Conservation and Society

: 2003  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 117--132

Nature, Conservation and Environmental History: A Review of Some Recent Environmental Writings on South Asia

Rohan D'Souza 
 Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110 067, India

Correspondence Address:
Rohan D«SQ»Souza
Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110 067

How to cite this article:
D'Souza R. Nature, Conservation and Environmental History: A Review of Some Recent Environmental Writings on South Asia.Conservat Soc 2003;1:117-132

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D'Souza R. Nature, Conservation and Environmental History: A Review of Some Recent Environmental Writings on South Asia. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2003 [cited 2020 Aug 8 ];1:117-132
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IN THE AXIOM 'nature has no essence; it has a history', philosopher Mark Sagof has succinctly summed up a recent high wave in revisionist ecology, which ha challenged and dented the hitherto dominant perception that nature is imbue with design and gravitates towards a static and stable balance (Sagoff 2000: 62) Deconstruction ecology has not only announced the end of the search for 'undis turbed nature'-poised at some equilibrium in structure or form-but has also somewhat stridently, argued the claim that the latter is interminably altered a every scale of time and space by a host of short- or long-term factors, generate by both internal and external agents.[1]In contrast, therefore, to the previousparadigm that nature's 'melody leads to one final chord that sounds forever', Daniel Botkin has suggested the metaphor of a 'discordant harmony', involving changing tones of often erratic and random complexity (Botkin 1990). In arguing for a radical shift in perspective-from stable static ecosystems to patches inter­acting in gradients of instability and riddled by micro-level variations, disturbances and perturbations-deconstruction ecology has inadvertently introduced a slew of challenges and possibilities for environmental writing.[2]

Within the stride of this new turn, William Cronon has, by pollinating ideas about the chaos of nature with notions about the fluidity of culture, advanced an­other compelling axiom-'ideas of nature never exist outside a cultural context'.[3] In emphasising so, that conceptions about the natural world have been and are always refracted through ideological filters, Cronon has further added to the unsettling of standard environmental narratives on conservation, preservation and degradation that for long stood on hard ground marked by a clear and sure divide between the natural and social.[4]In effect, the conjoining of deconstruction ecology and cultural construction has opened up several fresh pathways for contemporary environmental writing to explore. Not unexpectedly, traction to navigate this raw and uncharted frontier will now greatly hinge on a calculated leap in imagination alongside an overhauling of much of the existing theoretical toolkits in the field.

Upon this less travelled road, arguably, three dilemmas appear to have emerged, which necessarily oblige some sort of credible negotiation and resolution. First, is the dilemma of establishing a baseline ecology, from which change and the im­pact of a specific social formation can be tracked on its surrounding environment. Mark Sagoff perhaps best sums this up:

Because ecosystems have altered dramatically virtually every place in which human beings are found, what do we use as a baseline? Where in the flux of a biological community do we take a 'snapshot' and say 'here it is in equilibrium' or 'here it has integrity' or 'now we have reached the carrying capacity of the land'? Is the ecosystem developing towards a 'healthy' condition, is it now 'healthy' or is it falling apart? (1997: 900)[5]

In other words, in the absence of an ecological baseline, how would we distinguish the natural from the cultural? Conservation agendas may end up confusing environ­ments that were constructed as cultural artefacts for the natural. Do we sustain and conserve natural process-which are dynamic, evolving and changing-or attempt a snapshot freezing of a particular landscape as it reveals itself at a specific point in time? Roderick Neumann's monograph on natural parks in Tanzania, for example, teases out the complex manner in which the plea to preserve so-called 'unspoiled benchmarks' as natural parks are principally aesthetic judgements as­sembled through a particular political economy. Many of these allegedly wild and untrammelled landscapes in fact had long histories of human occupancy and use, but were now being imagined and imposed as wilderness zones, often to the detriment of the livelihood of subsistence communities, critically dependent o the latter for fuel, forage and agricultural production (Neumann 1998).

On the other hand, can debates about the environment ever be expressed i terms other than as social constructs about nature? In which case, it can be argue that environmental narratives about degradation, decline or sustainability essentially mirror cultural constructions and political projections. However, in reducing the physicality of nature to mere gloss and ideological representation, one in compelled to confront a second dilemma; which Kate Soper expresses as the problem of granting 'reality to culture and its effects while denying it to nature' Perhaps, a way out of this inevitably dead-end reasoning is by embracing Soper' own suggestion to invoke an 'extra-discursive reality' about nature in order t track a given society's impact on its environment (Soper 1995: 249-78). That is in her estimate, good science could articulate a weave between society and nature and help illume both the boundaries and the relationships between the two.

Social reality, however, is a complex historical, cultural and economic phe nomenon whose dynamism is subject to possibilities of an entirely different orde than natural laws and patterns. This brings up the third dilemma, that of attemptin to establish if a particular social form has a specific ecological footprint,[6]whic in turn characterises its internal political and social dynamics. More pointedly, is there a determining difference in the modes in which feudalism, state socialis or capitalism have impacted or altered their natural settings? In the case of South Asia, for example, several historians have been occupied with the 'colonial water shed thesis', debating and assessing ecological transformations brought about b colonial rule.[7]While the hitherto standard narrative that pre-colonial ecological harmony was sundered by colonial plunder is increasingly being challenged a simplistic, studies engaging with the question of what made the colonial signature on nature unique is still to achieve compelling clarity. In other words, while the colonial ecological impact has been highlighted as a watershed of sorts (despite certain continuities with the pre-colonial era), the underlying momentum deter mining its specificity has remained obscure.8Thus, it is increasingly becoming obvious that colonial agendas for reconfiguring and reimagining swathes of South Asia's social and environmental landscape was fuelled by more than a cocktail comprising imperatives for rule and Western sensibilities about nature; rather fresh paradigms now urge for a rigorous reassessment of the interplay betwee property relations, processes of commodification, state-making and emergent cap italism in forging a uniquely colonial imprimatur on the subcontinent's variegate and disparate natural world. Possibly, such questioning may lead to a better understanding of the continuities between the colonial period and the post-colonia state's ongoing and unrestrained onslaught on nature. Clearly, contemporary environmental writing is saddled with the delicate task of simultaneously establishing and negotiating new parameters and paradigms for conceptualising and his toricising the complex society-nature interface. To their credit, all the three book under review display a remarkable competence in dealing with the various dilemmas listed earlier. Not only have the authors and the various contributors to the volumes revealed a sophisticated grasp of the questions on hand, but, significantly, have somewhat ambitiously sought to propel the South Asian experience to the centre stage of the field of environmental writing.

An exhaustive treatment of the entire detail, documentation and argumentation presented in the monograph and two collections, however, will not be possible because of the obvious limitations of space in this essay. Nevertheless, given the fact that concerns and analyses overlap and pirouette on common themes, a fairly credible exercise of evaluating perspectives and interrogating fact can be carried out by assessing these contributions in the backdrop of the intense theoretical churning that I have roughly discussed at the outset.

In Battles Over Nature Saberwal and Rangarajan bring together a collection of essays with the stated intention to foster a dialogue between practitioners of the science of ecology and those grappling with contemporary conservation policies. The central effort of the volume is to secure 'middle ground' between the two ex­tremes comprising the biological imperative for preservation and the policy routines for ensuring community access to resources in natural parks and wildlife sanctuaries. This valiant attempt to straddle science and politics is, not unexpec­tedly, complicated and a brief survey of the essays by the five ecologists (Madhu­sudan, Mishra, Borges, Middleton and Rahmani) in the volume will help explain why a weave between the two is necessary and yet difficult. According to these ecologists, the exclusive domain of nature, in its varied rhythms and complexity, has to be correctly read and understood in order for credible strategies to be evolved for its preservation and use. But the realm of nature, as already pointed out, is no straightforward equation, and conservation strategies therefore, as evident in these articles, have to grapple with a seemingly inestimable number of imponderables.

Large mammals, Madhusudan and Mishra argue, require relatively vast habitats to forage for food, and are sensitive to any diminution, destruction or fragmentation of their habitat. In the event of compromised habitat, these large mammals respond by expanding the extent of areas they range over, inevitably bringing them into conflict with settled agriculturists and livestock. Then again, human and livestock conflict with large mammals can also result from a host of other factors. Lions, for example, have a social system in which sub-adults are pushed out of adult ter­ritories and forced to set up new habitats for themselves, usually in the forest fringe where they then come into contact with human populations. Consequently, for Madhusudan and Mishra, human and large mammal conflict cannot be managed as an aberration, instead policy initiatives must simultaneously respond to both biological imperative and social pressure.

A similarly complicated reading is presented by Middleton and Rahmani in their respective essays on the impact of cattle grazing in national parks and on questions of protecting the endangered Great Indian bustard, lesser florican, wolf and blackbuck. Though domestic cattle compete for forage with wildlife, their ecological imprint can vary. Cattle grazing, in certain instances, can benefit those wildlife and bird species who rely on open areas for habitat and food. On the other hand, the loss of woody cover can lead to the destruction of fish habitats in wetland areas. But, more significantly, cattle can irremediably alter energy exchanges in an ecosystem by causing the net transfer of nutrients (by consumin biomass) from the conservation park to the villages and towns nearby. Conflicts between the wild and the domestic need not, however, be inevitable-the bustar and lesser florican, for example, can easily coexist and proliferate amidst village and livestock, provided they have access to healthy undisturbed grasslands (especially during the breeding season). However, on occasion where bustard an florican populations have boomed, blackbuck numbers have also increased in the area. The blackbuck is a crop raider and wherever it has flourished, the ire of the villagers has inevitably also been directed against the bustard. Cattle numbers in India, currently estimated at roughly 420 million, moreover, have been on the rise and the demand for pasture has shot up to nearly 100 million ha, while a present barely 12.4 million ha of permanent pasture is available.

While the task of striking a balance between the interests of wildlife, villager and livestock clearly demands a sensitivity to both biological imperative and social process, evolving conservation strategies for sustaining entire ecosystems require an even more complex engagement with the latter two factors. Renee Borges essay in the volume elegantly explores the limits, uncertainties, incompletenes and fuzziness in the hard sciences dealing with ecology. Specie persistence an ecosystem viability, she argues, are determined by a great many variables whose connectivity and interaction are furthermore subject to an innumerable set of con texts. Consequently, coming to grips with environmental stochasticity require an 'experimental approach' towards resource management, conservation or extraction. For Borges, this implies that conservation policies must err on the side o caution.

Oddly enough, though the ecologists communicate great nuance and sensitivity in their discussions on the intricacy and paradoxes of species biology and natural process, their analyses of the social and political is either inexplicably naοve o overtly simplified.9All the ecologists' contributions in the volume in fact appear to embrace in some version or the other the much criticised and dismissed neo Malthusian explanatory schema, which insists that environmental degradation in the net result of population growth. That is, it is argued, in diverse ways, that the sheer size in human numbers rather than the structure of society causes the rapid depletion and degradation of natural resources.10Consequently, in their analysis human population pressure is the main culprit and environmental protection i essentially directed at reducing the interface between humans and nature, usually through exclusionary protection regimes.

The exclusion of communities, who formerly had access and certain types o usufruct rights in areas now declared as parks or sanctuaries, understandable become the source for conflict and violence, besides undermining the idea o conservation itself. The 'guns and fences' conservation approach has been eloquently argued against in Ramachandra Guha's essay in the volume, which dismisses the 'science' of divorcing people from nature as effectively anti-human and anti-poor. In his view not only have several wildlife conservationists an biologists turned a blind eye to the reality that most conservation policies have had debilitating impacts on subsistence and marginal communities, but, sig­nificantly, such preservation agendas have often rested more on prejudice than on considered opinion. Clearly, the terrain comprising the distance and difference between objective scientific fact, and subjective preference and bias in preservation policies can easily crumble into a conceptual swamp, unless hardened by a care­ful and cautiously reflexive and philosophical exercise over values and ethical judgement.

The essay by Sharad Lele and Richard Norgaard argues that certain science claims informing contemporary conservation paradigms are influenced by specific social agendas and value regimes. They suggest that the notion of sustainability and the manner in which it is currently deployed in several spheres of political action and policy formulation draws substantially from ideologies about 'natural­ness', 'biological integrity' and 'subjective well-being'. These prejudices in turn, they further clarify, add up to a slanted perspective that is peculiarly 'urban, often western and certainly westernised scientist working with funds provided by agencies with their own agendas' (p. 169). Though Lele and Norgaard are incisive and convincing in their interrogation of the idea of objectivity and neutrality in science claims, they appear to present a weak alternative for democratising the notion of sustainability.[11] Their suggestion that locally grounded and 'genuinely plural' research carried out on smaller scales can be an appropriate structure for engaging with sustainability options is inadequate and vague, besides failing to confront two critical variables that influence and determine local context, namely, historical possibility and political process. That is, the local is not an autarchic, bound and insular community, but a historically determined quantity and inextric­ably connected to the broader political process in which antagonistic social and economic interests are played out.

The subsequent essays by Rangarajan, Saberwal and Baviskar in fact attempt to address the above formulation. Rangarajan, by surveying a range of political debates on wildlife protection in the post-independence period in India reveals that though there was and is a considerable interweave in conservation perspectives between the urban intelligentsia, middle-class activists and rural campaigners, there are nevertheless vast chasms that separate them as well. A hard anti-people's preservationist agenda, mostly being articulated by the urban elite, for example, ends up undermining the subsistence capacity of various rural and marginal com­munities. Intense social and economic cleavages and struggles are, however, not the only obstacles to evolving an acceptable consensus for preserving natural endowments. Saberwal's essay makes a case for reviewing the workings of the various apparatuses of the state, such as the forest department, involved in formulat­ing and implementing conservation policies. He convincingly argues that state bureaucracies are often riddled with dissensions and inter-departmental rivalries, and are extremely porous to popular and political pressure. Thus, understanding the success and failure of conservation policies requires an analytic window into the state, its various agencies, departments and bureaucracies. Baviskar's fine grained ethnographic study of the practice of eco-development in the Great Himalayan National Park is almost a maturing of the above two arguments. She reveal that the national park served as a stage for the playing out of various kinds o sectional interests and political agendas. The World Bank, on the one hand, behind a veil of rational-legal and scientific discourses about conservation, was attempting to privatised access to the park and its ecology. The Indian government, represented by the forest department, on the other hand, was operating to corner a share of the spoils presumed to be available in eco-development funds while simultaneously seeking to retain its traditional grip on aspects of park management. Meanwhile the people and communities around the sanctuary were being either bent, accommodated or given certain concessions over resource use. In effect, Baviskar concludes, eco-development must be viewed not merely as a programme for wildlife conservation, but as integrally linked to aims that seek to reproduce the condition for rule. International agencies like the World Bank are in fact increasingly directing their attention to biological reserves and natural parks, and transforming the into sites for increasing either the control of the state or that of the market or both Michael Goldman's seminal work on the subject describes the contemporary or as the point:

When a whole range of actors, from World Bank lawyers to international con servation scientists, are commissioned to rewrite national property rights laws redesign state agencies and redefine localized production practices based o new global norms, they transform conventional forms of state power, agency and sovereignty. (2001a: 500)[12]

Given the broader political economy at work against nature and democracy is general, the editors' search for 'middle ground' in Battles Over Nature is not only perhaps overly optimistic, but appears to run against some of the arguments in the essays in the volume. More specifically, can policy talk to politics without address sing the critical issue of historical possibility in South Asia?[13]Given the particular manner in which antagonistic interests were, have been and are structured in South Asia today, would current political realities allow the exploration of the middle ground that is being sought? Instead, it could be perhaps argued that collection such as Battles Over Nature should provide the basis for a more rigorous political assessment of the South Asian environmental question and thereby help establish foundations for democratising policy interventions. The attempt to seek a force consensus in existing conditions of extreme social and economic inequality i perhaps unlikely to yield much of substance.

The second book under review, Social Nature, admirably engages with the challenge of exploring the interface between political process and environmental degradation. The essays in this volume, in fact, are concentrated on explaining how differentiations within society along the grooves of caste, gender, ethnicity and class generate specific impacts on natural surroundings. Unfortunately, the limitations of space compels us to discuss only a select few essays.

In an essay on agro-ecological change in central Gujarat, Vinay Gidwani demon­strates that long-standing caste hierarchies in the region got shuffled and were relocated in new economic niches following a radical transformation in the environ­mental context. The introduction of modern surface irrigation canals in Matar Taluka (an administrative subdivision of Kheda district) unhinged the traditional grip of the dominant Patel castes, whose prior ascendance had been premised on a mix of well irrigation, ponds, lines of credit from urban moneylenders and a cotton boom in the 1860s and 1870s. But with the displacement of cotton, pulses and dry cereal varieties by canal-irrigated rice (double cropped), the Bharwads and the Varghis, formerly occupying economically and ecologically marginal spaces, were able to rework the new landscape to their advantage. In the case of the Bharwads, for example, their previously uncultivated lands, which yielded only seasonal bursts of grass, were converted into lush fields of irrigated rice (monsoon crop) and wheat (winter crop).

Gidwani weaves in and out of several theoretical perspectives while exploring a complex spectrum of philosophical and methodological issues involved in con­ceptualising agrarian production and social change. In my opinion, however, his argument seems to pivot on one main proposition: nature's inherent stochasticity or unpredictability, as an enabling and disabling agent, influences and can deter­mine social possibility. That is, social dynamics operate and are determined in and oftentimes by ecological contexts.[14]Oddly, though he sustains the proposition through much of the essay, his argument takes a somewhat intriguing detour in the claim that the instance of caste mobility in central Gujarat undermines the polarisation thesis-capitalism inevitably differentiates the peasantry into capitalist farmers and wage labourers. Undoubtedly, the introduction of canal irrigation and commercial cropping produced a steep increase in the overall surplus (cap­italism after all is not a zero sum game), and the Bharwads and Varghis achieved rapid economic ascendance. However, by itself this is not sufficient evidence to suggest that caste mobility following economic gain can trump class differentiation. Rather, social groups or caste units can and do manoeuver along the scaffoldings of a specific mode of production or economic structure without fundamentally altering production relations. There is in fact a vast and sophisticated literature, which need not be rehearsed here, that points, despite the stickiness of the process of differentiation and the resilience of smallholder peasantry or family farms, to the unfolding of the basic historical trajectory of capital: the growing concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few simultaneous with the dispos­session of the many.[15]This aside, Gidwani's empirically rich essay insightfully unveils the manner in which different constituents comprising the South Asian social mosaic inhabit, appropriate, have claims over and move along distinct eco­logical spaces.

Shubra Gururani's essay employs the optic of property to magnify even further how social hierarchies and fractures shape access to and determine control over ecological resources. Gururani also brings into her analysis the largely silence aspect of gender, which though anchored in caste and class is, nevertheless, subject to a unique set of constraints and possibilities. While her nuanced and al most tactile ethnography uncovers a kaleidoscopic play between social hierarch and resource use, Gururani is careful to tease out the larger implication: since landscape particularities, local politics and livelihood practices shape resource use, community-based management strategies have to contend with specific eco logical contexts and the skewed nature of social claims.

In fact, in the burgeoning field of participatory and sustainable development practitioners, rhetoric on community management has achieved considerable purchase as an organising concept. Policy frameworks now overwhelmingly post-community as a homogenous, organic, trans-historical and essentially egalitaria arrangement. Imploding the notion and deployment of the category of community therefore assumes critical importance in environmental writings, and Paul Robbins essay does well to take up the challenge. By unpacking agro-pastoralism in the western desert fringes of Rajasthan in India, Robbins sets about demonstrating that the pastorialists are immensely stratified and span a range of 'material practice and ecological logics'. The emergence and consolidation in the recent past o livestock markets and urban meat consumption demands, moreover, has spurre the agro-pastoral sector in the direction of commodity production and profit seeking strategies, besides encouraging the entry of non-traditional elite Rajpur and Jat castes into the ranks as specialist herders. In effect, Robbins reveals that when development practitioners bracket agro-pastoralists as an essentially subsistence-oriented nomadic community, they end up eliding aspects of exploitation and differentiation and freeze what in actual operation is an open-ended an dynamic entity.

Uncovering the lack of fit between opaque realities on the ground and their cultural representations fuels much discussion in contemporary environmental writings. Meticulous and reflexively cautious field-level ethnographies have ha to therefore take up the task of puncturing roving, unbound discourses, which simplify, essentialised or 'other' complex social and economic phenomenon. I the volume under review, Molly Chattopadhyay and Cecile Jackson's essay is valuable exemplar in the move towards questioning environmental meta-narrative that revolve on images like eco-feminism or 'tree-loving tribals'. Following careful scrutiny of the relationship between livelihood practices and the con struction of identities of the self amongst dikkus (Hindu incomers),adivasis (triba indigenes) and dalits (untouchable castes) in south Bihar (eastern India), the draw out how gender, ethnicity, caste and class play out in legitimising types o resource use.

Their conclusion from the exercise is striking and provocative. The claim the make is that ideas and identities need not necessarily be derived from livelihood practices and property relations. In effect, tribal, rural folk or women may not b inherently biased towards wanting sustainable environmental options as they ca and are often influenced by contexts and ideas from outside their village, forest boundaries or local society. In several ways, Chattopadhyay and Jackson are challenging the thesis that certain cultures and women are natural environmental­ists, so to speak, and strive for ecological harmony because it is innate to their identity. Therefore, in suggesting that a disconnect can exist between identity and material practice, Chattopadhyay and Jackson are essentially affirming that local society must be understood as being produced at the intersection between the larger social world and history. And yet, they are careful to assert, the local does not merely refract or mirror broader forces, but can simultaneously also be an agent in internalising, articulating and negotiating such identities. In sum, the search for an 'authentic environmental imagining' amongst tribals, women, forest peoples, etc. is not only flawed, but may be blind to the manner in which material practices can sustain multiple, overlapping and even contrary identities.[16]

Along the same axis of questioning, Sumit Guha's essay argues against the proposition that static self-contained communities in South Asia sustained natural resources through prudent usage and management rules. Guha skilfully interrogates sources on eighteenth-century rural Maharashtra (western India) to reveal a milieu ridden with inequalities of power, contests over commons, the absence of a natural community and the frequent modification of custom by different social groups interested in staking claims on a given resource. While past evidence undoubtedly weighs against the existence of a trans-historical organic community resting in equilibrium with its environment, Guha, in concluding that 'local autonomy must be accompanied by the vigorous exertion of state power' for the prudent manage­ment of resources in the contemporary period, ends up at a slight tangent from the hypothesis he sets out to challenge. Social and political contests over scarcities, I aver, is markedly different from a scarcity-causing political economy. That is, the demands that the rural populace in eighteenth-century Maharashtra made on their surrounding environs, despite extreme social inequality and elite usurpation, can still suggest relative prudence in resource appropriation vis-à-vis the colonial and modern period. Consequently, it is analytically unhelpful to flatten the divide between the pre-colonial and the colonial through the limited aperture of resource contest. Rather, I suggest, insight can be gained from a perspective that unravels how specific social forms or modes of appropriation generate particular demands on resources and their (ab)use. In the instance of South Asia at least, understanding the nature of colonial impact on the ecological landscape has undoubtedly acquired great centrality in contemporary debates on resource extraction and issues of conservation in the region.

Fortunately, Sivaramakrishnan's monograph Modern Forests attempts precisely that. In possibly one of the most theoretically ambitious studies in recent years on environmental transformation in colonial South Asia, Modern Forests provides an altogether fresh template. The argument is intricate, sensitive to nuance and buttressed with immense detail, and therefore somewhat difficult to reproduce without the hazards of oversimplification. That stated, it addresses centrally the current major divide in environmental writings in South Asia. Thus far the 'colonial watershed' or impact on the ecological landscape has been explained to have been driven by a combination involving Western sensibilities about nature an colonial strategies for exploitation. Rather than dismiss these perspectives, which straddle the two ends of the analytic spectrum, Sivaramakrishnan incorporate them into a broader explanatory schema termed state-making, which, I roughly surmise, refers to the fabrication of the instruments for governance and the arts o legitimation and rule. That is, the state's attempts to organised political subjection is integral to the constant production of forms of knowledge about the social an natural world. Thus, the proliferation and elaboration of colonial administrativ routines and techniques of governance was simultaneous with and underpinned by the assembling of a range of conceptual equipment and ideas about the colonise and their environment. In sum, Modern Forests essentially surveys and explore the relationship between the institution of governance and knowledge production as they unfold historically.

Through the rubric of state-making, Sivaramakrishnan maps the transformation of the wild woodlands or jungle mahals, which lay in the western portions o Midnapore district in Bengal (eastern India). From the eighteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century, colonial dispensation stamped its impress on the forest tracts through varied policies and regimes of extraction, management and conservation. The earliest British imaginaireon the forests, beginning in 1767 comprised a set of discourses that viewed the jungle and its inhabitants as wild intractable and savage. These images in fact ran as opposites to the then British economic and political preference for stable agrarian settings populated by rent and tax-paying sedentarised village communities. The woodlands were therefore sought to be cleared through a slew of strategies for vermin eradication (wild animals such as tigers, wolves, snakes, etc.), the sedentarisation of tribal popu lations (notably thecsantals) and the stabilisation of the cultivated arable. By th 1800s colonial officials had also initiated attempts to turn the so called 'wastelands into productive terrains by introducing teak plantations and formulating plans for forest protection. However, through the course of trying to realise these various objectives, colonial officialdom found itself confronted by several dilemmas. Forest protection, vermin eradication and sedentarising forest inhabitants or tribals turned out to have contradictory impacts. Forest protection, for example, meant the exclusion of tribal groups, which then helped multiply vermin numbers and ultimatel undermined the extension of the arable. The colonial authorities therefore repeatedly found themselves requiring far more elaborated bureaucracies to contend with both ecological complexity and a recalcitrant native populace.

The heightened demand for timber (sal, mahogany and sissoo), by the mid nineteenth century, however, pushed the colonial government to abandon their emphasis on extending the arable and instead convinced them to move toward evolving new regimes for managing and conserving forests as a productive re source (mainly to sustain teak plantations or forests). In sharp contrast to the styles of information gathering on the cultivated arable-cadastral surveys, en quiries into tenurial arrangements and minute calculations regarding rents an taxes-knowledge on forests was generated mainly through procedures such a surveying, exploration, classification, inventory, and the assessment of trees and landscapes. The colonial exercise for enumerating its forests acquisitions, more­over, drew from a broad sweep of disciplines and institutional locations; botanists, army officers, civil surgeons and administrators, to name a few, scoured the jungles and woodlands, wrote about them, catalogued, debated, disagreed over claims and thereby assembled a vast corpus of literature on the ecology of the non-agrarian.

Sivaramakrishnan insightfully stresses here that ideas about forests were trans­lated into particular ideologies about forest conservation through the practice of governance. In effect, notions such as scientific forestry were shot through by specific agendas for rule and oftentimes reflected how science and politics inter­penetrated or moved apart through conflict and dissension. Most strikingly as well, regimes of forest management, especially because of exclusionary practices such as controlling fires, restricting access to grazing and firewood, and the cur­tailing of shifting cultivation, repeatedly clashed against the interests of local agrarian communities. Consequently, colonial forestry, as an endeavour of state-making, from its inception to the end of empire, remained firmly embedded in agrarian relations. Which explains why scientific forestry had to be frequently tempered by the demands of rural livelihoods and was compelled to absorb into its design and within its folds a slew of administrative variations, reversals and adaptations to local agrarian contexts. In sum, through the rubric of state-making, the colonial impact on Midnapore district's forests and local society is revealed as a negotiated, contradictory, often fluctuating and regionally specific impress, repeatedly modulated as much by social conflict, events and cultures as by the stochastic effects of ecological factors.

Though Modern Forests is a regional study, several broader implications for contemporary environmental writings can be drawn out. We highlight only two of them. First, by exploring the 'micro-physics of power' in administrative routines and its interface with diverse ecological and social settings, Modern Forests convincingly describes how local variations persisted in the face of colonial inter­ventions. This approach, furthermore, helps reiterate the importance of unpacking key categories like village community, forest rights or local society, which have acquired considerable currency in contemporary discourses on development. More so because in a large number of current policy formulations on environmental issues such notions are often treated as ahistorical entities. Second, it provides a useful template for understanding the sharp contrasts in colonial governance strategies deployed in the different environs of the cultivated arable and the forests. Of particular significance is the observation by Sivaramakrishnan that while land rights in agrarian communities tended to move downwards throughout the nine­teenth century (encouraging a steady enforcement of laws supporting tenant rights), forest management and conservation strategies moved towards centralised control and planning in the same period. Here, perhaps, a considerably valuable and novel insight is being advanced on how the character, peculiarity and materiality ofa resource influences and shapes political economies of extraction and use.[17]In effect, it underlines the fact that environmental writings have to deliberate fat more rigorously on the characteristics of biophysical processes and their specific properties in order to understand how they shape political possibilities and influence outcomes.

By way of criticism, however, Modern Forests tends to cloud the distinction between techniques of rule and the nature of rule. Why colonialism preferred the arable, resorted to scientific forestry rather than community management, an attempted to sustain forms of property that proved to be ecologically detrimental remains unanswered in the book. To obviate the danger of reading colonialism a merely an assemblage of governance games, I would argue that it is important t attempt to uncover the internal logic of the operation of such a rule. The colonia watershed in South Asia was not merely marked by distinct forms of property social relations and regimes of exploitation, but significantly acquired its dynamis as part of the broader uncurling of capitalist expansion and accumulation. Under standing the particular trajectory of capitalist growth therefore in a colonial contex becomes central to mapping the very distinct continuities in the patterns of environ mental degradation that continue to afflict post-colonial South Asia.

In conclusion, it would be perhaps appropriate to restate that the three book under review clearly signal the growing sophistication and maturation, both empirically and theoretically, of environmental writings on South Asia. Moor strikingly, however, the field appears to be evolving or gravitating towards a pronounced interdisciplinary and comparative approach. Not only is it drawing into its analytic vision concepts from biology, ecology and other such streams in the hard sciences, but creatively engaging with and weaving them into historical narratives, sociological nuance and political economy. There is simultaneously also a move towards engaging with other traditions and genres of environmental writings, specially the vast corpus of literature that has been generated on landscap transformation and resource use in Africa and the United States. The bourgeonin field of South Asian environmental writings is perhaps the low hanging fruit for those intending to push disciplinary boundaries, while analysing and interrogating contemporary concerns about the critical relationship between politics, society and the environment.[34]


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4Burkett, Paul (1999), Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. New York: St Martin's Press.
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