Two academics traces India's green history

THIS BOOK by two of India's most eminent environmental historians makes a first attempt at constructing an alternative, ecological view of Indian history. Coming on the heels of Clive Ponting's A Green History of the World, this is a very welcome first step.

The book is divided into three sections: The theoretical perspective, an outline of the history (and, briefly, sociology) of pre-modern India from an ecological view and a fairly detailed account of conflicts over forest resources between state and society from the days of colonial rule till the present time.

Part I establishes the salience of an ecological vision and its methodology, projected backwards. In essence, it posits Modes of Resource Use (MRU) as an alternative to Modes of Production (MOP) methodology, although the authors insist on complementarity, rather than conflict, between the two. The history of MRU is marked out in four stages: hunting-gathering, pastoralism, settled agriculture and industry. Each stage is analysed in terms of the same set of reference points -- technology, economy, social organisation and ideology.

The emphasis on complementarity between MRU and MOP more than repays an old debt to Marxism. In fact, Marxism of a somewhat questionable kind permeates a good deal of the analysis -- perhaps accidentally in the history of MRU and MOP, but intentionally in locating a "dominant mode within a socio-ecological formation" which would not "preclude the existence of more than one mode...." (p 13), in a somewhat deterministic attribution of changes in rituals, ideology and social organisation to changing MRU (p 29, 34). This does hamper the emergence of a full-fledged, alternative, compelling vision rooted in the ecological perspective. Even so, the departure the authors make, however half-heartedly, is still useful.

Part II, which constructs an ecological history of pre-modern India, is perhaps the weakest in the book -- and not for reasons of brevity alone. First, there is far too much speculation for the historian's empiricist liking: "....there may have been climatic changes that resulted in a decline in rainfall"; "....there may have been a fall in agricultural production due to a depletion of soil fertility...." and so on, although the lack of evidence is admitted.

Second, the story of the ancient past is a virtual carbon copy of the somewhat dated historiography of R S Sharma which visualises declining trade and currency in circulation, deurbanisation and receding agriculture between the fourth and tenth centuries, which comprises the "early medieval period". Each of these postulates has been knocked down by a host of recent works and the notion of "a major resource crunch" in these centuries (p 92) has been revised by Sharma himself who now speaks of "a great agrarian expansion and higher yield" in the period in a piece of writing that has not been referred to. And the whole of medieval India for which, according to the authors, "excellent records exist" (p 107) has been dismissed in just two perfunctory, paragraphs.

Finally, this section is short on sensitivity -- unlike Part III -- in dealing with the power relationship between the state and society. Thus, it is assumed with too easy facility that the Mauryan state was able to enforce the exclusion of elephant meat from the diet of forest tribes (p 86), while the British and post-Independence states have faced continual resistance from the tribes while enforcing their laws.

Not surprisingly, it is in Part III, which deals with the colonial and post-colonial periods, that the book comes alive, although it focusses on only one aspect of ecological history -- the forest. The perspective is clear, the treatment detailed, sensitive and multi-faceted and the overall statement is made with passion, for it is made on behalf of the poor and deprived whose subtle, but weak resistance to the overbearing state bureaucracy is captured impressively and movingly.

There is a basic question all ecologists have to face: must concern for environmental protection imply compromising current or future standards of living? If this is the only workable dichotomy we can posit, what chance does it have of gaining social acceptance? As the authors themselves put it: Where do we go from here?

In answer to the question, they have merely summarised the current debate on the subject in half a page. The question therefore still remains: Where do we go from here?

---Harbans Mukhia is a fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.