Environmental history in India has generated a rich literature on forests, wildlife, human-animal conflict, tribal rights and commercial degradation, displacement and development, pastoralism and desertification, famine and disease, sedentarism and mobility, wildness and civility, and the ecology versus equity debate.
This reader brings together some of the best and most interesting writing on India’s ecological pasts. It looks at a variety of the country’s regions, landscapes, and arenas as settings for strife or harmony, as topography and ecological fabric, in the process covering a vast historical terrain.
It also provides an antidote to the existing historiography, which barely takes notice of the era before 1800. The essays here range from prehistoric India to the middle of the nineteenth century. They provide insights on forest and water disputes, contests over urban and rural space, struggles over water and land, and frictions over natural wealth which have led to a reinterpretation of source materials on early and medieval India.
For all who are interested in the diverse and detailed findings of the best scholarship on India’s environment, this book is essential.
Mahesh Rangarajan is Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi, and Professor of Modern Indian History at the University of Delhi. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, from where he got his PhD. His books include India’s Wildlife History: An Introduction (2001), and (as co-editor) Environmental History: As if Nature Existed (2007) as well as Making Conservation Work (2007). He chaired the Elephant Task Force in 2010.
K. Sivaramakrishnan is Professor of Anthropology, and Forestry and Environment Studies, at Yale University. His research covers both historical and contemporary environmental issues in India, as well as development and state formation. His several books include Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in Colonial Eastern India.
Even a cursory look at the wealth of writings on India's rich and varied ecological past points to a pattern. Environmental historians have mostly been focused on the last two centuries, especially the period from 1858 when India came under rule of the Crown. Yet, the long preceding eras were more than a mere benchmark against against which the epochal changes of the late nineteenth century of the Common Era could be set. In recent years, the wealth of work by archaeologists and scholars of literary texts as also work that draws on pictorial evidence especially from the Sultanate and Mughal periods (the thirteenth to the early eighteenth centuries CE), has provided reason enough for a careful reassessment. It is indeed not the case that the historiography permits a unified and coherent view but it is certainly possible to take stock and then try to advance the outlines of a different, more nuanced way of looking at the longue duree.
Environmental historians have often not let their work or their perspectives be informed by a wider body of writing which now exists that is implicitly 'ecological' in its modes of enquiry as also in the implications of its findings. This Fissured Land, the pioneering work of Gadgil and Guha first published in 1992, paid significant attention to precolonial India. It also drew on an array of archaeological and literary evidence to evolve a larger framework to approach patterns of ecological change in the past. 1 Most subsequent collections and anthologies on India's environmental pasts barely take notice of the era prior to 1800.2 Conversely, many insights into forest frictions and water disputes, the contests over urban or rural spaces between rival claim- ants to water or land, animal, plant, or mineral wealth have led to a re- interrogation of source materials on early and medieval India. Yet, fruitful as these specific studies and interventions are, there is still a need to pull together a set of works that spans the spectrum. Any such selection will reproduce the gaps in the literature and also show up our own limits as editors. But it can still go a part of the way. It is with a view to setting up drawbridges over these moats that ring the fortresses that this volume brings together a wide cross-section of papers. They range from prehistoric India right to the middle of the nineteenth century CE.
The idea of an India in slow or long ecological equilibrium is commonplace in popular and to an extent even in scholarly literature. It has rested on three broad premises. In early versions the ideas projected even had a distinctly socio-biological flavour. Perhaps, Madhav Gadgil's student days at Harvard and his association with E.O. Wilson cast a shadow over pioneering approaches to the relationship between caste and conservation' Significantly, the coauthored work by Gadgil and Guha is more measured and cautious (if not always convincing) in seeing caste as an institution of restraint on resource abuse. Such theses of India's early past-with critiques of the colonial ecological impact often positing an unchanging equilibrium prior to colonial- ism-also gained currency from works by lucid writers like Shiva and more importantly the late Dharampal. Mainly drawing on south Indian evidence, the latter argued for a highly productive agriculture and resource regenerative regime before the eighteenth century. Such views do not often surface in academic journals or scholarly treatises but have widespread appeal. Even those sceptical about a reified tradition slip into the mould.
The first premise was the limited reach of states beyond the cultivated arable. Rulers were not seen as intruding extensively in resource control or appropriation The limited reach of the landed and mercantile elites is taken as the sine qua non of ecologies and polities of the past. Specific monopolies in certain resources or levies or taxes, such as the Mauryan claim on elephants in the third century BCE, are seen as exceptions to this general rule of thumb.
This leads to the second premise about the past, the virtual eclipse of states as actors in the arena of landscape change. The popular notion regarding this has moved in recent decades from one extreme-as in the nationalist histories of early India, where the power of states was seen as omnipotent-to the other-of exaggerating the reach and role of local society. Earlier, rulers such as the Maurya (third century BCE) or later Chola (ninth to eleventh centuries CE), the Mughals (sixteenth To eighteenth centuries CE), or the Ahoms (thirteenth to nineteenth centuries CE) were portrayed as virtually all-powerful both horizontally (across their territorial realms) and vertically (down the hierarchies of place, status, and power). Alternative conceptions of power have grounded the community and pushed back the bounds of the state, rendering it almost absent at times. Scholars have opposed this tendency in recent times. Neeladri Bhattacharya, for example, argues strongly against taking on board a view of the state as invisible of absent and of local elements being the prime players. It is significant that Bhattacharya made his remarks at a conference titled ‘Ecological History and Traditions’ organized by the leading think tank Centre for Science and Environment in 1997. Peter Perdue, the historian of imperial China, recently warned about the tendency to ‘kick the state out’. This is a relevant observation even though early Indian states did not have the power of the Chinese imperial state to transform human and natural environments. These views serve to highlight that a monochromatic view-of tradition’ seemingly replacing the state-is inadequate to the complexity of the situation.
The third premise is a logical corollary of the secondary. Self-governing local communities are seen as having control over resources in the premodern era. The largely self-governing nature of village societies can easily be overstated. This may ignore the wider power relations within which village societies existed. This was especially so with regard to mobilization of military labour for warfare as was the case of the Purabias of the eastern Ganga valley for five centuries ending only after 1857. Similarly, the Mughals and successor states took over half the surplus in the form of revenue. Such commandeering of labour or of revenue could have significant ecological consequences at the local level. It is true that early India does not have the same track record of highly intrusive ecological control as ancient China. But the converse is certainly not the case either. The idea of state as ecologic equivalent of nightwatchman needs to be probed critically. As the late Kumar Suresh Singh argued, the idea that the king had custodianship of the forests and mountains, the waters and lands, was powerfully evocative. It did not of course connote ownership in the modern bourgeois sense, and should on no account be taken as evidence of omnipotence. But in the claim and Counterclaim, it is easy to forget that the idea of the bhu-pati (or lord of all the land) was closely aligned to the ideal of a chakravartin (the conqueror who would establish his hegemony over the whole land from the Himalayas in the north to the seas in the south). Dynasties as diverse as the Pandyas of Madurai and the Satvahanas of the Deccan asserted monopoly rights over elephants or diamonds, drawing on such a notion of legitimacy. This is captured well in the epic, the Ramayana of Valmiki, in the episode where the prince of the Iksvaku, Rama, slays Bali, the monkey king: 'The earth with its mountains, woods and forests, belongs to the Iksvaku. Men used traps, nooses, hid and hunted, killed for meat. After all, you are only a monkey.’
A verse from an epic cannot be taken as literal representation of political relations but it does need to be treated as evidence of sensibility. Re-examining the past is crucial for more than one reason. Above all, views of the future often rest on unspoken premises or assumptions of yesteryear. It is easy to overlook that India's ecosystems and their inter- face with human aspirations and desires, triumphs, and failures, have a millennia-long history. Due to the often highly artificial but still pervasive divides between the natural and humanistic disciplines, as also those between scholars of what are all too easily self-contained labels of ancient, medieval, and modern eras, there are connections that are often not drawn upon. What is required is more than mere dialogue or synthesis. In more than one case, what is perhaps essential is a sense of wider perspective. Divisions even among students of the past are commonplace. There are those who primarily rely on textual sources and others who stress archaeological finds. Such divisions need to be transcended.
Two instances can illuminate the challenges faced by premodern environmental history and indicate where interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as collaborations between historians of different periods, may be beneficial. The first relates to a species of tree, Shorea robusta (sal), studied closely in the recent past. It is a tree species that is endemic and widely prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. If we were to date its distribution across ancient and prehistoric times merely by the science of palynology (pollen counts) we would be in trouble. Certain plant species that are pollinated by insects can be misrepresented in pollen diagrams. Sal is apt to suffer such a fate, and palynology alone would indicate that it was scarce in northern India, even though its gregarious and stand-dominant syne-ecology would otherwise. The existence of sal in Painted Grey Ware in northern India is more closely in line with an ecological reading of the past. If an earlier generation of scholars saw early evidence of progress, more recent works tent to ‘read backwards’ histories of deforestation, basing themselves at times rather too heavily on textual evidence even when the archaeological record shows a contrasting picture. ‘Deforestation’, an ugly word with an even uglier meaning, is a term that can be used when referring to early India, but its use has to be backed up with careful material evidence. It cannot and should not ‘read off’ oral literatures.
The second instance relates to the complex question of wildlife history and a different kind of disciplinary occlusion. Consider what can be done, using art, to improve historical knowledge of the wild in different periods. The seventeenth-century Mughal emperor Jahangir, for instance, was a keen observer of flora and fauna, especially of birds and large animals. The art of his time provides some clues to the emerging ideas of nature of the distribution and knowledge of animals and their classification. For instance, when confronted with a zebra he had it examined to ensure it was not a painted wild ass. A painting of the Mauritian dodo made in his court around 1627 at least indicates that it entered India (via some East India Company factory on the western coast) and became extinct in the space of 60 years. Although not described in the Tuzuk-e-Jehangiri the dodo is clearly recognizable from the precision of the drawing, copying in all probability a live specimen. We still, however, know very little about the range of several animals and birds, their distribution, relations, and representation in different historical periods. Indian painting is a potential source of information, but in the absence of collaborations between art historians, cartographers, naturalists, zoologists, and wildlife ecologists, even available evidence has only begun to be tapped. Such evidence as is now being gleaned by scholars points not to an unchanging landscape but to a mosaic mediated in multiple ways by human actions. Mughal portraits show savannahs with a host of antelope and deer species, carnivores large and small, and a range of human actions that mediate with natural systems in diverse ways. Literary sources indicate a high level of offtake of species like the cheetah-Akbar alone had a thousand-that may well have been a drain, given South Asia is at the western edge of the global range of the swiftest of cats. Even if not a driver of extinction as in the modern era, it may well have had an impact at local levels.
In both these cases, whether with the sal tree or the cheetah, scholarship is still in its initial stages not only in interrogating evidence but also in establishing new and more nuanced ways of viewing the past. Given the many millennia of human presence in India, to assume an unchanging past or to surmise that the human footprint was always light on the land in the premodern era is to go too far.
A Vast and Varied Landscape
An acknowledgement of the specificities of geography and ecology may be a good place to begin. India has never been singular in ecological profile, but appearances are often deceptive. For instance, the focus of much political and economic history is often on the Gangetic basin, for over two millennia the demographic centre of gravity and more often than not-except for brief moments as during the late Chola era-the major centre or at least one of the major foci of political power. But in terms of landmass the Ganga plains cover an area of just over 350,000 sq km. Ignoring other equally important landscapes can be misleading. While the north was never insular, peninsular ecologies, economies, and polities were far more engaged with West and Southeast Asia.
The Himalayas and Trans-Himalaya together encompass a greater part of the land area than the Gangetic basin. The former are not uniform, including temperate broadleaf and conifer forests, sub-alpine meadow, and cool foothill deciduous forests. Although still seen as marginal in many histories, their ecological significance (as in influencing rainfall patterns) for the larger South Asian region needs little emphasis.
The hot desert of the Thar alone accounts for 180,000 sq km of the landscape. But more than mountain or desert or river valley it is the semi-arid region that accounts for over 40 percent of India’s 3,000,000 sq km. The semi-arid areas do not include the old rockplateau of the Deccan, flanked by the slopes of the Western and the more broken Eastern Ghats. Water tended to be scarce in many of these areas for most of the year with rivers and streams being seasonal. No wonder that across millennia of farming, the magic of the monsoon or brief winter showers as much as the ability to tap or store groundwater has been so central to humans, whether for fortune or fracas or both.
None of these features-the sea, the high slopes, or the desert-has been a barrier to human movement across the ages. There was an open world across the seas, with even the Indian Ocean often referred to in Arabic as 'al bahr al Hindi'. The fact of the sea's existence was self- evident; its wider consequences require more reflection. Not only the zebra in the seventeenth-century Mughal court but (tees like the baobab that became part of the landscape around certain towns in central India had also been imported from overseas and naturalized. Crops that were integrated into agro ecosystems too came from across the oceans: prominent among these was maize from Latin America. In whatever way, the coasts of the peninsula were part of and not apart from the ocean. On land the ease of movement across the western reaches of the subcontinent was not always matched in the east. The first stable and all-weather roads across into Burma were laid as recently as 1944 and that too in the context of all-out global conflagration. Even to this day there is no rail line across the Arakan Yoma. The dense forests and difficult hill slopes in the northeast are a contrast to the relatively undulating though not often sandy surface of the hot Thar desert.
Such movement or contact had a lot to do with the size and nature of the ecological footprint of some, if not all, humans. The induction of new crop plants could alter the composition of agro ecosystems. New domestic animals like the dromedary (an import into South Asia) or better breeds of horses (like the Persian or the Arab) could make a major difference to how goods, information, or people bearing them travelled. The borders of the subcontinent were not sealed off from the world and human contact could have environmental consequences within or beyond. The human ecological footprint in the subcontinent in earlier times was not as slight as is often assumed-and was, in all probability, enhanced due to the impact of such contact with people and places far beyond.
Of Forests and Agrarian Landscapes
Few landscapes in India have attracted as much attention in terms of social conflict or ecological enquiry as forests. They serve as a window through which to look at ecological pasts and how they have come to be viewed, as point of entry and place of departure for a larger sense of the environmental history of colonial and contemporary India.
The forests as landscape and arena, as setting for strife or harmony, in a material sense and as ecological fabric, as contested site with multiple meanings, remain emblematic of much of the work on India's ecological pasts. However expansive the term, beyond the mature tree forest to the scrub- and tree-dotted savannah of the semi-arid lands that make up over four-tenths of the country, it still leaves out a lot. There is over 7,000 km of coast, and then there is over a tenth of landmass in the Himalaya and the Trans Himalaya. 1 There is the now expansive cultivated arable that covers nearly half the land surface, for in contrast to China, much of the land is cultivable, with sunlight at hand and water not too far away. But it is the forest and its surrounds that often reverberated with upheaval, and it is these that drew the attention of writers as of students of society and history. The early- twentieth-century conquest of the forest by arable, of nature by culture, was recorded with sensitivity in Bandyopadhyaya's Aranyak of the Forest. Over fifty years later, Mahasweta Devi portrayed a mainstream developmental state at war with Adivasi (Scheduled Tribal) and other peoples dependent on forests, as bauxite and other minerals attracted new economic interests into the sal forests. If it is not the fight for the forest, it is often a struggle in the forest and other uncultivated spaces, at times to extend arable where cultivator is pitted against forester.
Over the last century it has equally been about what the forest really is or ought to be for, grazing ground or tree reserve, a place of usufruct rights or exclusive princely or departmental control. Or else it is for land for big dams or for mines or for wildlife reserves.
Where environmental history helped was not so much in tapping the veins of these stones, these many contests over what the land did or did not mean, but in giving them a presence in the past. At a recent discussion on the aptly named The Unquiet Woods first published two decades ago, its author evoked an image of discovery of the past as much as of the self. In the 1970s and 1980s the Himalayan foothills with their broad-Ieaf and conifer forests witnessed a welter of protests and initiatives, many of which rehearsed issues that might have been familiar to their counterparts earlier in the century. An oft-repeated slogan of the movement was' Van par gaon ka adhikar' (the village will take control of the" forest). The various wings of the movement all agreed on a time when the forests and people were safer and that was prior to the colonial annexation of the hills with their woods and wild- life, shrubs and trees. Debates over who was best equipped to save the forest merged with fierce controversy over where the most acute threats to its continued viability arose.
It is in such light that the idea that colonialism saw a sharp break, a rupture of links with the forest, gained considerable ground among activists and in academia. Such claims, legitimate in a movement for assertion, may be more problematic when integrated with a view of the past. The historian Romila Thapar reminds us of the centrality of such moments of departure in narratives of the past. For 'when a theme changes in accordance with its location at a historical moment, the change can illumine the moment, and the moment in turn may account for the change'. It is significant that Thapars observations are made with reference to different versions of the court epic of Sakuntala, a story in which a ruler and a hermitage dweller tall in love but are estranged by circumstance. The forest in its myriad settings is seen in different ways by various authors and composers of the epic. The observation on moments of departure is helpful in offering interpretations of Indian environmental history, both in the modern period, on which the literature is now fairly strong, as is the debate robust, and in the premodern periods for which, in contrast, the scholarly record has till recently been woefully scant.
There is clearly a long history of dualisms in Indian thought and history around the settled and the unsettled, sedentarism and mobility, wildness and civility, and so on. This observation remains highly salient to the writing of environmental history in India. Some years ago, a group of scholars, not all historians, argued that new meanings had often been infused into abiding dualisms between the social and the natural, providing a modern example of how 'the moment ac- counted for the change'. Recent views of colonial conservation or environmentalisms in independent India are often projected back in time. These claims echoed the words of a noted historian: 'any effort to carve out a segregated sphere of history with its discrete territory is problematic ... we need to see how different spheres of human history are in varied ways mediated by relationships with nature.'
A further characteristic of long-duration history is that it often tends to assume linear trends across time. For instance, the pioneering environmental historians of South Asia, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, provided rich works of synthesis. These generated new insights into the relations between ecological processes and social and cultural change. Yet, even scholars as sophisticated as they claimed to have found 'a continual march' of agriculturist and pastoralist over territory held by food gatherers, producing corresponding changes in the way nature or forests or wild animals were viewed. They were by no means alone in making such assumptions. In the mid-twentieth century polymath and scholar Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi assumed that pre-agricultural cultures and ways of life could not but be subjugated and absorbed into the wider, more 'advanced' milieu. Kosambi saw himself as chronicling the demise of the older ways. Paradoxically Gadgil and Guha tried to explain their resilience and in- deed their persistence. The Marxist in Kosambi saw the decline of the old ways as inevitable and necessary so that the productive forces would develop further. The latter two scholars saw these techniques as adaptation to ecology and not destined to die. The interchangeability of such processes of change in landscape and society in India is evident over long spans of time. Early history needs to be more concerned with relatively new fields of inquiry in modern history. Or else, environmental history will only resuscitate linear historical narratives. Although undermined by revisions in social and political history, such narratives may come alive in a new context.
This is important even to illumine the situation from the late nineteenth century onwards. 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. For instance, peoples in the mangrove forests of seventeenth-century Bengal devised means to keep tigers at bay. Long before the advent of British efforts to eradicate vermin, the forest and field boundary was managed by regional states and local religious figures with varying degrees of success. Hunting and magic were integral to such efforts. 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.
Animals were mobile, bur the tree cover and plant growth also responded over time to human actions. The natural green cover was not always in retreat before fire, axe, and plough. Both open-field regeneration in wooded tracts and the gradual transformation of dry deciduous forests into moist mixed forests could represent the patterns of vegetative succession following periodic abandonment. Disease, war, and excessive revenue demands could lead to such abandonment of fields. The cessation of collection of forest products that brought people in search of commodities like sandalwood, lac, and wild fibres into the wooded estate could, in turn, restrict fire management and broadcast planting of woody species. The composition and character of the jungle could be and was transformed in a myriad ways by human interventions. Soldiers and rulers, cultivators and stock keepers as well as occupational hunters were all skilled in confronting dangerous beasts. Still, there were times when the fear of wild animals-which interfered with the productive use of forests or their conversion to other productive uses-required supernatural interventions for which, again, forest dwellers and their rituals were valuable.
This patchwork quilt of lands, sown and jungle, pasture and mature forest, challenges any linear telos even as it provides many a clue to the continuing prevalence of mosaics in present-day India. The seesaw of the sown and wild, of the domesticated and the natural, has been working its way across the ages. It is a story or a set of stories that continues to this very day.
Troubling Binaries and Historical Trajectories
Sources for premodern and early modern forest and environmental history are indeed scarce. But simple linear narratives of landscape transformation in the face of growing demographic pressure or state demands for resources and revenues do not withstand closer scrutiny. Why then the attraction of linear narratives? One possibility is the hold of such approaches about two decades ago when the environmental history of India was in its infancy. The bold and often controversial grand narrative that people still use as a point of departure was still in progress. We refer, of course, to This Fissured Land by Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha. This was a fine instance of collaboration across the natural and social sciences. Further, the scope was ambitious for it spanned the ages from the prehistoric to the modern. Gadgil and Guha's work contributed a credible historical narrative of the disruption and displacement of rural lives and livelihoods in India by the forces of war, disease, empire building, and lastly European, especially British, colonial domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even before that book, the work of Vandana Shiva had rehearsed some of the arguments Gadgil and Guha would make. The former was more polemical, less concerned with evidentiary bases, and much, more sweeping in her characterization of long periods of histories and civilizations. These works often shared a powerful vision of Indian pasts before the time of colonial domination. What remains intriguing is how this was shared by the very people they wrote against: imperial officials charged with expropriating India's villagers and forest dwellers, as well as national development planners in charge of orchestrating India's progress in the aftermath of the colonial era.
This meta-history was rounded off with David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha's Nature, Culture, Imperialism, an anthology that broke fresh ground in more than one way. This collection as well as the earlier This Fissured Land were both works focused often on marginal forms of production and subordinated peoples that lay beyond the settled cultivated spaces. Far from disappearing down the trapdoor of history, such systems, they argued, were capable of reinventing themselves. In material and ideological terms these cultures had significant implications for the soils and waters, the lands and animals, the plants and pathogens. The synthesis brought together existing works and offered a new wider perspective. By keeping the spotlight on the 1870s and 1880s and after, Arnold and Guha also drove home the enormity of the shifts in the landscape. They opened up themes that were soon explored further by other scholars. The ways in which forests, covering over half a million sq km of land, were taken over by 1904 and managed by foresters had no precedent in the past. Canal construction on a vast scale gave British India arguably more acreage than any other political entity on earth. Similar new forces were at work in relation to the animal world, with species being reclassified as vermin to be hunted down or game to be selectively shot. In all these, their work forged together a new synthesis.
The larger disillusion with the developmental state impelled a search for communitarian forms of knowledge-or at the very least, led to critical questions about a telos that equated high technology with progress and material abundance. There was a simultaneous advocacy of community-led forms of resource control as opposed to statist or free market approaches. Unlike in Shiva's works, the colonial period was historicized and seen in sophisticated ways. However, technology continued to be seen as the defining characteristic of different forms of production, such as settled as opposed to shifting cultivation, and pastoralists as contrasted with hunter-gatherers. Writing on the question of the commons in precolonial western India, Sumit Guha cannot resist taking another potshot at a usual target. He notes, 'Shiva and her fellow thinkers… characterized ... all pre-modern regimes as prudent and balanced resource users. Writers like Shiva are distinctly cavalier with evidence, and one searches in vain for any tangible historical material of how earlier communities were constituted, or how they actually managed their resources.' Despite such criticism, often repeated, ahistorical views of the past remain entrenched in many quarters.
The contrast of writings such as Shiva's with Ramachandra Guha's body of work does require emphasis. To be sure This Fissured Land never once uses the term equilibrium, though there is a clear sense of there having been limits to the changes in the proportion of land under forest, farm, or pasture. The boundaries, whether social or ecological, were dynamic and contested, and were often in flux. This was not so merely at a local level. The geographical movements of certain groups over long distances are also an established fact. Small endogamous groups did not occupy the same location for long periods of time, and even then there is little evidence that they had exclusive access to particular resources. In general, the rural landscape of India before 1800 was dominated by mostly second growth and some old growth forest, and large swathes of savannah. Intensive agriculture was in discontinuous patches surrounded by wooded tracts and grassland. In the mid-seventeenth century, there were 35 persons to a sq km, and as late as 1881 it was double that at 70 to a sq km. Do these numbers matter? They do, to the extent that they show the absence of equilibrium, and a slow but uneven and discontinuous increase in human numbers and settlements. The larger landscape was the reverse of what exists today islands of intensive cultivation dotted a vast ocean of forest. On a closer look, it turned out that forest as a single unified category was in fact a mosaic of semi-natural landscapes with old growth and scrub jungle interspersed with tree-covered savannah and secondary growth.
The ecological implications of the wider socio-political flux and economic changes were far reaching. The ratios of humans to land should also set at rest the idea that culture-driven constraints were what kept the vegetal cover intact. There is little to show there was any precolonial equilibrium in India, with the use of land and water, wild- life and trees simply mediated by custom. On the contrary custom, in a flexible and dynamic way, could play role in land colonization and forest clearance, in the founding of new homesteads and cities that replaced the forests. There is also ample archival evidence of the policing of faunal resources, forage, pasture, ponds, and trees by rulers and landed elites. 32 A Maratha official reviewing the scene in Khandesh used terms familiar to a British Collector a century hence. He wrote, 'There are many trees in this province; therefore the peasants are troubled by tigers and robbers, and human settlement cannot grow. Hence the revenue officers should be instructed to cut down trees within their districts and increase settlements.' The idea of harmony prior to colonialism still holds sway across the ideological spectrum. This consensus is what Paul Greenough has memorably labelled the Standard Environmental Narrative. He even listed the fallacies in causal connections that this narrative propagates. Harmony gives way to internecine conflict, regeneration to decline. The neglect of animals as opposed to flora in histories has been set right in no small part by his own work.
Historical scholarship produced in the last two decades has enriched our understanding of how land and water, forests and wild animals, and occasionally the atmosphere were managed, and changed in India. It was possible to suggest that 'the past is only now beginning to intrude more clearly on deliberations about the future'. Much of the early work was driven by the clarity provided by a moral imperative. The mission was to write a nationalist environmental history, and it was also to add to the record of colonial infamy the evidence pertaining to the despoliation of nature and destruction of tribal culture carried out by the British. Environmental history emerged in this context out of either the premise of a harmonious past or the desire to document social movements that fought against expropriation of ancestral lands and traditional life-ways.
In speaking of the past intruding on the present, the allusion is to studies that allow for continuities and more complex articulations of change. In its second phase, environmental history had passed chiefly into the hands of historians, and it had also moved from the western Himalaya (the source of Ramachandra Guha's regional expertise) to the Indo-Gangetic plain and, to a lesser extent, to the Deccan plateau of south-central India. New work on northeast India in particular has shown new and contrasting patterns whether in terms of an expanding agrarian frontier in the Brahmaputra valley or swidden cultivation in the hills on its rim. These shifts meant a change of scene in several ways. Canopy-dominant tree species changed from pine, oak, and deodar to teak and sal (Shorea robusta). Contiguous forest tracts became smaller and resembled more the patchwork landscape of farm, field, pasture, and forest that is the subject of much recent work. Scholars were now dealing with areas that had been home to the rise and fall of empires based on sophisticated agrarian economies in which woodlands, waterbodies, and wild animals had been well integrated for the supply of food, fodder, irrigation, protein, sport or the symbolic purpose of kings, the high born, and commoners alike. Labour and its multiple forms also came into focus in ways that had not happened in the earlier history.
So, new scholarship, especially when drawing empirical evidence from the great river valleys and central Indian, or south Indian, plateaus, finds it harder to sustain any simple arguments about precolonial equilibrium between natural and social systems. Many regions of India did, however, witness sharp transformations in agrarian relations, with noticeable and potentially irreversible changes in attendant relations between forests, farms, and pastures; and altered patterns of political control of land that emerged under the early Company state. For instance, tea and coffee plantations in Assam in the east and in the southern high ranges by the 1840s were strikingly new, with plantation crops requiring significant forest clearance and the import of labour from other, also often forested regions, where reservation of woodlands was under way.
Yet, was colonialism merely about aggrandizement or did the encounters have other, greyer dimensions? European engagement with South Asia's tropical environments often had unexpected consequences. Richard Grove's pioneering work focused on prolonged British encounters with peninsular and coastal India, along both the Coromandel and Malabar coasts. The Indian Ocean colonies in general and India in particular were laboratory, field research station, and so much more. Silviculture and horticulture, arboriculture and soil sciences, forest hydrology and entomology all flourished in this hothouse atmosphere. Scientists in service of colonial rulers were often engaged in cuttingedge work. They were not restrained by private landed interests and fearful of agrarian unrest due to water scarcity. They pushed for early regulation of land and forest use, enlightened self-interest, not narrow commerce, being a driving force. In Grove's view British scientists in India constituted an early environmental lobby. Despite his prime focus on the early nineteenth century, Grove's observations go to the heart of issues of the character of science in the colonial setting. His subsequent work has seen him amplify arguments, making them more nuanced without yielding on his core approach. Local knowledge systems were in dialogue with European experts at least in the early colonial era. The logic of colonial environmentalism looked different after Grove. Timber, railways, and revenue gave way to surgeons, forests, and famine.
Opinion is divided on how far was this really the case. Who decided what qualified as expertise? One school of scholarship does not see science as autonomous or evolving in close, almost equal, concord with local knowledge. Arnold forcefully argues that 'it would be a mistake ... to presume indigenous ideas and agency had an equal role or that some kind of open, mutually respectful, discourse existed between Indian science and its European counterpart'. Such science-as-practice approaches to medicine, botany, or forestry have their advantages. It can be sensitive to both local exigencies and empire- wide professional confabulations in evolution of ideas and policy. After all, it is easy to overstate impacts of science on policy if these are not related to their larger political, economic, and even military contexts. This emerges clearly in works on the Punjab, the major granary and military recruiting ground of the British Empire in India. Caton shows how imperial veterinarians marginalized Indian practices of healing domestic animals, especially of the milch and draught cattle in Punjab. The Indian Cattle Plague Commission report set the stage for paternalist, even violent, interventions. Such stories can be multiplied across diverse fields where there were interactions on a highly unequal footing. The idea of technical expertise as a 'detached center of rationality and intelligence' could serve to objectify people, animals, and landscapes to enable closer Control.
Was imperial science such as this distinct from the empire of science? Scientists, whether working in metropolis or colony, communicated and gained recognition in the context of the former. It gave them a common idiom and grammar. Further, environmental sciences had both romantic and utilitarian strands, with both often being closely interwoven with each other. Researchers in the colonies and in India in particular often had a central, not a marginal role, in professionalizing universal sciences. This was true of agricultural sciences and, in the twentieth century, of ornithology and taxonomy. While relations were hierarchical, significant if small numbers of Indians were fully present as partners by the coming of independence in 1947. Thus the sciences, contrary to a simple 'improvement ideology' of enlightened environmentalism, were as multi-hued and diverse.
How then did scientists enunciate claims to power in modern colonial empires, many of which influenced one another? The notion of an 'empire of science' also helps to see if and how European scientific professions meshed with imperial agendas. The latter could relate to resource management, population control, state formation, and the capitalist transformation of colonial economies. These could be in specific locations in India, Southeast Asia, or Africa but they did have a larger intellectual milieu. S. Ravi Rajan has of late argued that 'the work on the forest history of the British Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century ... does not explore the intellectual links between the colonial campaign for forest conservation and the scientific work on deforestation ... in European scientific communities'. Does the emergence of an empire of science then help explain poverty of performance across the board? This gap between hope and failure after all typifies much of colonial planting, breeding, and crop improvement programmes in the late nineteenth century.
Recent works move from policy to processes of implementation. In general, these show a more variegated picture with contests and unexpected outcomes being the norm. The 'empire of science' had often only a tenuous hold over the coherent universe of knowledge that it claimed to validate. It was easier to command the natural world than it was to control its vagaries. Arguably the colonial empires of science and the postcolonial empires of development had to coalesce for more singular models to emerge. Freed of an exclusive (or obsessive) concern with domination and resistance, or indigenous versus Western cultures, the focus can be on seeing how different states of development emerged across Asia and Africa. Sugata Bose has called for attention to trans-regional flows of ideas, people, and power across an Indian Ocean region united in the past by colonial empires and, now, by postcolonial development and disaster regimes. Such a study of contact and exchange, though still in its infancy, could build on these insights. Historically situated comparative approaches to the histories of the environment hold great promise. They can help place Indian forest history in a larger global setting and provide linkages with the contemporary era.
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