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Year : 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 533-537

Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife: A History of Forests in Assam

Department of History, BH 240 B, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA

Correspondence Address:
Jayeeta Sharma
Department of History, BH 240 B, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
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Date of Web Publication11-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Sharma J. Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife: A History of Forests in Assam. Conservat Soc 2005;3:533-7

How to cite this URL:
Sharma J. Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife: A History of Forests in Assam. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2022 Oct 5];3:533-7. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2005/3/2/533/55819

Arupjyoti Saikia, Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife: A History of Forests in Assam. Wildlife Areas Development and Welfare Trust, Assam, 2005, 372 pp., Rs 595.

It should be expected that Assam, a region which has long been synonymous with images of verdant greenery, lush woodlands, shikar, elephants and rhinoceroses should possess an abundant body of ecological scholarship. Sadly, both these and other histories have been scarce, given the obstacles to exploring the Indian sub-continent's remoter regions, especially those deemed to be politically sensitive. Old, arcane works by specialists in their respective fields are often all one can easily find on Assam's ecology. [1] The book under review Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife: A History of Forests in Assam, sponsored and published by the Wildlife Areas Development and Welfare Trust, is a welcome addition to the growing numbers of Indian environmental histories. It is the first book by Arupjyoti Saikia, a young historian who has studied in Assam and Delhi and now teaches at Cotton College, Guwahati. Coming from a region rich in both historical and ecological wealth, but which has been woefully neglected both for a number of years, it is encouraging to see that the Assam State Government has supported the writing of this book, probably the first ecological work for which it has done so, since Jacob's 1887 work on forest resources and Kanjilal's 1934 book on the region's flora. It is a moot point as to whether we would have seen the book's speedy publication without such support. However, the book is marred by its amateurish editing and presentation, which detracts from its truly valuable and interesting contents.

The author's intention is to introduce his audience to the making of the modern forests of Assam, to show how the present-day landscape emerged through complex processes involving nature, state and human agency. He shows how even more than the colonial revenue and plantation systems, it was the forest department which was the primary intruder into the peasant's world of rights, land and commons access. The working of the department is well located in the specificities of the local situation, where, for instance, forest officials often dissented and deviated from the general policies of the imperial government, justifying their stance by reference to local variations in Assam's history and ecology. In doing so, he has made a considerable contribution to the literature on colonialism and its impact upon South and South-East Asia. While there remains ample scope to further explore the wider, cultural and social dimensions of this environmental history, Jungles, Reserves, Wildlife is an important work, especially given the scanty academic scholarship on Northeast India.

Beginning with a brief vignette of the pre-colonial Ahom state's land and forest practices, Saikia sets out to narrate the changes in Assam's forests over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, using primarily archival resources generated by the British colonial regime. He considers how, even before the colonial civil administration was in a position to systematically extract natural resources and reorder the Assam landscape, the process of 'mapping' forest wealth was underway, albeit in a piecemeal fashion at the behest of the military and engineering departments. Indeed, it is important to remember here that prior to the attention to valuable timbers from Assam's luxuriant forests, it was the locating of the wild tea-plant in Upper Assam by the Bruce brothers, Lt Andrew Charlton and others which helped put in place a system of direct rule by the East India Company. The astonishment and awe at the Assam 'jungles' expressed by early administrators such as Captain John Butler and Lt Col. Leslie Shakespear was soon replaced by narratives of human intervention and plans of use for the forest resources of the region. [2] In an age that predated the standard gazetteer, men such as the missionary-educationist William Robinson prepared accounts of Assam which dealt as much with the ecology as with the population, covering both the commercially useful resources and the common vegetation, in use by locals. [3] Subsequently, of course, it was the 'khaki-clad foresters' of the Forest Department, first within the parameters of the Bengal Presidency, and after 1873, in a separate Chief Commissioner's province, who became the most visible emblem of the British state's exploitation and modification of Assam's forest sector, what Saikia refers to as a 'managed landscape'.

However, the sheer reckless scale of forest utilisation meant that already by the 1850s, there was some concern about the large-scale, indiscriminate felling of trees.

Over the next two decades, the well-known foresters Gustav Mann, W. Schlich and Dietrich Brandis made detailed studies of the region's forest resources which laid the foundations for future policies of revenue generation, preservation and use. One of the fascinating parts of this story is the making of the 'reserved forest,' and how this was mediated by the interventions of colonial science, revenue needs and local politics.

Saikia shows how the existing forests in Assam came to be regarded, for the most part, as more or less useless from the commercial point of view, and in need of active interventions by scientific, modern forestry practices. He provides useful insights into the changing imperatives of making forests 'sustainable' through using silvicultural strategies aimed at selection and improvement, encouragement of teak, pine, bamboo, cinchona, rubber plantations, and the taungya system of bringing co-existence between shifting cultivation and forest regeneration by involving local groups of peasants and graziers. The frequent tensions among forest officials, tea planters and commercial interest groups, whether timber-dealers, boat-builders or traders in forest products are briefly spelt out, as is the shifting nature of the reserved and protected forests, in tune with changing definitions of use and sustainability.

Saikia's introduction to the book does well to point out shortcomings in earlier literature and stressed on some of the research areas which needed to be emphasised, notably the conflict between people's livelihood and official forest policies, and the frequent run-ins between the interests of the tea industry and those of the forestry department. Unfortunately, the all-consuming official documents on which this book rests do not allow for a well-rounded picture of the ways in which people perceived the state or how they reacted to the changing nature of the landscape around them. There is a promising but all too brief glimpse of how the imposition of royalties on forest produce and restrictions on fishing, tree felling and shifting cultivation brought protests from indigenous society, articulated by organisations such as the Goalpara Hitasadhini Sabha and in local newspapers such as the Assam Mihir.

A key part of Saikia's analysis is where he talks about the growing population and agricultural pressures upon Assam's woodlands and reserved forests in the twentieth century, the role of left-wing political parties and peasant moves towards land occupation. However, there needed to be greater amplification of the ethnic tensions over land and resources which emerged in the same period between indigenous and migrant populations, as well as the more recent pressures towards greater 'tribal' autonomy, and the lamentable impact on areas such as the Manas reserve. It has to be kept in mind that Assam was one of the last frontiers to be settled on the Indian sub-continent, with arable land under cultivation expanding to occupy 30.2% of the state's area between 1870 and 1950. In those years, over 700,000 hectares of dense forest and woodland were shifted to agricultural use. [4] Despite the book's avowed focus on the nature-human interface, there remains a lacuna, where the social history and cultural practices of the different groups of Assam's inhabitants, whether caste Hindu or 'tribal' swidden cultivators, migrant tea workers, Nepali graziers or Mymensinghia peasants, in their interactions with 'jungle' and 'forest' remains to be written, except for tantalising glimpses here and there.

It would surely have been possible to use some of the rich material unearthed by the folklore studies on Assam, as well as the many personal testimonies published in the Assamese language to flesh out what often remains a fairly dry, albeit valuable history of forest use and policy. While the author does refer to the large body of expressive writings, especially in Assamese, on the theme of the forest, the book would have been substantially enlivened by examples of those. Bringing in material from some of those Assamese works, whether the fictional or personal testimonies, would certainly have gone some way in balancing the otherwise unavoidable load of governmental and colonial documentation. I am thinking of some of the rich forest lore in writings by the Jnanpith Award-winning writer Indira Goswami, or the many autobiographies from the period covered in this book, which could have added interesting insights into the interaction of people and forests in Assam. The attractive reproduction of a painting from the Ahom illustrated manuscript on elephant care, Hastiviyarnava, on the cover promises a blending of indigenous and official lore, which does not quite materialise.

Even for the colonial foresters who are the main interlocutors in this story, it would have been handy if the reader had been provided an appendix setting out a brief outline of their lives and careers. For instance, a considerable amount has been published about Gustav Brandis in recent years, and surely the man's career elsewhere would bear scrutiny vis-à-vis his actions in the Assam forest. In addition, given the book's heavy emphasis on official policies, a brief chronology and biographical outline of administrators such as Francis Jenkins (to flesh out the existing name index) would have been convenient for readers unfamiliar with the region's political history. A map or sketch showing Assam's districts and forest geography, and perhaps the political changes over the period covered by the book, could also add to its usefulness as a reference work, and make it much more reader-friendly.

It is telling that while the book purports to be a forest history covering both the colonial and the post-colonial periods, its coverage is much richer for the former, a sad testimony to the lamentable condition of official record-keeping in more recent times. The author talks about this, and his diligence in recovering materials from shockingly kept government archives is to be highly commended. Despite these obstacles, Saikia has provided a good account of recent forest policies and the growing awareness of environmental issues, especially apparent in the vernacular press. Given the book's provenance, it is not fair to blame the author for not dwelling upon the shocking ways in which the nexus between corrupt officialdom, foresters and businessmen has denuded the state's environmental riches, in the post-Independence years.

A second edition of this valuable work, particularly the section on wildlife, could also be helped by looking at some of the conservation-inspired writings of recent years, most notably Bittu Sehgal and Ranjit Barthakur's illustrated magnum opus on Kaziranga. [5] This would serve to redress some of the postcolonial gaps in knowledge that the author has had to surmount, and provide an interesting insight into the history of Kaziranga after its establishment, to show how despite the constant human-animal-state attrition, it has emerged as a conservation success-story and one of the few visible images of Assam in the outside world. After all, it is two examples of Assam's forest wealth, the tea leaf and the rhino, which are most widely reproduced for a wider public, elsewhere.

Finally, one hopes that in future editions, the many, glaring and avoidable spelling, citation and syntactical errors would be corrected. This is an important work which deserves much more professional editing, good-quality reproductions of its rare photographs, and the kind of widespread distribution which an academic publishing house should be able to offer.

   References Top

1.John M'Clelland (ed.), Posthumous Papers bequeathed to the Honourable East India Company and printed by order of the Government of Bengal… by the late William Griffith (Calcutta, 1847-8), M. C. Jacob, Forest Resources of Assam (Shillong, 1887), Frank Kingdon Ward, Plant-Hunting on the Edge of the World (London, 1930), Upendranath Kanjilal, Flora of Assam (Calcutta, 1934) are some others which come to mind.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.John Butler, A Sketch of Assam, (London, 1847), and Leslie Waterfield Shakespear, History of Assam, Upper Burmah and Northeastern Frontier, (London, 1914).  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.William Robinson, An Account of Assam, (Calcutta, 1841).  Back to cited text no. 3      
4.John F. Richards and J. Hagen. 1987. A Century of Rural Expansion in Assam. Itinerario 193-209.  Back to cited text no. 4      
5.Bittu Sehgal and Ranjit Barthakur, The Kaziranga Inheritance, (Delhi, 2005).  Back to cited text no. 5      


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