Past lessons, future strategies

HISTORY is generally seen as a record of kings, queens and warriors. But it could as well be a record of changing human-nature interactions over time. All human societies have exploited their environment for their survival and economic growth. Sometimes this exploitation has been destructive -- for instance, the Mesopotamian civilisation, dating back to 2300 BC, over-irrigated its rich agricultural lands and disappeared as a result of this mistake -- and sometimes it has been held in fine ecological equilibrium.

In several societies, ecological destabilisation was the result of internal economic and political policies. But, just as often, it was the result of invaders whose main interest was local resource exploitation without any concern for sustained economic growth or the local environment. Unfortunately, few historians have attempted to document the changes that have taken place in natural ecosystems under the impact of human intervention. If indeed such a history of ecological change was written, there would be many valuable lessons for modern human societies.

As Richard Grove, an environmental historian working with the Environmental History Unit of the University of Cambridge, put it, "An ecological assessment is urgently needed to understand why we have got ourselves in this deep environmental crisis in the last two decades".

Grove, together with the New Delhi-based National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), organised India"s first major seminar on environmental history in February. It brought together not merely historians but also social scientists, anthropologists, archaeologists, climatologists and zoologists.
The colonial debacle The British colonial rulers came in for strong criticism at the seminar. When they first landed in India in the 17th century, India was one of the wealthiest and most urbanised countries in the world. Its wealth and products attracted traders from numerous European nations. This wealth was built on the extensive use and exploitation of the domestic natural resource base.

Over time, a diversity of cultures and production systems had evolved across the country to deal with its extraordinary ecological diversity -- nomadism in the dry parts and in the high mountain regions, shifting cultivation in the humid slopes, tank-irrigated agriculture in the semi-arid uplands, and flood-irrigated agriculture in the flood plains, to name just a few systems. There is no doubt that there had been massive intervention in the natural ecosystems of India, but the production systems that existed at that time were balanced ecologically to a great extent and met mainly local and regional demands.

The British, however, destroyed all this in their eagerness to exploit the riches of India. Whether it was through revenue policies or their technological interventions, the historians at the seminar presented ample proof of how the colonial rulers split apart the finely-tuned economic-ecological systems that existed then.

To meet the growing demand for fossil fuels and commercial timber in Europe, vast forest tracts and mineral belts got increasingly controlled by the British. As a result, indigenous communities of the tribals, peasants and the pastoral groups were pushed out of their ecological niches. Backed by an ideology which claimed that all this was "uplifting the natives", the British felt justified in usurping the ecological spaces and "rationalising" local resource management. Colonialism steadily made both the ecology and the economy of India subservient to the European metropolitan market.

Serious imbalances in the local land use systems began to emerge during the British period. All through history, arable and taxable land has come out of other vegetated areas and, as a result, forests, wetlands, scrub and grasslands have declined in various degrees at different points of history.

But commercialisation of agriculture and increased penetration of the market into the forestry sector during the colonial period greatly compromised the interests of the local communities. Edward Haynes, a historian from Winthrop College in South Carolina, USA, has studied the semi-arid zone of Rajasthan and Gujarat, where British policies to augment revenue at the turn of the 20th century led to an unprecedented expansion of arable land, which tore apart the interactive balance between grasslands, forest lands and croplands that supported the base of the village ecosystems.

Expansion of arable land was most dramatic in Gujarat. The first to fall prey to this expansion were the wooded areas which, in 1890, comprised 31 per cent of the total area, but by 1910, had come down to 11 per cent. The maximum destruction took place between 1890 and 1910. This reduced the area under desert vegetation which adversely affected the animal population of the region and transformed the traditional grazing arrangements of the area.

The colonial state even encroached into the village commons. Officially-managed scrub and grasslands called runds and bani were extended to include community land. The state even claimed exclusive rights over kikar (Acacia nilotica) trees -- an important fodder tree of the area. Sometimes villagers were coerced into forced labour to cut grass from their own land to cater to the needs of the state garrison.

The British government"s attempts to "rationalise access to resources" also increased the conflicts between the community and the state over the rights that the former had to their common resources. These policies resulted in the direct infringement of the community property rights which had evolved over time to minimise economic and ecological risks. Erosion of commons resulted in large-scale privatisation.

Vineeta Damodaran, of St Edmunds College in Cambridge, is most vehement in her condemnation of the policies adopted by the British in the Chotanagpur region, where they failed to comprehend the nature of traditional common rights. The transfer of these rights to the landlords to make these lands taxable, marginalised the rural population which had now little access to fodder, firewood and green manure. The result was widespread resource degradation, erosion of traditional rights and undermining of traditional food strategies in periods of environmental distress.

Recent historians have also been critical of colonial forest policies. Usurpation of natural resources by the state undermined the traditional social fabric in a variety of ways. The most devastating impact was on the tribal way of life. To maximise revenue, tribal space was invaded and appropriated. Even though the official tribal policy was to isolate the tribals, this did not ensure the protection of their resource base.

Revenue from traditional shifting cultivation was considered by the British officials to be trivial compared to the potential value of the timber from the zone. As a result, the well-preserved sacred groves of the shifting cultivators -- a repository of primeval biodiversity and a crucial source of green manure -- were reserved as state property. No respect was shown towards local conservationist practices.

Technological intervention
Colonial technological intervention was also heavily criticised at the conference, especially the construction of large irrigation works, which increased waterlogging, soil salinity and malaria. Elizabeth Whitcombe, who has studied irrigation systems built under the British, points out that this led to an unprecedented strain on the rural economy of the Ganga-Yamuna Doab -- the region between the two rivers.

Irrigation under the British emerged as a commercial venture which was extended to augment revenue from sale of water and from land taxation. Protection against drought, as Whitcombe puts it, was a secondary consideration. To meet their commercial objectives, the British first repaired old systems like the Jumna canal and ancient anicuts in the Krishna and Godavari deltas and then built new works. Canal irrigation stimulated commercialisation of agriculture and, in the command areas, cultivation of staple crops declined.

To add to the problems, defective drainage in the command areas played havoc with the productivity of the land. Almost nothing was ploughed back to ensure proper drainage. Problems of severe waterlogging and salinity emerged in areas around the Yamuna, Ganga, Sarda and Upper and Lower Indus canal systems (now in Pakistan). Whitcombe claims that the Yamuna canal was a technical blunder. An irrigation channel should not have been built in a natural depression. In addition, the area being dry, the high rate of evaporation brought up the salt in the soil rapidly.

Whitcombe also describes the spread of malaria in epidemic form because ineffective drainage created "pestilent swamps". In 1843, a malaria epidemic struck Karnal and, in 1908, about 12,000 deaths were reported in Amritsar.

The studies that now exist on the adverse impact of colonial policies on India"s environment raises major questions about the state of the environment in pre-colonial India. Just what were human-nature interactions like at that time? How was ecological discipline maintained? Who benefitted from resource exploitation? Was environmental management equitable?

Unfortunately, very few studies exist on resource management strategies in pre-colonial India. Eminent historian Romila Thapar, of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in fact, warns against any romanticisation of resource management in pre-British India. For instance, she points out that even during the Mauryan period, from the 4th to 2nd century BC, the state endeavoured to enhance its revenue by clearing forests to extend agriculture. State initiatives to extend arable land and establish settlements, thus, took a heavy toll on Indian forests. However, this was kept under control to some extent as cutting of trees without permission from the state was prohibited.

Overuse and exhaustion
Even in those days the heavy demand for forest products like animal fur, musk, sandalwood and timber for ship-building had led to overuse and exhaustion. Ashoka"s edicts, dating to the third century BC, and the Jain tradition suggest that "a belief system oriented towards a more sustainable resource use" was beginning to develop. Thapar, however, cautions against interpreting the charitable motives of Ashoka as a conscious need for conservation.

It is indeed ironic that the Indian masses who are so rich in their knowledge of the environment, should today find themselves powerless to exploit their own knowledge to their advantage. The New Delhi seminar repeatedly discussed traditional knowledge systems to highlight the merit of environmentally-balanced symbiotic cultures operating within their specific ecological niches. But today this knowledge is hardly respected.

As Felix Padel from Survival International of the UK pointed out, "Recognition of tribal knowledge is today in jeopardy largely because of the negative stereotypes of the tribals created by the British".

Evidently, knowledge from India provided the foundation of biological science in Europe, according to Donald Hughes, a historian from the University of Denver, USA, who claimed that "knowledge from India provided the foundation of biological science in Europe". The earliest exchange of green knowledge can be traced back to the Latin writings on Indian ecology in the fourth century BC. The Greek scholars, Aristotle and Theophrastus, were doing their research at the very same time when Alexander invaded India and sent back information from this country.

Later Europeans also found Indian biological knowledge extremely useful. The Portuguese and the Dutch were well aware of the Indo-European trade in herbs before they were able to conquer vast areas in the Southern Hemisphere and create a vast flow of botanical information linking Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. European governments actively encouraged the accumulation of biological knowledge from the southern nations. Both brahmanical and non-brahmanical knowledge were tapped from India, says Richard Grove.

The medicobotanical knowledge of the Ezhavas, a toddy-tapper caste from Malabar, was used by Hendrik Van Reede, a Dutch traveller to compile his Hortus Malabaricus in the 16th century. To Van Reede, Malabar was a "garden of the world", rich in floral resources and botanical knowledge. He discovered the rich repository of knowledge that existed among the low castes of Malabar. Van Reede found that the botanical knowledge of the brahmins was quite weak and for accurate identification of plants, he had to depend more and more on the field knowledge of the "low caste servants".

It is clear that at this stage of its growth, the discipline of environment history, especially as it relates to a colonised country like India, deals mainly with the adverse impact of colonialism on indigenous ecological systems. A historical perspective of human-nature interactions can be very useful in view of the fact that India is today attempting to formulate indigenous technological interventions and resource management policies. The legacy inherited from the British is largely an outcome of misinterpretation, distortion and misappropriation of rights, conditions of access and local knowledge about natural resources. This redefinition of community rights and ownership over natural resources is, in fact, increasingly becoming central to the current ecological debate in India. Environmental history can also provide a better insight into the causes of existing rural poverty.

While it is undoubtedly important to understand the disruptive effect of the colonial rule, it is equally and probably even more important to understand the efficacy of indigenous resource management systems. To move away from Eurocentric models of development, indigenous models will have to be developed. Environmental historians may be able to contribute their bit to this enormous challenge before the developing world.