Historical Geography of Forestry and Forest Culture in Sub-Himalayan West Bengal, 1757-2015
Re-examining a range of archival data and information regarding colonial forestry in the state of West Bengal, India, it has been found that the colonial period was the clear-cut turning point of the forest landscape in terms of environmental changes of the state. In West Bengal, the British colonial rulers were in a highly dominating position; and they had implemented one single model of forest management throughout the Indian subcontinent including the Bengal Presidency. The primary objective of the present study is to understand the changing nature of colonial forest landscape through plantation (Sal, Tea, and Cinchona) activities and the establishment of forest villages through Taungya process in the sub-Himalayan West Bengal from 1757 to 1947. In particular, this study aims to examine as to how the colonial plantation activities changed the forest landscape of this particular region. It also examines civil society movement based on forest resource rights and problems in the implementation of the Forest Right Act (2006) in the sub-Himalayan West Bengal till 2015, since independence. The colonial forest management authority was more interested in the plantation and cultivation of trees with high timber values compared to the natural forest. For this purpose, the saplings of Teak, Mahogany, Sisso were supplied to different parts of Bengal province to increase the timber productions. In 1886, for the first time in the Indian forest history, an area of about 15,5,399.29 sq.km was demarcated as Reserved Forest which included the whole western Dooars region located on the right bank of the river Teesta in the northern part of West Bengal. It was the starting point of 'scientific' forest management in the then Bengal Presidency or present West Bengal. The Taungya system of scientific forest management was first initiated in the Bengal Presidency in colonial India after colonial Burma (Myanmar). The system has changed the traditional cultivation practice within the forest land. Due to the Taungya system, 168 forest villages were established in the Himalayan foothills of Bengal. And since India’s independence in 1947, West Bengal has witnessed a number of civil society movements linked to the welfare of poor forest villagers demanding the forest resources rights, for example, the Jangal Mahal movement. The Forest Right Act (2007) has also created conflicts in different parts of the study area. In a nutshell, rapid exploitation of forest resources along with trading monopoly of forest management by the state Forest Department has done historical injustice to the people of sub-Himalayan West Bengal.