Conservation and Society

: 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 271--272

Environmental Issues in India: A Reader

Indira Chowdhury 
 Archival Resources for Contemporary History, B 302, Mantri Gardens, Jayanagar, I Block, Bangalore 560 011, India

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Indira Chowdhury
Archival Resources for Contemporary History, B 302, Mantri Gardens, Jayanagar, I Block, Bangalore 560 011

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Chowdhury I. Environmental Issues in India: A Reader.Conservat Soc 2008;6:271-272

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Mahesh Rangarajan (ed.). Environmental Issues in India: A Reader. New Delhi: Pearson Longman. 2007. xxvii+ 570 pp. INR 199.00 (Paperback). ISBN 8-131-70810-1.

Issues of environmental degradation, the problems of communities affected by government policy and the plight of India's wildlife have been the subject of public debate over several decades now. Environmental movements in India have repeatedly attempted to draw attention to these issues with varying degrees of success. While environmental studies (EVS) is a compulsory subject in schools, it has not yet become a subject with which undergraduate education in India engages. However, in recent years environmental issues have become formally embedded within the academic structure of the higher education system. Mahesh Rangarajan's edited volume, Environmental issues in India: A reader , is ther efore, a timely pedagogic intervention. Indeed, it is more than that, as the wide-ranging essays in this volume give the general reader a flavour of the multi-faceted dimensions of environmental issues in India.

Rangarajan adopts a much needed pluralistic approach. The 33 essays compiled here are organised into five sections. The anthology has a general introduction as well as short introductions to individual sections that help the reader to focus on the issues being discussed. Rangarajan places his work firmly within the social and geop olitical context of India; but at the same time, he is careful to locate the issues within the larger global context. The general introduction, however, passes up the opportunity to clarify the contexts and frameworks within which environmental debates and movements evolved in India-a critical and extensive discussion of Anil Agarwal's The state of India's environment. The first citizen's report of 1982 would have been very appropriate in this context.

The first section, 'Pre-colonial India', takes up precolonial India with an interesting collection of essays that include discussions on climate change and the Indus civilisation (V.N. Misra), forests and settlements (Romila Thapar), the use of iron tools (Makkhan Lal), the representation of lion hunting in Mughal India and its ecological implications (Divyabhanusinh), water management, and a thought-provoking piece on the conflicts between poor villagers and ruling authorities that severely constrained the collective use of natural resources by villagers. While all the other essays, including Rangarajan's own essay on the forest and the field in ancient India are reprinted from elsewhere, the essays by Mayank Kumar on the importance of water security to villagers in medieval Rajasthan and Sumit Guha's piece on eighteenth century Maharashtra were specially written for this volume. They demonstrate through detailed references the sources that can be used to understand the changing relationship with natural resources in medieval and eighteenth century India. Rangarajan's attempt to show how the ecological issues have a deep -rooted history, and the ways in which we might understand and interpret the available resources is indeed commendable.

The second section, 'Colonial India', is relatively short and comprises three biographical pieces. Ram Guha looks at the ways in which Gandhi has been identified with environmentalism and the limits of such appropriation. One wishes that Madhav Gadgil's engaging piece on Salim Ali could have been expanded into a fuller study of Ali's impact on natural history in India. Arvind Kala's detailed and captivating study of Jim Corbett presents a complex picture of Corbett, the man, and Corbett, the legend.

The next three sections take up conceptually challenging issues by addressing developmental patterns, environmental movements and the impact of globalisation. Section three, 'Independent India's environment', is the largest section in the book with 11 essays that attempt to present the multi-faceted dimensions of the environmental debate in independent India. M.S. Swaminathan's essay demonstrates the need to evolve a policy of natural resource utilisation based on the principles of economics and human welfare. J.R. McNeill's essay on the other hand places the Green Revolution within a larger context, linking it with mechanisation costs to the environment. The next two essays talk about the relationship between community and environment-the lack of community managed systems in wastelands management (N.C. Sa xena), and privatisation of common property resources and the disentitlement of the rural poor (N.S. Jodha). Himanshu Thakkar illustrates, with the help of several case studies, groundwater pollution from across India, and the role of research and academic institutions in inciting public action. The social and economic impact of annual displacement of villagers during the monsoons in the diara region (areas where silt is deposited) of Bihar is taken up by Mukul Sharma. Arun Agarwal and Vasant Saberwal analyse the ways in which pastoralists in India negotiate access to critical resources, demonstrating how the environment- pastoralism equation is resolved differently in India in contrast to Sub-Saharan Africa. Daman Singh 's article on land use policy in Mizoram establishes the mismatch between government policy and the villager's way of life. Bina Agarwal's is the only essay that takes up the conceptual challenges of gender and environment in the Indian context. Agarwal focuses on the locational implications of gender and shows how women's role and participation are inscribed by knowledge systems and livelihoods. No anthology on environmental issues would be complete without an essay by M. Krishnan, and Rangarajan delights us by including a critical one from the 1980s where Krishnan had focussed on the flawed policy of wildlife preserves created by the state. Even today many would agree with Krishnan's sharp comment that the aims of conservation are best served by resisting the urge to develop nature and leave it as it is. Ullas Karanth's piece could be read as a companion piece that draws our attention to the ignored local threats to wildlife conservation. Karanth argues for the alternative concept of 'sustainable landscapes' in combination with concepts from ecological economics to conserve the sacred groves of the twenty -first century.

The fourth section 'Movements and alternatives' begins with a well known seminal essay on environmental movements in India by Madhav Gadgil and Ram Guha. Attempting a comprehensive analysis of forests, dams, fisheries and mines, Guha and Gadgil have also analysed the vocabularies of protest and briefly compared First and Third World environmentalism. Since the last 10 years we have seen rapid shifts in patterns of consumption in urban India; Rangarajan could have used this opportunity to invite the authors to revisit the arguments they had made a decade ago. Savyasaachi's elegant study 'The tiger and the honeybee' calls for a revision of our perception of biodiversity in order that the food chain, the balance of population and the knowledge ecology of the forest dweller is preserved. This section raises several questions: in what ways do development models affect the environment? What is the relationship between ecology, sustainability and citizenship? There are multiple interpretations. Ajantha Subramanian rejects the binary opposition between 'modernity' and 'tradition' and demonstrates how a very different idea of a community can emerge even within the framework of state power through her study of a fishing community in Kanyakumari. Madhu Sarin's case study of the central role played by women in the Uttarakhand forests demonstrates the creation of space for local control over decision-making. Aromar Revi focuses on a more recent event -the Mumbai deluge of 26 July 2005. He outlines an action plan that is built on holistic analysis of the multiple risk factors that urgently need to be addressed. Sanjay Sangvai's short article on the problem of displacement in the context of several dams reveals the state's indifference to the issues of land and livelihoods for the displaced. In a related context, Roopali Phadke' s tribute to Vilasrao Salunkhe locates the water warrior's efforts to establish water equity within a larger engagement with alternative technologies and participatory research. Darryl D'Monte's informative piece on the Taj controversy does not focus on any particular movement, but highlights the way in which scientists and experts have repeatedly resorted to misinformation and left undeveloped any holistic preservation plan for this heritage monument.

The final section on 'Global issues ' opens with Dunu Roy's rousing call to recognise that the university system too, like other institutions of civil society, is prey to the 'economy of production for greed'. Roy's essay provides a useful framework with which to understand the three problem areas that this section focuses on: hazards of technology, global warming and the contentious issue of atomic energy. Vijay Nagaraj and Nithya Raman's detailed study of the Bhopal tragedy demonstrates how the United States despite tightening regulatory control over hazardous industry at home, did little to persuade its multi-nationals to adopt higher safety standards abroad. The Indian state on the other hand, continues to harbour an ambivalent attitude towards mult i-national corporate liability. Eliot Marshal's short piece on the current rethinking on nuclear power could have done with a companion piece on the implications on India; a short extract from Pallava Bagla's Science article does not fully enable us to see the implications and consequences for India. Anand Patwardhan argues persuasively for the need to develop a clear understanding of India's emission inventory and to analyse the efforts made in the area of renewable energy.

Finally, Environmental Issues in India: A Reader makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the issues at hand. The wide-ranging themes addressed, and Rangarajan's historical perspective and his multidisciplinary approach make for a rich collection of papers. The book could well serve as a textbook at the Master's level and therefore the inclusion of a timeline of environmental movements and legislations would have been appropriate. Unfortunately, the book is poorly copyedited and contains numerous typographical and punctuation errors. One hopes that the next edition will address these problems. The scope and ambition of Rangarajan's reader make it a difficult book to review. I complete writing this review even as I am travelling in remote tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, and some of the essays included in this anthology carry a special resonance as I experience for myself the mismatch between state policy and the community's way of life.