Reserved Forests

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Reserved Forests are forested lands which have been earmarked by the State or the Government as exclusive to it and on which rights or privileges of any person or authority other than the State itself, remains extinguished.


Forests as a Resource

Forests are exhaustible but renewable natural resources. A resource is said to be exhaustible if one can find a pattern of use such that the resource will be depleted in finite time. A resource is said to be renewable if one can find a pattern of positive use such that its stock does not shrink over time, and may require investments for the regeneration process.

Forests as an ecosystem are characterized by a carrying capacity, the amount that can be exploited without endangering the reproducibility and stability aspects of the ecosystem.

Forests provide numerous benefits. Forests absorb carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas, improve watershed quality, provide habitat to the wildlife, support biodiversity, and wilderness recreation, besides generating marketable forest products. Moreover, they provide livelihood support and habitat to several and significant number of forest dependent communities. These benefits therefore need to be managed.

Managing Forests as a Resource

Managing the resource is directly linked to the question as to how access to the resource is to be defined, that is, who are to be accorded the right to appropriate part of the current resource flow end and who all are to be denied such rights or entitles. There also is the issue of resource extraction, the way current levels of harvesting efforts are being done and how the modes of appropriating the resource affect the resource stock over time. These issues are usually addressed within the legal framework that governs the management and conservation of forests in any country. Moreover, in most countries a dedicated cadre, usually the ‘forest department’, is charged with implementing these laws.

The legal framework or the laws governing forests have two primary questions or objectives to address. First, should laws and policies on forests be people centric (who inhabit the forests) or forest centric. It is now well accepted that the former approach takes care of the second but not vice versa.

Enclosure of the Commons

Traditionally forests dependent communities have inhabited forested areas for centuries, and they source their livelihood from within the forested land.

They have seen the forests as ‘commons’ and evolved use practices that have been largely sustainable. In other words, the forest dependent communities usually engage in resource extraction which is within the carrying capacity of the forests. They are primarily dependent on non-timber forest produces for their sustenance. So, these communities never had much use of timber per se. It is the urban areas and industrial needs that create the demand for timber.

Once it was realized that forests, especially timber from forests had various uses including industrial uses like in ship building, systematic extraction of timber became the immediate objective. This immediately necessitates two things – establishment of property rights over the forests and enforcement of such property rights by excluding others. This meant areas which hitherto were treated as commons were now being enclosed.

Enclosure of the commons was a practice that originated in England and was therefore easily exported to English colonies, especially those areas that had substantial forested areas. The British in their annexed colonies started enclosing these commons, by extending their property rights (state property rights) over these forested areas. The administrative control meant prohibiting the hitherto practices of unregulated access and extraction by the local indigenous forest dependent communities.

The enclosure of commons which started in England was later replicated in the colonies in India. Therefore areas where norms, precedent and customs guided resource extraction, was replaced with codified legislation that sought to establish State property rights over these commons and simultaneous there was the creation of a dedicated cadre that would enforce these exclusion policy through policing methods.

Ideally legislation should not be in contradiction to these. But the legislation and policy pertaining to forests and its produce sought to do exactly this by extinguishing customary use practices. It was the emergence of timber as an important commodity that led to a qualitative change in the patterns of harvesting and the utilization of forests. The strategic value of forests was first made evident in the building of the railway network, and then was highlighted during the two world wars.

Legislation on Forests

The Indian sub-continent was one of the most important, prominent and largest colonies of the British. It is here that the British promulgated one of the earliest codified ‘Forest Act’. This was done in 1865, and marked the beginning of a policy that viewed forest as an economic resource which needed to be harnessed. Till then, forests had primarily catered to the needs and sustenance of the forest-based communities. There is no historical debate on the reality of stratified use rights in common lands in South Asia.

Institutionalized village commons date at least from the Laws of Manu. The structure of these rights was an adjunct of broader social institutions such as religion, caste, temple maintenance, kinship systems, and the like. This is acknowledged even by Baden-Powell, the chief architect of the 1878 Forest Act, and who successfully sought to extinguish all such rights on forestland in the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere. It is this Forest Act of 1878, which became the model Act and formed the basis of legislation on forests in British colonies throughout the globe. In fact, and ironically, the genesis of this Act survives as the Law on forests in many parts of the world even today, long after the British relinquished their authority over these colonies.

The policing orientation in the enforcement of the State property rights over forests started excluding villagers who had the most long-standing claim to the forests. The idea that people must be ‘protected against their own improvidence’ gained growing acceptance worldwide. The indigenous people, in particular, were deemed to be incapable of managing surrounding forest resources themselves and it was therefore considered the duty of the government to regulate village forests and meadows so as to conserve them.

The Term Reserved Forests

The 1878 Forest Act as promulgated in the Indian sub-continent was a comprehensive document, entirely different, both in form and in content, as compared to the previous legislation. In the 1878 Act, establishment of absolute state property rights and so a firm settlement between the State and its subjects over their respective rights in the forests represented the chief hurdle to be overcome. In other words, therefore, the establishment of absolute state property rights over forests along with the legal separation of customary rights became the primary objectives of the 1878 Act. Towards this end, the classification of forests – into reserved, protected and village forests – and the procedure for forest settlement in these, were the twin features characterizing this Act. The commercial motive remained the guiding principle.

In reserved forests, the lands were the absolute property of the Government. In protected forests, although the lands were the property of the Government, the use-rights of the villagers remained. In village forests, the Government held only the rights of management.

The reserved/protected classification was guided by the goal of profit from timber. In the beginning, only those areas were designated as reserved forests, which were needed for the requirements of the country, and for export to England. However, it was not possible for the colonial government to assess the demand needs right away. So, with time, the area under reserved forests increased. Protected forests were designated with the ultimate goal of converting them into reserved forests.

And as the demand for forests resources increased, the conversion took place rapidly. There were 14,000 square miles of state forests in 1878. This increased to 56,000 square miles of reserved forests and 20,000 square miles of protected forests in 1890. The corresponding figure for 1900, were 81,400 and 8,300 square miles respectively.

The 1878 Act outlined a detailed settlement procedure and such a procedure was to be followed whenever a reserved forest was to be constituted. At the end of the settlement, no “rights” remain in the reserved forest. Reserved Forest is thus an administrative concept that was established by the British in its colonies with substantial forested areas.

Reserved Forests Elsewhere

As the 1878 Forest Act became the flag bearer of administratively creating Reserved Forests, in the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere the same methodology was followed. In Myanmar, the 1902 Burma Forest Act administratively established Reserved Forests in the country (by Section 18 of the Act). Bhutan, which draws heavily from its neighbouring countries in the Indian Sub-continent also, has Reserved Forests, established under the Bhutan Forest Act, 1969.

By this Act, any land under forest to which no person has acquired a permanent, heritable and transferable right of use and occupancy is declared as government reserved forests. In Sri Lanka, the 1907 Forest Ordinance, which was amended later in 1966, establishes Reserved Forests. In Sri Lanka, as it was in India, the establishment of Reserved Forests was ostensibly to consolidate the law on forests as well as the felling and transportation of timber.

In Australia, on the other hand, forested areas, including national parks, are called forest reserves. This contains most wildernesses too. This has also been called Reserved Forests quite faulty and should not be confused with those that exist especially in the Indian sub-continent.


  • Baden-Powell, B.H., (1882), A Manual of Jurisprudence for Forest officers, Government Press, Calcutta.
  • Edella Schlager and Elinor Ostrom, (1992), “Property Rights Regimes and Natural Resources: A Conceptual Analysis,” Land Economics 68, pp. 256.
  • Gadgil, M. and Ramachandra Guha, (1992), This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
  • Hardin, G., (1968), “The tragedy of the commons”, Science 162, pp.1243-48.