Colonialism, Capitalism and Deforestation
WHILE we are in general agreement with the overall thrust of Gopa Joshi's paper ("Forests and Forest Policy in India", Social Scientist, No 116, January, 1983, pp 43-52), there are several issues arising from her treatment that need to be clarified.
(1) Regarding the century old history of deforestation in India, and its causes, it is basically false to posit the issue as being one of Forest Department (FD) versus the forest dweller. On the contrary, one must try to understand the process whereby forest communities have been subjected to a progressive loss of control over their natural resource base by both the colonial and post-colonial state. The task is to analyse, on the one hand, the social imperatives (of changing class relations) that have dictated state forestry practices and on the other, the alienation of man from nature that has been the result of these practices. The situation whereby the propertied class destroys forests (and natural resources in general) through its profligacy, and the propertyless through lack of alternatives, is germane to capitalism, particularly of the underdeveloped sort 1 The history of deprivation of forest communities is a complex process that needs to be unravelled—and not sidestepped by putting the blame either on the tribals (as official/ruling class circles do) or on the FT) (as Joshi does). It can also be pointed out that the success of panchayati forests in Garhwal, as mentioned by Joshi, has been made possible precisely where relatively homogeneous village communities have retained control over their forests.
Joshi's contention that "the maximum harm is done to the forests by the contractual method of exploiting the forest wealth" (p 48) is a corollary of her unhistorical and idealist approach. It has been correctly observed: "Contractors are not the cause of deforestation and tribal exploitation. They are only the symptoms and the tools of (the) process of commercialisation."2 The compulsions of profit maximisation foster a basic contradiction between capitalism and the rational and sustainable use of natural resources in India; the situation is further complicated by the competing claims to forest produce exercised by the mercantile/industrial bourgeoisie and the forest dwellers for whom the produce of the forests often constitutes the difference between starvation and subsistence. As such, the call to abolish the contractor system or for the FD to change its ways are