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The Indian Forest Act, 1927 - An Overview

Forests are considered as a pivotal natural resource of our nation as they help in supplying raw materials to the industry such as wood, minerals and timber, provide fuel and fodder, serve as the guardians and protectors of the diverse wildlife of our country, bring revenue to the state as quite a lot of them are major tourist attractions, prevent soil erosion, provide shelter to animals and tribal people and maintain balance of the ecosystem.

Sadly, these forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate and are being exploited badly in the last few decades. These forests should be covering 33% of the total land area as per India's accepted ideal but in reality, our forests and vegetation cover only 21.67% of the total land area. Clearly, the vegetation cover much less than what is accepted and required.

There are a lot of factors that have contributed to this alarming exploitation of the vegetation of our nation such as growth in population, industrialization, urbanization and demanding more natural resources such as wood, fuel and fodder. Therefore, it is imperative to have laws and legislations that should control and govern the usage of forests and vegetation of our nation to protect and preserve them. For the purpose of this article, we shall be discussing The Indian Forest Act 1927 and how it imposes control over forests, forest-produce and their usage.[1]

The governance over forests was originally placed in the State List but by the 76th Amendment, it was placed in the concurrent list. Therefore, the forests of our country are governed by both, the Union and the States. In this article, we are going to discuss the history of forests in India, laws and legislations to protect and preserve forest and the restrictions on the usage of forests.

Historical Background
It is proven that India was once densely covered with forests; there is a lot of evidence that proves this. Over the years, the depletion and exploitation of forests is simultaneous with the progress of man, growth in population, more dependence on natural resources and urbanization. Ancient texts show that forests were very important to people as people used to performed religious ceremonies that were trees and forests centered.

As for example, The Agni Purana, a 4000-years old ancient piece of writing stated that men are required to protect and preserve forests in order to get religious blessing. Even during the Chandra Gupta Maurya era, he came to know the imperativeness of forests and in order to ensure that they are protected and preserved, he appointed a high officer to look after the forests.

The Mughals were also known to have showed keen interest in forests as they were known to have beautiful gardens with beautiful plants and trees. Akbar had even ordered to plant more and more trees in his kingdom. Now comes the British colonial period. Prior to the British colonial period, the forests were protected by the tribal people to whom the forests served as a means to live and provided them with shelter.

As soon as the British exercised control over these forests in the British colonial period, they were used solely for revenue extraction. They did not consider forests as a means of natural resources but only a way to extract revenue and make profit. Many forests all over India were destroyed in the name of agrarian activities and need for more land for cultivation. Trees were extensively being cut for wood in order to build ships, shipyards, railway tracks and transportation of wood to England obtained by cutting down Oak trees for their Royal Navy.

During World War I, forest resources of India were alarmingly depleted as large quantities of timber were being transported to England for building ships and to pay for Britain's efforts in war. Manifestly, the British era was the time-period when our forests were damaged severely the most.

In 1865, the British introduced the forest act, and the forest department was established. The main objective of this act was to assert claim on the forest land and make it doable to supply timber for the railways. This act did not have any provisions pertaining to the existing rights to the people and different tribes living in these forests.

And a few years later in 1878, another act was passed which gave absolute power over the control of forest lands. This act aimed to improve the existing provisions of Forest Act 1865 and recognize the rights of the nomads and tribal people living in the forests and categorize forests into three categories which are reserved forests, protected forests and village forests.

Indian Forest Act, 1927

In order to make the Forest Act, 1878 more effective and more comprehensive, a new Forest Act was passed in 1927 which repealed all the previous laws and legislations. The new act consisted of 13 chapters and 86 sections. The Act aimed to:
  • To consolidate the laws pertaining to forests.
  • Regulation of transit of forest produce.
  • To levy duty on timber and other forest produce.
  • To define the procedure to be followed in relation to reserved, protected and village forests.
  • To define acts prohibited inside reserved forests.
  • To define offences pertaining to forests and to conserve forests.
  • To maintain the quality of lakes, ponds and rivers in forests.
  • To improve the effective management of forests by appointing skilled professionals.
  • To improve technology in relation to forests.
  • To spread awareness regarding the importance and critical need to conserve forests.
  • To balance the impact of agrarian activities and other forest activities.

The Section 2 of Indian Forest Act, 1927 defines certain terms like cattle[2], forest officer[3], forest offenses[4] and forest produce. Forest produce includes timber, charcoal, wood-oil, bark, resin, trees and leaves, flowers and fruits, plants, cocoon, honey, wax, rocks and minerals, waterbodies such as rivers, ponds and lakes and wild animals including their skins, tusks, bones and horns.

The Chapter II, III and IV of Indian Forest Act defines reserved, village and protected forests respectively and certain acts which are prohibited and restricted inside these forests and thus, are punishable.

Reserved Forests: The Chapter II of the Indian Forest Act enables the State government to exercise the power to issue a notification under Section 4 to declare any forest or a piece of land a reserved forest in the manner provided in the Act.[5] Within the meaning of this section, any forest land or waste land which is the property of the government, or any land on which the Government happens to have proprietary rights, can be declared as a reserved forest.

A forest-settlement officer is required to be appointed for the purposes of this act who shall inquire into the existence, nature and the scope of rights over the land and forest-produce as provided in this Act in the favour of any person claiming such rights over any such land or forest-produce. Such an officer is required to hear the claims and objections of any such person and may accept or reject the same within three months.

In case of a right to forest produce or a water-course, right of pasture or right in or over any land, The Forest Settlement Officer may decide to exclude such land partly or wholly or come to an agreement with the owner for surrender of his rights or proceed to acquire such land in the manner prescribed under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. Once such claims have been settled by the Forest Settlement Officer by either admitting or rejecting them, all the rights with the aforementioned piece of land in any such case shall vest with the State Government.

Village Forests: The Chapter III of the Indian Forest Act defines Village Forests. It enables the State Government to assign rights to any village-community over the land that may have been constituted as reserved forest for the use of that community.[6] The Section 28 (2) states that the Government may make the rules pertaining to regulation and management of village forests and prescribing the conditions under which the community presiding there may be provided with the forest-produce, wood, timber and natural resources.

Government shall also prescribe their duties for protection and improvement of such a forest. Such an assignment of village forest to a community may be cancelled by the State Government.

Protected Forests: The Chapter IV of the Indian Forest Act defines Protected Forests. It is any forest-land or waste-land which is not included in a reserved forest but happens to be the property of the Government, or such a land over which the government has proprietary rights is declared to be so by a notification by a State Government under the provisions of the Section 29 of this Act.[7]

The forest-lands and waste-lands provided in such a notification discussed above shall be called as a protected forest. But it shall be noted that no such notification shall be made unless the nature and scope of the rights of the Government or of any private person have been inquired into, or in such a manner that the State Government thinks to be suffice, every such record shall be assumed to be correct unless it is proved otherwise.

The State Government by notification may regulate or prohibit the clearing of land for agrarian activities and cultivation, or grazing of cattle, pasture for cattle or clearing of land for protection against storms, flood, winds or avalanches to save such a land from soil erosion. The State Government may also by notification regulate or prohibit the clearing of vegetation in order to maintain water supply, protect roads, bridges, railway, public health and lines of communication.

Drawbacks of the Indian Forest Act, 1927

It may seem that the new provisions, rules and regulations that were brought in by the Indian Forest Act 1927 were to protect and conserve the vegetation cover of India, but a deep investigation of the act reveals that the real intention behind the new provisions, rules and regulations of the act was to earn revenue from the forest-produce i.e., cutting down of trees, wood, timber, fodder, rocks and minerals.

This act gave a lot of power to the forest officials and bureaucracy which often led to exploitation of the forest dwellers. Also, it also deprived the nomads, tribal people and forest dwellers of their rights and privileges to use the forest-produce. This act never aimed to regulate the cutting of trees, but to earn revenue from cutting of trees to such an extent that it does not destroy the forest-land.

More Initiatives to save the Forests

  • Forest Conservation Act 1980 [8]:

    The Forest Conservation Act was introduced by the Parliament on 25th October 1980 because of the rapid decline in vegetation cover in India in the 1970s. Moreover, it was also brought in response to adhere to the obligations of Article 48-A. The main objective was this act was to regulate the over-exploitation and deforestation of land for non-forest purposes like urbanization and clearing of land for industrial purposes. The act focuses on conservation of natural heritage and allows diversion of forest land only for drinking water projects, roads, lines or communication, railway lines, defence projects and power projects.
     
  • National Forest Policy [9]:

    This policy was introduced in 1988 whose main objective was to maintain ecological balance through conservation of forests as they are a part of our nation's natural heritage. The Act made quite an impact since the focus pertaining to forests shifted from commercial concerns towards conservation of forest-lands and understanding the ecological role of forests in our lives, and hence, they must be protected.
     
  • The Scheduled Tribe and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 [10]:

    This Act was passed on 16th December 2006 in order to recognize the rights of the forest dwellers, tribal people and communities living in the forests who have been deprived of their rights to use the forests and forest-produce since the because of the colonial forest laws. This act includes right to live in forest, right to access and use forest-produce, rights of entitlement such as grazing and right to protect, regenerate or conserve any forest resource.
Conclusion
We have observed exploitation of our forests on a massive scale in the colonial rule era to the extent that they had to introduce Forest Act in 1865 followed by another Forest Act in 1878 to improve the provisions of the 1865 Act, conserve the forests by classifying them into three categories and recognizing the rights of the nomads.

To make the Forest Act 1878 more comprehensive, a new Forest Act was passed in 1927 which repealed all the previous laws and legislations which is known as Indian Forest Act 1927 which aimed to consolidate the law pertaining to forests, the transit of forest-produce and the duty that is to be levied on other forest-produce.[11]

The new act aims to conserve and protect the vegetation in many ways and classifies the forests into three types so as to impose control and governance over them. But after a deep investigation, the real motive behind these laws was disclosed which was to earn revenue from cutting of trees.

Therefore, new laws came into existence in the post-independence era such as Forest Conservation Act 1980 and National Forest Policy which aimed to conserve natural heritage and understanding the ecological role of forests and recognizing the rights of tribal people.

Despite all these reforms in the laws of forests and introduction of various Forest Laws, there are still many flaws in our system pertaining to laws of conservation of nature and vegetation in India but if our government acts strictly, then we could get the proper outcome of the Forest Laws because without proper implementation, there can never be proper conservation of vegetation. We, as the people of this nation, also need to realize the importance of forests and only then we can expect proper outcomes of the Forest Laws.

End-Notes:
  1. An Act to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest-produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest-produce.
  2. Includes elephants, camels, buffaloes, horses, mares, geldings, ponies colts, fillies, mules, asses, pigs, rams, ewes, sheep, lambs, goats and kids.
  3. Any person whom the State Government or any office empowered by the State Government in this behalf, may appoint to carry out all any of the purposes of this Act.
  4. Means an offence punishable under this Actor under any rule made thereunder.
  5. The State Government may constitute any forest-land or waste-land which is the property of Government, or over which the Government has proprietary rights, or to the whole or any part of the forest-produce of which the Government is entitled, a reserved forest in the manner hereinafter provided
  6. The State Government may assign to any village-community the rights of Government to or over any land which has been constituted a reserved forest and may cancel such assignment. All forests so assigned shall be called village-forests.
  7. The State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, declare the provisions of this Chapter applicable to any forest-land or waste-land which, is not included in a reserved forest but which is the property of Government, or over which the Government has proprietary rights, or to the whole or any part of the forest produce of which the Government is entitled.
  8. The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980
  9. National Forest Policy, 1988
  10. Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, has been enacted to recognize and vest the forest rights and occupation of forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, who have been residing in such forests for generations, but whose rights could not be recorded.
  11. Indian Forest Act, 1927- An Act to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest-produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest-produce.

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