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Sleepers on the Tracks

Oak forests in England were disappearing. This created a problem of timber supply for the Royal Navy. So search parties were sent to explore the forest resources of India. Within a decade, trees were felled on a massive scale and a vast quantity of timber was exported to England.

Furthermore, to spread, the railways created a new demand. To run locomotives, wood was used as fuel and to lay railway lines sleepers were used to hold the tracks together. Each mile of railway track required between 1760 to 2000 sleepers.

The railway tracks spread throughout India. A larger number of trees were felled. In the early 1850s, in the Madras Presidency, nearly 35,000 trees were being cut annually for sleepers. The government gave out contracts to individuals to supply the required quantities. The contractor began cutting the trees indiscriminately.


Large tracts of land were cleared to grow coffee, tea and rubber plantations to meet Europe’s growing need for these commodities. The colonial government took over the forests and gave vast areas to European planters at cheap rates. These areas were enclosed and cleared of forests, and planted with tea or coffee.

The British were worried about the felling of trees at a rapid rate by the local people and traders. They also feared of destruction of forests by this activity. They invited a German expert, Dietrich Brandis, for advice, and made him the first Inspector General of Forests in India.

To solve the deforestation problem, different methods were implemented which were beneficial to human habitat and they encouraged afforestation as well. In this regard, forestry played an important role.

Forestry is the science, art and craft of creating, managing, using, conserving and repairing forest and associated resources to meet desired goals, needs and values for human benefit. Forestry is practiced in plantations and natural stands. The main goal of forestry is to create and implement systems that manage forests to provide environmental supplies and services. The challenge of forestry is to create systems that are socially accepted while sustaining the resource and any other resources that might be affected.

Forest laws were passed prohibiting the use of forest by natives. The Government adopted scientific forestry. It was more like a commercialisation of forest. Forest laws affected the natives and their livelihoods. In many places in India, the forest communities rose in rebellion against forest laws. Dietrich Brandis, the first Inspector General of Forests in India, set up the Indian Forest Service in 1864 and helped to formulate the 1865 Indian Forest Act. The Imperial Forest School in Dehradun was the first forestry school inaugurated in the British Empire.

The Forest Act was amended twice, once in 1878 and then in 1927. The 1878 Act divided forests into three categories; reserved, protected and village forests:

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