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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 334

Forest Ecology in India. Colonial Maharashtra 1850-1950

Department of History, University of Dhaka, Dhaka 1000, Bangladesh

Correspondence Address:
Iftekhar Iqbal
Department of History, University of Dhaka, Dhaka 1000
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Date of Web Publication25-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Iqbal I. Forest Ecology in India. Colonial Maharashtra 1850-1950. Conservat Soc 2008;6:334

How to cite this URL:
Iqbal I. Forest Ecology in India. Colonial Maharashtra 1850-1950. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Aug 11];6:334. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/4/334/55786

Neena Ambre Rao. Forest Ecology in India. Colonial Maharashtra 1850-1950. New Delhi: Foundation Books. 2008. viii+274. INR 795 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-81- 7596-549-2

Neena Rao's Forest Ecology in India. Colonial Maharashtra 1850-1950 is a monograph of considerable importance with respect to the wealth of fresh source materials it uses and its long term historical perspective. Drawing on primary records from the Peshwa Daftar in Poona, the Maharashtra State Archives in Bombay and the National Archives in New Delhi, the monograph covers a momentous century of forest history in Maharashtra since 1850. Despite Maharashtra's remarkable forest regime and the intense interaction that it experienced from the state and society in modern times, not many detailed historical works have been published so far; Rao's Forest Ecology in India . Colonial Maharashtra 1850-1950 is, therefore, a key intervention in this context.

The monograph's primary focus is on aspects of colonial policies, management and legal codifications with respect to forest resources, which are reflected in chapters three to six. But Rao is also keen on comparing the colonial state's practices to that of the pre-colonial state (chapter two). This necessitates her to devote a chapter on popular resistance (chapter seven) which occurred because, as Rao makes it clear in the introductory remarks: 'The British systematically and legitimately exploited India's forests. In the process, they deprived India's rural population of the ecological base on which it was dependent for its livelihood since times immemorial' (p. 2).

Rao's assumption tilts her to the position of Ramachandra Guha, who considers the colonial period to have brought radical ecological changes, a position opposed to that of Richard Grove, who believes that remarkable conservation practices started in India during the British colonial period. Surprisingly, along the way, Rao often seems to lend support to Grove's proposition by elaborately narrating the state's practices of conservation/ reservation/plantation. Although Rao argues that the state's approach to such practices were instrumental and tailored to the needs of the state, the case of Maharashtra in Forest Ecology in India. Colonial Maharashtra 1850- 1950 does not offer any new light on the long-drawn debates on 'destruction' versus 'conservation' within the broader political ecology of colonialism. Rao could have made her point by building a strong case in favour of romanticised pre-colonial practices, but her chapter actually tells that pre-colonial state management and policy and practices were not always for 'equilibrium'. Both pre-colonial and colonial periods saw discursive practices of 'conservation' and indifference to the process of destruction, at least as far as sustainable exploitation of forest resources was concerned.

Looking at Rao's monograph in this context, the case for resistance was much subtler than mere conflicts between the colonial practices and colonised victims of these practices. Resistance took place not merely because of problems emerging from colonial state's policies and practices, but also because endogenous social agencies exploited these colonial rules for their own gain. Colonialism as a force of exploitation of forest resources and forest-dependent communities can be better understood by looking at how it empowered local exploitative social groups. Although there is evidence in her book to develop this pluralistic approach to the problem of exploitation and resistance, Rao does not seem to make this explicit. In doing so, arguments of this monograph remain entangled with the post-colonial discourse of the 1990s that see colonial history as a dry dichotomy between colonial might and powerlessness of the colonised.

Surprisingly, about half-or perhaps more-of the entire texts of the monograph are quotations, often too lengthy and unnecessary, which make the author's own arguments less discernible. Factual and chronological errors like the date of the decisive Battle of Plassey (put at 1818 instead of 1757) are unexpected and confusing. In case there is a second edition of the monograph, it is hoped that the author will tighten up her own argument and fix such avoidable errors.

Although Forest Ecology in India. Colonial Maharashtra 1850-1950 does not appear to be anything that can be called either a history of ideas or history of policies regarding Maharashtra's wilderness, Rao's meticulous reconstruction of the colonial legal regime of forestry and the way it was informed by, and impacted local ecology and polity should draw interest from serious students of the environmental history of western India in general, and Maharashtra in particular.


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