National Forest Policy, 1952: An overview of Independent India’s first approach to forest management

While the British ruled India, forests were managed for one clear purpose: timber (for the railways in the domestic and for exports). Forestry was also considered secondary to agriculture; this led to massive expansion of agricultural land at the expense of forest land, creating several physical problems in the country.

Independent India had different goals and priorities from forests. First, she needed to develop her economy quickly. Second, new research at the time also highlighted the role forest plays in protecting national and community interests by checking land degradation. The National Forest Policy of 1952 was formulated by keeping these two priorities at the forefront.

(Currently, India follows the National Forest Policy 1988 as the guiding document for forest management in India. An overview of this Policy can be found here.)

Key highlights of the National Forest Policy 1952:

  1. A holistic but utilitarian approach to forest management as India became independent and needed to grow its economy.
  2. Introduced a functional classification of forests in India, but did not replace the forest classification from the Indian Forests Act, 1927.
  3. A top-down approach to forest management
  4. Proposed to increase forest cover to 1/3 of the total Indian landmass
  5. Introduction of the working plan as the guiding forest management document at state and local levels

Six needs that the National Forest Policy 1952 sought to address…

  1. Improve land use management, where land was used for the purpose it is most ideal for, allowing it to sustain for long periods.
  2. Arrest soil erosion and land degradation in mountainous terrain, treeless terrain, coastal plains and the Rajasthan (then called Rajputana) desert.
  3. Improve microclimate through growing and maintaining trees, particularly in areas outside those classified as forests
  4. Meet the increasing demand for grazing land, wood for small agricultural supplements and fuelwood. Fuelwood generation was seen as an important activity, as it would then free cow dung to be used as manure in food production.
  5. Enhance timber production for defense, communication and industry
  6. Maximize annual revenue from forests to ensure that the 5 needs mentioned above can be met “in perpetuity”

The needs highlight the approach of the government at that time: forest management was a utilitarian exercise. It had to contribute to the economy directly or indirectly. Unlike today, when forest management is focused on conservation of forest resources, forest practices then stressed on deriving the maximum use out of forests (sometimes at the expense of local communities, see below for more on this). Where conservation was highlighted, it was done so to avoid potential economic losses that the lack of forests may bring because of soil erosion or land degradation, or to ensure that economic benefits from forests can be sustained.

Deodar forest in mussoorie
A deodar forest in Uttarakhand, India

A functional classification of forests…

The National Forest Policy 1952 classified forests functionally into four categories:

  1. Protection forests: forests that were conserved for physical and climatic considerations. The Policy elaborates that forests in sensitive areas like slopes, river valleys and coastal lands will provide a protective influence on soil, water and climatic characteristics of the locality, and that these needs far outweigh the restrictions from the use of these forests.

    However, the Policy also states that “wherever possible”, the scientific management of protection forests must include the production and exploitation of timber “within limits of safety”.

  2. National forests: the forests that need to be maintained and managed for defence, communication, industry and other matters of public importance. The Policy highlights this to be a vital approach to ensure self-sufficiency of the country.

  3. Village forests: also called “fuel forests”, these forests are expected to serve the needs of the local communities living in and around forest areas. Village forest management should aim at meeting the present as well as the future needs of the local population. More on this below.

  4. Treelands: today, they are called “trees outside forests” or TOF. The Policy highlights that such treelands are important for the overall health of the country and its citizens. Enhancing tree cover outside forests through treelands was approached indirectly, through events like the Van Mahotsav, by educating the population to be “tree conscious” and by encouraging farmers to plant trees within their farmland, in community land and along roadsides.

A top-down approach to forest management…

The need to manage forests for national interests of industry and self-sufficiency translated into a top-down approach to forest management in the country. This is clearly visible where the Policy talks about village forest management and rights.

It highlights the need to ensure that removal of forest produce beyond its annual growth should not be permitted. This “renders the entrusting of the management of village forests to panchayats, without safeguards, a hazardous undertaking”. While the Policy encourages involving local panchayats in village forest management, this must not “be at the cost of economy and efficiency”. In other areas in the Policy, it highlights that village forests must be managed scientifically, however “irksome” this may be to local communities. This approach systematically regulated (and sometimes eliminated) forest rights for the communities living within forests and in fringe areas. It took a long time for this situation to be reverse.

In this same vein, grazing was seen as a largely destructive force within forest areas, “incompatible with scientific forestry”. The Policy highlighted several methods to control grazing: encouraging rotational grazing, banning goats in forests (because it is a browser, damaging saplings), and by levying a fee for grazing rights within forests.

Interestingly, the Policy also encourages action to create a behavior change by stating:

The notion that a farmer’s wealth must be reckoned in terms of the number of cattle he owns, regardless of quality is one of the causes of India’s uneconomical cattle wealth and must be combated.

A deciduous broad-leaf forest near Dehradun
Silver oaks stud the landscape

“One-third of the total land area under forests”

The target to cover one-third, or 33%, of the total land area under forests was articulated in the National Forest Policy 1952. The India State of Forests Report 2019 reveals that India’s forest cover is 24.56% of the total land mass. We are yet to meet this target, after 65 years.

The Policy also provides general targets for different terrains. In hill and mountain slopes where the threat of soil erosion is high, forest cover must be two-thirds of the available land. In plains, where land use pressures are greater, the Policy set a modest target of 20%. Recognizing competing (and more beneficial) land uses like agriculture, industry and urban development in plains, the Policy also stressed that most of the tree cover may be concentrated in river banks and “other places not suitable for agriculture”.


Forest management for sustainable yields…

The Policy stresses that while forests must be exploited for national gains, removal of forest resources must not exceed annual growth in forests. Thus, the Policy stresses that each forest—public or private—must develop a forest working plan to ensure sound forest management and sustainable and consistent income from forests.

Forestry education and research

The Policy stresses the need for specialized training of forest administration and field staff. Specialized research into the use of forest products is also championed, which was to be led by the Forest Research Institute. In line with the tone of the entire Policy, it recognizes that connections between research and commercial interests need to be strengthened to gain the most economic benefit from efficient use of forest resources.

You can check out the full text of the National Forest Policy 1952 here. This Policy remained the guiding document for forest management in India until a new National Forest Policy replaced it in 1988 with several changes.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

2 thoughts

    1. Hi Preeti, I will write a follow up post on the 1988 policy soon. I will cover the changes in that post.

      As for achieving our green cover target, I honestly cannot say😅 the way “forests” are defined in Indian policy and legislation is still pretty ambiguous. So there is a lot of confusion, depending on what definition you choose.
      There is slow recognition of Trees Outside Forests and grasslands as important ecological habitats, which wasn’t there when the target was set. I’m not sure how the surveyors will factor this in their calculations (if at all they will).

      Liked by 1 person

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