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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2003  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 168-169

Book review 2

117 Uttarakhand, JNU, New Delhi 110 067, India

Correspondence Address:
Dunu Roy
117 Uttarakhand, JNU, New Delhi 110 067
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Date of Web Publication20-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Roy D. Book review 2. Conservat Soc 2003;1:168-9

How to cite this URL:
Roy D. Book review 2. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2003 [cited 2020 Aug 11];1:168-9. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2003/1/1/168/55851

Mukul Sharma, Landscapes and Lives: Environmental Dispatches on Rural India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001, 234 pp., Rs 475. ISBN: 0-195- 655-33-8.

When a wayward journalist, who has pursued his sensibilities across many scenarios, trying to capture the essence of the moment in his reports from the field, chooses to string together a set of his pieces into a coherent whole, the results can be somewhat wayward too. There is an element of nostalgia, of course, for what was the excitement of the pursuit. There is a trace of vision, as seemingly disparate events begin to assemble as pieces of a grand puzzle. There is the sunlit ray of optimism, of matters as they should be rather than as they are. And there is the stealth of doubt-will it last, will things ever change, will the golden caress of dawn come?

Mukul Sharma is a familiar name in journalism-and wayward, because he chose, over 15 years ago and somewhat quixotically, to engage in the then unfamiliar terrain of the environment. He was fortunate in having Anil Agrawal of the Centre for Science and Environment as a fiery mentor, and the editors of the Navbharat Times, the Economic and Political Weekly, Frontline, Inter Press Service and Himal as enabling supporters. They (and the numerous friends within the enchanted circle of green concerns) encouraged him to travel widely, to meet the people at the margins of society and nature, to document their travails and to enlarge the frontiers of his own mind.

This higgledy-piggledy journey through 'landscapes and lives' is simply related in the book with the same title, neatly packaged by Oxford. Sharma calls them 'Dispatches'-in the manner in which correspondents from an earlier era reported from the frontiers of war. And it is a war that he reports-sometimes malevolent, often cruel, with moments of grief and anger and short-lived joy, always human. Disputes over trickles and torrents of water; whether the sea should be harvested or harnessed; is the land to be submerged or serrated; who will yield-forests or farmers; are factories places in which to prosper or to perish; does nature create borders and men make mountains? These are the fields on which modern environmental battles are fought and, as the dispatches are filed, the reader can almost smell the pungent memory of gunpowder.

The book documents both the 'successes' as well as the 'failures' achieved in these battles. There is the story of the prolonged struggle of fisherfolk against the invasion of mechanised trawlers into their fishing grounds, the promotion of aquaculture, the destruction of coastal zones, and the construction of specialised harbours, eventually culminating in the effort to challenge the Deep Sea Fishing Policy. There are inspiring tales of how the Mudially Fishermen's Cooperative Society has protected the Kolkata wetlands; trade unions and doctors have nurtured the Shramjivi Hospital; peasants of the Narmada Bachao Andolan have campaigned through the Lok Nivada in the heartland of the Sardar Sarovar Dam; and the Tinsimani Sarkar has conserved its forests. This is not only the stuff of community heroism, but also of the science of resource management.

The book should, therefore, be required reading for those interested in a particular phase of the environmental movement in India. Nevertheless, it should be recognised that good journalism makes excellent reportage but is not always amenable for good trend analysis. Thus, some of the projections made by the author into the future may be born more out of optimism rather than reasoned discussion. In his Introduction, Sharma posits that, 'Landscapes represent specific natural and social environments. They bear the marks, not of a fixed relationship with humanity, but of changes brought about by the impact of shifting political, economic, and social actors upon them'. But, at the same time, given 'the vast range of environments, and the diversity of the people living symbiotically with and claiming rights over their landscape', there is no such thing as .a single perspective or a single movement on environmental issues in the 1990s'.

A lack of a common perspective then begs the question of how the 'everyday' is related to the 'episodic' or how the 'local' interacts with the 'global'. Furthermore, if there is a 'multiplicity of conflicts' then how is the 'possibility of common united action' to materialise? How are 'democratic institutions' to change in order to fulfil the condition of 'sustainability'? These are questions that are posed by Sharma himself. He attempts to answer them by arguing that 'some inspiring and persuasive leaders have emerged on the ground', and the movements led by them 'have shown enormous skill and readiness to enter into dialogue with those in positions of political power'. In addition, 'the relationship between environment, labour, and labour organisations has undergone a critical shift' and, therefore, 'organisations and movements that are articulating environmental issues . . . are the organisations of the future'.

Inspirational leadership and creative organisations alone cannot supplant the need for a common understanding of the political nature of all development. That needs a much greater and vigorous debate about the connections between political, social and economic actors within the landscape. Given Mukul Sharma's long, and outstanding, engagement with environmental issues on the ground for almost two decades, the reader may be forgiven for expecting that he would provide some clues about the related discussion. He does not-and this is the only flaw in an otherwise excellent presentation.


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