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India’s Environmental History

December 2011: Edited by Mahesh Rangarajan, Professor of Modern Indian History, Delhi University and Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and K. Sivaramakrishnan, Professor of Anthropology, and Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University.


It’s an old cliché. “If you don’t know where you came from, you are unlikely to get to where you want to go.” We therefore collectively owe the editors a debt of gratitude for the mammoth task they have undertaken, which nevertheless manages merely to shine a pilot light in the direction of our environmental history.  And what a rich history it is, replete with art, poetry, philosophy and even war… all inspired or triggered by the embarrassing natural wealth of a subcontinent that was showered with the very best that nature had to offer.


Predictably academic and necessarily wide in scope, the two volumes make for pretty heavy reading and few people – apart from researchers, lawyers and others in search of specific references – are likely to go beyond the (very competently written) introduction and possibly a few selected (very comprehensive and credible) chapters.





The introduction succeeds in placing the Indian subcontinent within a perspective that is probably even more valid for human survival today than it might have been in days gone by when the land itself was in better health, climate was more stable and the number of people who shared it considerably fewer.


Yet it may surprise those who see the pre-industrial past or the era prior to colonialism as idyllic to know how transient and uncertain life and even ecological systems were in earlier times. The ecological profiles within India were – and are – not unchanging. For instance, rivers have often shifted course and this is true, for instance, of the Indus and its tributaries. Recent researches do not deny the sharp quickening of the pace in recent decades and centuries but they do throw up earlier precedents. There is adequate and sophisticated evidence to show how the human impacts on the ecology of terrestrial monsoon in Asia could be more extensive and far-reaching than once thought to be possible. Here were local extinctions, of species that were extensively hunted, such as wild ruminants, and the wiping out of the wild humpless bull, Bos namadicus, most likely through domestication.


The editors go on to ask in their introduction whether climate was a factor in the decline of the Harappan culture or possibly in some key sites and arrive at the conclusion that the evidence is mixed.  This is dealt with by V.N. Misra whose research must surely have a bearing on vulnerability assessments being made by experts for the Indian subcontinent today.


It is undeniable that in the eighteenth – nineteenth centuries BCE, Harappan cities declined, and some of them were even abandoned. In the lower Indus valley many causes for this event have been suggested: reduction in rainfall; exhaustion of the economic resources; excessive flooding; and Aryan invasion. Although some of these explanations have been questioned, the fact of decline and abandonment of the cities is accepted by all critics. There is also an undeniable decline in material prosperity and in civic standards.


The subjects of chapters for both volumes have been organised chronologically, ranging from Murty’s ‘Sheep/Goat Pastoral Cultures in the Southern Deccan’ that points to radio carbon evidence of Neolithic-Chalcolithic farming to arrive at conclusions on an ancient way of life and Romila Thapar’s fascinating chapter on how people perceived the ‘forest’ and the distinction between vana / aranya (forest), grama (village), nagara (town).


Some years ago Charles Malamoud argued for a dividing line between the grama and the aranya and linked it to the Vedic ideology. He maintained that these were not merely spatial differences. Stability in the grama grew out of the cohesion of the group, rather than the limitation of space and was maintained by dharma, social rules within a world order encapsulated in the ritual of sacrifice. The aranya, by definition, lacked the cohesion of the grama, for not only was it spatially more extensive, but was also the habitat of those who did not live by dharma, such as brigands and thieves. The aranya is any wilderness, it is interstitial, empty and constitutes ‘the other’. Yet, the forest is part of the aranya even though it is not empty space.


One of the most fascinating of all the chapters in the two volumes is the one by Divyabhanusinh on the Great Moghuls. We all studied the Moghuls in school, but no one ever presented them in quite the way that the author of this chapter has, with a decided focus on the influence of natural history not merely on their art, best known from their miniature paintings, but on their character, governance and, of course… their bloodlust!


It is no exaggeration to say that Jahangir was the most astute observer of nature among princes. His eclectic mind made him weigh his trophies, dissect game birds, and keep an accurate record of his bag. He stated that from the time he was 12 years old when he started hunting, to the time he had attained the age of 50 and had been on the throne for 11 years (i.e., 1616) 28,532 head of game had been taken in his presence of which 17,167 animals were killed by him with his ‘gun or otherwise’. This mighty record included 86 tigers and lions, 9 bears, cheetahs, foxes, otters, and hyenas


The first volume closes, not surprisingly, on the advent of the East India Company (by Richard Grove), the quintessential colonialist and then on the vexing issue of forest rights, which Gunnel Cederlöf informs us was fought over in the Nilgiris over 200 years ago. His treatise lavishes deserved attention on the famous Todas, who are the subject of discussion even today.


Some of the peoples living in the Indian subcontinent’s forest tracts have appeared more often than others in the ethnographical literature. They were also well known to a wide audience of administrators at an early stage of British colonial conquest. One of these peoples was the Toda. Ever since the first government surveys of the Nilgiris in the early nineteenth century, this fairly small group of pastoralists has continued to fascinate European ethnographers and anthropologists. Their ‘origin’ has remained obscure and open to speculation


While the issue of rights is huge, the Nilgiris is geographically small, and the amount of attention that the region and the Toda population have received is quite impressive. Still today, the Toda strive to secure land deeds for grounds they claim have been forcefully wrested from them by government authorities from the early British Administration onwards.




The second volume deals with issues that are immediate and recognisable. This has everything to do with the chronology of the chapters, which move closer to today with every passing page.  Two things jump out at you when you take this volume in hand: 1. the relentless documentation of colonial deforestation, and 2. the impact of this deforestation on the people of India.  In the introduction, the editors put this across succinctly.


The unprecedented changes (then on) need to be set against a dynamic rather than a relatively static backdrop so that their consequences are better understood. Animal–human relations can illustrate this point. Information on the prevalence and incorporation of wild animals into agrarian landscapes can be gleaned from accounts of popular religious beliefs…  If tigers and lions learned to avoid areas of intensively cultivated lands and settled agriculture, they were also quick to move back into fields left fallow for long. These lands were transformed into the tree-dotted, tall-grass savannah ideal for wild prey and predator alike.  As the grass grew tall and wild, it was maintained by fire. Livestock could thrive and in turn furnish carnivores with a ready meal on the hoof. In turn, this exacerbated conflicts with those who reared or kept domestic animals.


Indu Agnihotri then expertly goes on to expound on the issues of ecology, land use, and colonisation, highlighting and documenting the negative impact of canal irrigation in terms of water logging and salinity among other things, in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The error of deciding land use solely on the basis of financial costs and returns comes through clearly, though it would appear that ‘modern agronomists’ learned little from the land degradation of the past, or from the inequities that the cash economy ushered into agrarian communities.,


Mahesh Rangarajan then essays ‘The Campaign against ‘Dangerous Beasts’ in Colonial India’ between 1875 and 1925 to give us a vivid picture of how and why natural India was dismembered.  One of the most effective strategies was to declare animals as ‘vermin’ and place a bounty on their heads.


Effective control of rural India hinged on the elimination of both human and animal rebels against the Raj. The wider context of the debate was the disarming of Indians after the Rebellion of  1857-8. There were fears that the denial of modern firearms to people in rural areas was indirectly contributing to ‘serious depredations’ of cattle and crops. In Madras Presidency, there were frequent complaints of increased damage by tigers, wolves, and other animals. In Bombay, the authorities went a step further and even distributed arms in certain localities….


There is little doubt that there were problems in the coexistence of people with the striped cat in many areas. Given the diversity of habitats and of land use systems, the intensity of conflicts varied in different areas. One way in which conflicts could be resolved was by simply wiping out tiger populations. The extension of cultivation in plains regions obviously reduced the living space available for this large predator. But direct killing also had a critical contribution in the process.


Reading Rangarajan’s words, the thought occurs to me: “Nothing much has changed.”


It is impossible in a review to do true justice to this monumental work. I should therefore end by recommending strongly that every library, institution and organisation even remotely concerned with land management, forests, forest rights and climate change should acquire these two volumes.


In an ideal world, I would have requested the publishers to put the entire content up in the public domain without charge because I know it can and should be used to defend what little remains of wild India. Also, a careful reading has the potential to make the two warring groups… wildlifers and human rights groups realise that the British dictum of ‘divide and rule’ is alive and at work in India today.  The colonisers, of course, are no longer from overseas.


One very major shortcoming in the two volumes struck me as odd. Given the immense scope of the 33 chapters (extremely well chosen and researched) and despite the very thorough referencing, why is there no index for the benefit of readers?


Published by Permanent Black,
Hard cover, B&W,
Rs. 1,850 for the two volume set
Vol. 1, 464 pages / Vol. 2, 614 pages


A Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 6, December 2011


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