State takeover of forests and the harnessing of forest resources for industrial development had its effect on the nature of the forest.
Often, mixed forests had to give way to monoculture stands of species like pines, which were more suitable for construction and industrial needs.
Not only were the requirements of the local inhabitants overlooked but the very health of the forest was compromised in the process. The natural biodiversity that existed until then was destroyed.
Thus, we can say that though the importance of the forest was realized it was still regarded as an exploitable resource, to be modified and distorted to serve the interests of the “nation”. The less powerful, traditional groups were being steadily marginalized by the industrial development of the period.
But these other groups did not remain silent, as Ramchandre Guha tells us in his book Environmentalism: a Global History. In the United Kingdom a large number of public associations emerged in the latter half of the 19lh century. The Scottish Rights of way society, formed in 1843, intended to protect walking areas around the city of Edinburgh.
The commons preservation society, begun in 1865, wanted to prevent the encroachment of cities on woodland and heath. For the protection of rare birds, beautiful plants and threatened landscapes, there was the seaborne League, formed in 1885 and named after Gilbert white of seaborne, a famous eighteenth century naturalist.
There was also the coal smoke Abatement Society, stared in 1898 as an independent pressure group to make the government enforce pollution control laws on erring factories.
Largely because of all these efforts, Guha tells us, it has been possible to save “at least some parts of England from the contamination effects of urban- industrial civilisation.” But the colonial state in India was not fettered by such pressure groups and attempts at conservation could only emerge from within the state apparatus itself.
Some of his followers like Mira Ben and Sarla Behn were very active in the environment protection campaign.
Mira Ben’s Pashulok Ashram, situated between Haridwar and Rishikesh, was witness to some of the most devastating floods from the upper reaches of the Ganga which not only swept away bushes and trees but also cattle and human beings along with their dwellings.
She realised that this fury of nature had its origin in the problem lay not in the planting of trees like the pine, but in more ecologically appropriate trees like the oak.
The Himalayas had also become ecologically unstable because of the replacement of mixed forests by monoculture. As more and more women and men came to be influenced by her ideas as well as those of Sarla Behn, who had set up an ashram for education hill women in Kausani, Almora district, the powerful the powerful chipko movement took root.
The dilemma of whether to preserve the environment or exploit it for development, which revealed itself in a strikingly sharp manner in the 19th century, continues to be an important issue for policy makers and the people even today.
The industrial Revolution and the growth of empire changed the face of nature irrevocably in almost all parts of the world and we are now left with its lasting impact.
But with the growth of democratic institutions, public awareness and political accountability, it is no longer possible for governments to ignore the voices of protest that are emerging from various quarters. But often it is bitter tussle.