "In the former, the entire responsibility of administration and control over the forests and its products rested with the forest department. In the other category, the rights and privileges of the forest department was (sic) confined to specific reserved trees or such rights which were defined exclusively for a specific forest." What is, however, lacking is an analysis of the rationale behind the distinction, and how it advanced the colonial agenda. One wishes, for instance, that some of the interesting, even startling, facts that the author records in the two tables (pages 72 and 74), like the increase in the area of reserve forests in Nagaon district, from just eight square miles in 1882 to 111 square miles in 1884, were analysed in some detail. Instead, we have an exhaustive (and exhausting) account of executive decisions and the administrative process that led to the creation of various reserve forests, their location, areas and expansion (or in rare cases, the diminution) of the areas over the years, and across the districts, with no opportunity lost to cite from official correspondence over a century old.

Despite such pointless prolixity, the narration remains interesting simply because the subject itself is so compelling. This is so when the author tears himself from official minutes and gets to discussing the impact of these policies on forest-dwellers and the peasantry in the environs, the conflicts that these engendered and the mobilisation of the peasant resentment by political parties of the Left in terms of a broader opposition to colonial forest policy. What official conservation policies have generally failed to take into account is that the destruction caused to forests and consequently to the larger environment by those who have historically lived in and in the vicinity of the forests is in no way comparable to the far more efficiently organised destruction of the forests for the market by big capital, the logging industry. A recent report from Mato Grosso, Brazil, said that organised gangs of loggers, with the active connivance of the government's environmental protection agency, Ibama, had in the past 15 years illegally extracted two million cubic metres of timber from the rainforest, enough to fill 76,000 lorries and worth $370 million.

Official policies towards the forests continue to be contested ideas, as can be seen in the debates generated by the recently published Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005. The book under review, covering such a wide variety of themes relating to forests and their environment in the context of Assam, would have been of help in clarifying some of these issues had only the work been less jargon-ridden and more terse and direct in its narration. But then, it is not easy to write in a simple way; and by this yardstick perhaps this review too fails.

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