In the last three decades environmental history has grown rapidly and has made significant contribution in developing environmental sensitivity in historical narratives, specifically of the colonial period. Recent works on environmental history have focused on how ecological changes have adversely affected tribal people. This is a new perspective to understand the marginali-zation of tribals. This book brings together essays which see disruption in the link between tribal subsistence and forests as a major factor in increasing economic vulnerability of tribals.
The book has eight chapters including introduction which is followed by two chapters that discuss the larger issues of science, development and ecology: one providing critique of modern science from the ecological perspective and another searching tenets of deep ecology in ancient Indian texts. Tapan Kumar Chattopadhyay shows how modern science acquired a hegemonic position from the 18th century and in the process delegitimized traditional knowledge, which evolved over centuries recognizing ecological limits.
By associating with capitalism, modern science and technology focuses more and more on production, without recognizing the limits imposed by nature. This is at the root of the environmental crisis. Research in science and technology in recent years, argues Chattopadhyaya, has increasingly focused on technologies of warfare. Armament industry, he argues, is a major sponsor of research in western universities. Nuclear power and its use in war, as all of us know, has serious implications for life on earth. Chattopadhyay is right to some extent in alerting us of the direction research in science and technology is taking. But he is overlooking the contribution of science and technology in the fields of medicine, transport, communication, information technolgy, etc., areas in which people have really benefitted. He, however, makes it clear that he is not anti-science and does not see anything wrong with it as long as it does not harm the environment. The chapter rightly suggests that modern science and technology should not aim at controlling nature, rather it should recognize the limits imposed by nature.
Priyambada Sarkar in ‘Deep Ecology and Some Ancient Indian Texts: An Overview’ explains the premise of the movement for deep ecology and suggests that some of the ideas of this movement exist in ancient Indian literature. Quoting from the Vedas, Puranas and Smritis she argues that this literature talks about biospheric egalitarianism. There is the idea of treating all living beings as equal in this literature. Many incarnations of God, argues Sarkar, are animals. Even ‘non-living elements are often regarded as God’ (p. 29). Drawing from this literature she finds five major elements addressed to protect the environment. These are: plantation of trees and its importance, wildlife preservation, punishment for deforestation, animal sanctuaries and punishment for killing animals. Many historians have critically analysed this literature and suggested that one needs to be careful while reading these texts for searching for ecological ideas. Not only did expansion of agriculture possibly frequently involved felling of forests, animals were killed in royal hunting as well as for subsistence by common people. There are certain references to punishment for killing animals, cutting trees, etc., in the Arthasatra, but to what extent these were enforced is difficult to say. Hence, although it can be argued that unlike Semitic religions, Hindu religious texts refer to worship of animals and plants and have the possibility of encouraging restraints in dealing with nature. But taking these textual injunctions as having been practised is far-fetched.
Other chapters in the book are broadly connected to the forest policy under colonial rule. Arun Bandyopadhyay provides a broad survey of forest policies in colonial and postcolonial periods, with special reference to the Bengal and Madras Presidencies. He questions the widely held view that officials of the Madras Presidency opposed the Forest Act of 1878 on the ground that it infringed the rights of villagers in forests. The opposition was, he argues, mainly due to inter-departmental rivalry. He also disagrees with the view that Dietrich Brandis was the precursor of Joint Forest Management. To Bandhyopadhyaya the position of Brandis and Baden-Powell on the issue of village forests was not very different. However, one cannot overlook the fact that Baden-Powell and Brandis, the two main architects of the Forest Act of 1878, differed considerably with each other on many issues.
Three core chapters of the book explore links between colonial forest policies and deprivation, starvation, and famines in the tribal belt of India. Biswamoy Pati looks for roots of famines in Kalahandi. In the remote past (pre-medieval, ancient), he argues, tribals were autonomous, lived without any outside intervention. In the medieval period, inroads were made by outsiders in certain tribal regions, like in Kalahandi, to extract tribute. This intrusion introduced feudal elements in tribal society, which otherwise was unstratified and egalitarian. Under colonial rule tribal regions became more open to outsiders. British revenue interests encouraged the entry of market forces in the region which pushed the tribals to the margins. Agrarian structure became more stratified and exploitative. But it was the forest policy which was based on the twin objectives of denying or restricting the rights of people in forests and using forests for commercial purposes that undermined the tribal economy. Depleted forests could hardly support people in difficult times. Simple failure of rain in one season started resulting in starvation and famine. The economy and social structure of Kalahandi was undermined to such an extent that recovery became impossible and the region became metaphorically representative of famine and starvation in India.
Chapter 5 focuses on the Hos of Kolhan in Singhbhum. Unlike other areas of Chotanagpur where the British ruled through zamindars, Kolhan was constituted into a Government Estate in 1837 (the author does not provide a reason for this) and was hence under direct British rule. Sanjukta Das Gupta traces changes in the Hos society under colonial rule. The author elaborates on the traditional socio-economic system of Kolhan under which rice cultivation on wetland was combined with coarse grain cultivation on dryland along with slash and burn cultivation. Forests were inseparable from other economic activities. Village forests near habitation (Hath), which also contained sacred groves, were intricately linked to subsistence of people and were different from the distant forests (Bir), which were feared. As the British pushed people towards sedantarization the traditional economy and customary practices changed. The pressure to pay rent in cash forced people to expand cultivation mainly to grow rice. But this expansion, argues Das Gupta, hardly improved the condition of the people. Further, the traditional economy was seriously undermined when forest policy was introduced in Kolhan in the second half of the 19th century. This policy imposed various restrictions on the use of forest produce by the people while it allowed the forest department to resort to unbridled felling of trees. The disruption in link between agriculture and forests adversely affected the susbsistence economy. Excessive reliance on rice, which became an export commodity, led to further crisis. Rice export resulted in scarcity of foodgrains, often when rains failed. Famine due to crop failure became a frequent phenomenon and people were left with no option but to migrate, mostly to the Assam tea gardens.
Vinita Damodran explores similar themes, however, giving more attention to the relation of tribal people with forests. She lists various plants, roots and flowers, consumed by tribal people traditionally on a daily basis. This use of forest resources by tribals became increasingly difficult under colonial forestry. Under the British local tribal heads became zamindars and started asserting their claims over forests. Under the colonial forest policy while restrictions were imposed on tribals, zamindars were free to sell forests to contractors for supplying sleepers to railways. Zamindars also started selling trees to pay their debts, while tribals were subjected to illegal levies for exercising their traditional rights in forests. Consequently, the intricate relationship between tribals and forests was disrupted. This had serious long-term consequences for tribal economy.
In the first half of the 19th century there were years of droughts in Chotanagpur, but there were no famines. Damodaran suggests that during scarcity forests came to the rescue of the people. But in the second half, particularly in 1897-99, famines were severe and forests had been already depleted to such an extent that they provided no relief to people. Famine was followed by epidemics, which wiped out a large population.
The last chapter takes us away from the tribal issue to a larger rural economy of undivided Andhra Pradesh (AP), where Basu examines Chandra Babu Naidu’s 2020 Vision and working of the watershed development programmes. There are some common overlapping features of the two but these are two different programmes. The Vision 2020 of Naidu for Andhra, conceived in the late 1990s, was to modernize agriculture by providing irrigation, mechanization and consolidation of holdings, combined with an overall objective of reducing poverty. The Vision overlooks the fact, argues Basu, that the majority of the farmers had small holdings, were tenants and landless. To him Vision 2020 is a part of the neo-liberal agenda. Basu is of the view that consolidation and mechanization could result in people losing their land, though he does not have evidence to support his argument.
Basu also examines implementation of the watershed development progammes in AP, started in the 1990s with an objective to conserve soil and water, while also addressing broader issues like equity, gender, and food security and sustainable agriculture (p. 143). In AP the focus of these programmes especially was, argues Basu, to uplift Dalits and the poor. Basu contends that watershed programmes were unable to meet their objectives. Rich farmers were the main beneficiaries. Dalits and the poor also gained but only marginally compared to large farmers, although the programmes augmented irrigated areas which possibly helped all farmers. This chapter does not seem to fit in the book.
This book brings together well-known published essays exploring the impact of environmental change on tribal economy and society. The tribal economy traditionally was inseparable from forests. The state appropriated forests under colonial rule thereby making it difficult for tribals to access forests for subsistence. This seriously undermined the tribal economy by the end of 19th century and exposed tribals to starvation and famines. Commercially exploited forests were no longer in a position to provide tribals sufficient support for livelihood, forcing them to migrate. This book suggests that this environmental degradation considerably contributed to the marginalization of tribal societies. The book is useful for historians, sociologists and anthropologists interested in the study of tribals. There are many other published articles on environmental change and tribal economy and including some of them in the book would have made it more comprehensive on this subject.
Dhirendra Datt Dangwal is currently, Dean School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.