Bengal: Forests, c. A.D. 1900

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This article has been extracted from



Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.


The his tory of the Government forests in Bengal is similar to that of the forests in other parts of India. When the East India Company first began to acquire sovereign rights, its officers were naturally impressed by the great extent of the forests, rather than by the benefits to be derived from them ; and for many years their sole aim was to expedite their conversion into culti- vated fields. Many of the best forests were alienated, and reckless exploitation ran riot. The work of destruction was hastened by the wasteful form of shifting cultivation known as jhftin, the constant occurrence of forest fires, and the direct and indirect demands for railway construction. But with the growing scarcity of valuable timber, and the observed bad effects upon climatic conditions of the wholesale removal of forest growth, a reaction set in ; and scientific forest manage- ment and conservancy in Bengal dates from the year 1854, when the first Conservator of Forests was appointed. As in other Provinces, rules were then laid down for the control of forest matters, which eventually led up to the passing of the Indian Forest Act, VII of 1878.

Under this enactment land at the disposal of the state may be divided into 'reserved,' 'protected,' and 'village' and ' unclassed ' forests, and powers are also taken for the issue of orders with the object of prevent- ing the destruction of private forests. No such orders have hitherto been issued in Bengal, and there are no ' village ' forests. The arrange- ments for conservancy are most complete in the case of ' reserved ' forests. These are permanently demarcated ; private rights, where they exist, are defined, commuted, or provided for elsewhere, and every effort is made to prevent damage by fire. Timber is extracted from the greater part of these forests in accordance with scientific working-plans, and the regeneration of suitable species is carefully attended to. In ' protected ' forests the arrangements are less elaborate : private rights are recorded but not defined, and the efforts of the Forest department are directed mainly to the prevention of reckless felling and to securing to Government its dues on account of forest produce extracted. As cultivation extends, the area of these ' protected ' forests tends to become more and more restricted. There are also, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, certain waste lands at the disposal of Government, in which even this modified control is considered inadvisable. The forests on such lands are known as ' unclassed,' and their management is regulated by executive orders.

In consequence of the permanent revenue settlement, there is very little land at the disposal of Government in the greater part of Bengal proper and Bihar, and the forests there have long since yielded to the axe and the plough. Owing to the moisture-laden winds of the south- west monsoon, and the generally low and level surface of the country, which prevents rapid draining and denudation, their disappearance has not been accompanied by the ill effects which have supervened in other less favourable conditions. Except in a few limited areas, vegetation is sufficiently plentiful ; and the bamboos, palms, and fruit trees grown by the villagers suffice to meet all their ordinary requirements. For other purposes, however, such as sleepers for railways, timber for bridges and large buildings, tea boxes, and to meet the fuel demand in cities, the only important sources of supply, with the exception of the forests in a few Native States and the timber imported from Nepal or from abroad, are the Government forests which have been ' reserved ' or protected ' in the tracts lying outside the area which was permanently settled : namely, in Chota Nagpur, the Santal Parganas, the Jalpai- guri Diiars, Uarjeeling, Chittagong*, Angul, and Purl Districts, the Chittagong Hill Tracts*, and the Sundarbans. The Government forests in these tracts^ in 1904 covered an area of 9,581 square miles, of which 6,014 square miles were 'reserved,' and 3,567 'protected,' while there were also 3,753 square miles of 'unclassed' forests in the Chittagong Hill Tracts*. With a few exceptions, the whole of this area is under the control of the Forest department of the Province. At the head is a Conservator of Forests, and under him are deputy, assistant, and extra-assistant Conservators, who are in charge of or attached to Forest ' divisions ' (twelve in number), and a subordinate staff of rangers, deputy- rangers, and foresters. In matters of general Forest administration, the divisional officer is the assistant of the Collector of the District, or in some cases of the Commissioner, while as regards technical matters, accounts, establishments, and the like, he is directly under the Conservator.

The forests of Bengal contain a great number of species, and their composition is very varied in character. The principal types are briefly : {a) The tidal forests situated in the delta of the Ganges, known as the Sundarbans, where the sundri {Heritiera littoralis) is the most important species ; {I)) the dry forests of Chota Nagpur and the Santal Parganas, where the sal tree {Shorea I'obustd) largely predominates ; (c) the forests in the hilly portions of Orissa, where the sal occurs some- times in pure forests, but usually in conjunction with several species of Terniinalia, Diospyros, Albizzia, Dalbergia, and bamboo ; {d) sal forests in the Duars * and tarai at the foot of the Eastern Himalayas and on the drier spurs of the lower hills, and those of Dalbergia Sissoo and khair {Acacia Catechu) on the gravel and boulder deposits along the rivers of that part of the country ; {e) the hill forests of British Sikkim and Bhutan, stocked chiefly with oaks, magnolias, and rhododendrons ; and lastly (/) the Chittagong * forests, of which bamboos, jdrul {Lagerstroemia Flos Reginae) and gurjan {Dipterocarpus turbitiatus) are the most important products.

Timber and other forest produce are, for the most part, now removed

' The Jalpaiguri Duars, CliiUagong, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been transferred to Eastern Bengal and Assam. The Government forests in the present area of Bengal cover 7,806 square miles, of which ^,214 square miles are ' reserved,' and 3;662 square miles are ' protected.' by purchasers, and departmental working is resorted to only for the supply of sal sleepers to railways, and of fuel to the Commissariat department at Darjeeling. Water-carriage is little used save in the forests of Angul, the Sundarbans, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts*, and to some extent in the Jalpaigurl* and Buxa* forests. The practice of shifting cultivation, which is most injurious not only on account of the destruction of forest growth, but also because the fires employed for clearing the felled areas often spread in all directions, is now almost everywhere forbidden, though it is still allowed in the ' unclassed ' forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts* and in the ' protected ' forests in the Santal Parganas. The most valuable minor products of the forests are bamboos, golpdtd (palm) leaves, mica, honey and wax, thatching grass and sahai grass {Ischaemum angustifoHuni), the last named being largely used in the manufacture of paper.

The experiment of cultivating rubber [Ficus elasticd) has been tried in the Darjeeling tarai, the Tista valley, and Chittagong* with some success, but the plantations are still on a very small scale.

Measures for protecting the forests from fire were commenced in 1872, and have now been extended to all the more valuable areas. At the beginning of the dry season fire-lines, as well as all boundaries and forest roads, are cleared of grass and jungle, and a number of fire- watchers are employed to assist the ordinary protective establishment in patrolling the forests. In many parts, e.g. in the Sundarbans, the forests are not inflammable, and in others, owing to the damp climate, fire-protection is an easy matter. It is in the dry climate of Chota Nagpur and Orissa that forest fires are most to be feared, and the greatest care has to be taken ; but, in spite of all precautions, large areas in these portions of the Province are frequently burnt. Of the total area of 2,169 square miles in 1903-4, over which protection from fire was attempted, 94-98 per cent, was successfully protected at a cost of Rs. 7-8-7 per square mile.

With the exception of a small area in Jalpaigurl District*, there are no special fuel and fodder Reserves. In the temporarily settled estates of Orissa, however, lands have been set apart in many villages, during the recent settlement operations, for grazing purposes, while in the Government estates of the Kolhan and Palamau and in some recently settled tracts in Singhbhum District blocks of waste land have been detached from the ' protected ' forest areas and included in the limits of villages, to meet the possible requirements of the villagers in respect of fuel-supply and pasture grounds. In the case of famine or fodder scarcity, the ' reserved ' forests in the affected area are thrown open for the free removal of fruits and roots, and in some cases for grazing.

During the ten years ending 1890, the forest revenue, expenditure, and surplus averaged, respectively, 6-51, 3-86, and 2-65 lakhs; and for the ten years ending 1900, 9-45, 4-86, and 4-59 lakhs. In 1900-1 the gross revenue was I2-34 lakhs, the expenditure 5-78 lakhs, and the net surplus 6-56 lakhs ; and in 1903-4 the gross revenue' was io-47 lakhs, the expenditure 6-89 lakhs, and the net surplus 3-58 lakhs.

See also

For a large number of articles about Bengal, extracted from the Gazetteer of 1908 (as well as other articles on Bengal) please either click the 'India' link (below, left) and go to Bengal (under B) or enter 'Bengal' in the 'Search' box (top, right).

Bengal, 1908

Bengal: A history, by British Raj writers

Bengal: Agriculture in A.D. 1900

Bengal: Arts and manufactures, 1908

Bengal: Commerce and trade, c. A.D. 1900

Bengal: Famines, 1769-1899

Bengal: Forests, c. A.D. 1900

Bengal: Mines and minerals, c. A.D. 1900

Bengal: Physical aspects, c. A.D. 1900

Bengal: Population, A.D. 1901

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