Historicizing environment: a comparative framework

Saurav Kumar Rai

Various environmental movements in India in the 1970s, especially Chipko Movement and Narmada Bachao Andolan, instilled a new consciousness in academia regarding the importance of ecology and environment in shaping various facets of human life. This consciousness soon precipitated into an entirely new sub-discipline in the 1980s viz. environmental history, which brought together scholars from diverse backgrounds to study the changing environment of India over the ages along with its causes and consequences. 

Pioneers in this field were scholars like Madhav Gadgil, Ramchandra Guha, Mahesh Rangarajan and others. The present volume belongs to the same lineage critically analysing different aspects of environmental history of India. The novelty of the present volume lies in its capacity to bring scholars of different disciplines (such as history, philosophy, political science) together at one place, covering a wide time period (pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial) and geography (Eastern, Southern and Northern India). There are certain key arguments which run through various articles of the present volume which have been delineated as follows.

Nuancing the overemphasized categories of pre-colonial and colonial

As with many historians working on different aspects of colonial rule in India, there is a peculiar tendency among environmental historians as well to trace the root of all evils back to India’s colonial heritage. While nobody denies the impact that colonial rule had on India, in many cases continuities can be found between the pre-colonial and colonial periods. As exquisitely captured in the article by Biswamoy Pati in the given volume the problems of Kalahandi arising out of the devastation of the forests and subsequent marginalization of the Kandhas (an Odiya tribe) started in pre-colonial times, a trend which was only reinforced by the colonization of the area. Similarly, Vinita Damodaran has also shown the pre-colonial precedence of waves of Hindu and Muslim migration and subsequent alienation of tribal lands and the growth of a new landlord and money lending class in Chotanagpur, a process which was hastened dramatically with the advent of the British (p. 113).
Here it should be noted that the above argument is in no way intended to downplay the impact of the colonial rule on the environmental landscape of India. The idea is to argue that the attitude of the pre-colonial state formations towards forests and forest dwellers (i.e., tribes or adivasis) was not as distinct from the colonial state as it has often been made out to be. However, the novelty of the colonial state lay in the efficiency with which it could enforce its ideas of civilized life and orderly society. In other words, as argued by Sumit Sarkar, “what changed in the course of the nineteenth century was, perhaps, not so much the outlook of ruling groups, but a progressively enhanced ‘ability to enforce’” (Sarkar, Sumit, 2015. Modern Times, Permanent Black: Delhi, p. 82).

What was so colonial about the colonial rule?

This leads to a second major argument of the present volume which is: the colonial rule, in many ways, institutionalized and amplified the exploitation of India’s natural resources in the name of its conservation. The colonial state wanted to bring forests under its exclusive control typified by the Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878 which appear frequently in various articles of the present volume. These Acts equipped the colonial state with supreme authority over the forests closing it for tribal and marginal peasants who had been using its products customarily for centuries. This control was handy in surplus revenue generation for the state and in institutionalizing colonial obsession of private property and settled sedentary life. The articles by Biswamoy Pati, Vinita Damodaran and Sanjukta Das Gupta have shown that how this colonial effort to control forests and forest lifestyle created havoc for not only the tribal population but also the settled peasant communities living at the margins. As emphatically brought out by these articles, the recurrent famines which we see in the colonial period was nothing but the result of this enhanced colonial effort to write off the fuzziness of lifestyle of those living in and around the forests. A lot of fluidity could be seen between agrarian, pastoral and tribal lifestyles respectively prior to nineteenth century. The choice of lifestyle could be seasonal and circumstantial with alternatives available. However, the colonial state in its fascination with settled agricultural life and tighter control over forest produce gravely reduced the alternatives resulting into serious hardships in times of distress.

Critical understanding of the post-colonial environmental policies and the philosophy of modern science

The post-colonial environmental policies also constitute one of the areas of analysis of some of the articles including the one by the volume editor Arun Bandopadhyay himself. One very important issue taken up in this regard is people’s participation in various environmental programmes launched by the Indian government. Here Arun Bandopadhyay and Raj Sekhar Basu have brought out the shortcomings of various post-colonial environmental policies of the Indian government such as Vana Mahotsava, farm forestry, Joint Forest Management and watershed management. Interestingly, Raj Sekhar Basu has shown that how in the absence of broader social and economic reforms, environmental policies, howsoever genuine in its concern, would ultimately end up harming the marginal population such as Dalits.
At the same time articles by Tapan Kumar Chattopadhyay and Priyambada Sarkar have dealt with the philosophical issues involving modern science and conservation. However, their articles in the effort to move away from anthropocentrism, which constitutes the base matter of modern science, often tend to romanticize various pre-modern ideas and values. As for instance, Chattopadhyay deems modern science as essentially reductionist, destructive, violent and unsustainable and prefers traditional technology. To an extent he seems very much influenced by Gandhian critique of modern science. Similarly, Priyambada Sarkar in her effort to trace the philosophy of deep ecology in ancient Indian texts overstretches her arguments on several occasions. She overenthusiastically tries to locate conservationist consciousness and ethics in many of the activities of ancient societies and governance which might have purely economic or pragmatic logic; whether it was prohibition of burning of forests, or driving ploughshare by multiple oxen, or establishing sanctuaries for cows, elephants, horses and other such animals of economic and strategic utility. At the same time she ignores the hierarchical Brahmanical notions embedded in many of the ancient ideals delineated by her. For example, Sarkar considers the chapter devoted to arguing against the habit of meat eating in Manu Samhita as an embodiment of compassion for animals (p. 34). However, one may view it at the same time an expression of superimposing Brahmanical norms of vegetarianism denigrating the dietary habits of the lower castes.
Thus, as is often the case with edited volumes, while some articles offer new insights and nuance our understanding, some contributions remain shallow and contain problematic assumptions and conclusions. Nevertheless, the comparative framework with which the present volume offers to study the environmental history of India is unique and praiseworthy. It brings together critical understanding of co-relation between nature, knowledge and development and consequent impact on general population of an area belonging to diverse time period and region.

Saurav Kumar Rai, Research Scholar, Department of History, University of Delhi, India