“Nature, Knowledge and Development: Critical Essays on the Environmental History of India”

How important is it to communicate the importance of human nature relationship on the earth planet? In other words: is it important to communicatehow man should communicate with nature? Or, howbetter with other living things of different species?  Edited by ArunBandopadhyay, the book: Nature, Knowledge and Development: Critical Essays on the Environmental History of India has dealt with all of this at length. This book is the outcome of seven long essays penned by scholars—from the social sciences background.


Published by Primus Books

Year of Publication 2016

Pages 188

 Tapan Kumar Chattopadhyay in his essay Modern Science: An Ecological Critique points to the reductionist nature of modern science and contrasts it with the holistic nature of ecology. Judging from the close relationship between Western science and capitalism, Chattopadhyay in view of Bandopadhyay, shows Western science as unsustainable in diverse areas such as agriculture, ‘scientific’ forestry and health care. Chattopadhyay ends his essay with a plea for appropriate and ecologically sound technology to be pursued. Chattopadhyay also believes that qualitative improvements may be brought about in already existing traditional technologies, thus transforming the latter into technology that is both environmentally sound and most appropriate at the same time.

PriyambadaSarkar divides her essay Deep Ecology and Some Ancient Indian Texts: An Overview into three parts. In the first part, Sarkar following the lines of argument of Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess, makes an exposition of Deep Ecology as a movement in the West, also. Sarkarargues that Deep Ecology is a non-anthropocentric outlook, so much so that its proponents maintain that nature has to be preserved for its own sake and not for the sake of man. In the second section, Sarkar collects and collates data from various ancient Indian texts to show that there is ample evidence of biospheric egalitarianism in ancient Indian treatment of animals and plants along with their treatment of non-living primordial elements. She in the final section makes critical evaluation of the movement and philosophy of Deep Ecology with reference to some recent writings, but on the whole, as the editorhas put it, maintains the uniqueness of the ancient Indian idea about this.

ArunBandopadhyay divides his essay The Colonial Legacy of Forest Policies in India into four parts. In his study, he tries to identify and analyse cardinal issues in two important regions in India: West Bengal & Tamil Nadu, and trace their overriding importance in the evolution of forest policies in post-colonial India. He argues that forest policies, whether for colonial or post-colonial era, are to be studied in the larger context of social history of environment. It will, as he opines, not only help us to look beyond the looking glass of the Forest Rangers, but also situate the forest dwellers and the related stakeholders in their social settings. At the end, he proposes that forest policies are to be studied in a comparative framework, both in terms of time and space.

BiswamoyPati in his essay Environment and Social History: Kalahandi, 1800-1950 examines the social history of Kalahandi in Western Orissa to explore the roots of the famine which haunts the region even today. His study delineates the pre-colonial region of the crisis, and the way Kalahandi’s colonization reinforced the problems. Biswamoy in his studies of intricate relationship between people and the ecology of Kalahandi has thus explored the underdevelopment of the region in terms of its social history.

Sanjukta Das Gupta divides her essay Accessing Nature: Agrarian Change, Forest Laws and their Impact on an Adivasi Economy in Colonial Indiainto four sections. She particularly makes a case study of the impact of colonial forest laws and agrarian policies on the tribal economy of Singhbhum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Agrarian change in Singhbhum, she points out, didn’t really lead to any tangible benefits as far as the large parts of the tribal population were concerned. Das Gupta further argues that in the pre-colonial times, if agriculture and dependence on forests complemented each other. In the colonial times however, there came an increase of cultivation together with restricting access to forests in Singhbhum.

Vinita Damodaran in her essay Famine in a Forest Tract: Ecological Change and the Causes of the 1897 Famine in Chotanagpur, Northern India addresses on one of the most under-researched areas resource use and management in rural India, i.e. ‘wild resources’, and explores the links between ecological change, famine and poverty. She argues that once deforestation started to take place and the forest department denied the people access to traditional famine foods, the Chottanagpur region found itself for the first time subject to the kind of vulnerability to fame that had affected lowland populations for much longer period.

Raj SekharBasu divides his essay Margininal Groups and Watershed Programmes in Contemporary South India: The Case Study of Andhra Pradesh into six parts. In his study, Basu takes up an important environmental issue of marginal groups and watershed management in contemporary Andhra Pradesh and shows how it is intricately linked with the social and economic questions of the region. Basu views that the experiences that the state of Andhra Pradesh has been through, need to be a focus of environmental history.

The volume,as the editorhas put it, doesn’t claim to be exhaustive in its treatment of the subject. Buthe underlines the fact that by bringing multiple issues and voices in South Asia from a long time perspective of the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods, and by comparing regions and periods, the contributors in the volume intend to attach such a philosophical criticality to environmental history as to assume a deeper social, political and theoretical significance even today.

My criticism, if at all, is only that, though the editor in editing the volume has succeeded in providing us the close understanding of the environmental history of ancient (Chap. 3), colonial and post-colonial India (Chap. 2, 5, 6, 7& 8), but he fails to collate and/or to provide us an essay in the volume on the environmental history of medieval India. Also, one wishes to see atleast, the mention of Kashmir in the colonial legacy of forest policies in India (Chap. 4), if not an essay on it. This failure of the editor may fail to serve the purpose of a research scholar, particularly one who wishes to explore something either on the environmental history of colonial Kashmir or a little of the environmental history of medieval India on the basis of this book.

Nonetheless, my handful appreciation is that, besides having a rich bibliography and an index at the end of the book, the authors including the editor in each essay have succeeded in providing rich end-notes too—which would remain a great help. Moreover, they also have shown a great bent of mind for using the original sources—which in itself is a sign of making this volume an indispensable starting point for further study on the environmental history of India.

Mumtaz Ahmad Numani is a doctoral candidate at Centre of Advanced Study in History, AMU, Aligarh.


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