SOCIAL NATURE: Resources, Representation, and Rule in India edited by Arun Agrawal and K. Sivaramakrishnan. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001.
JUST when the ‘environment’ threatens to permeate itself, finally, into all aspects of academic enquiry, this book comes as a rude reminder of the dangers of falling prey to stereotypes. Along with the environment, it takes issue with popular and persistent constructions of social categories that are more assumed as given than empirically explored and demonstrated. Falling by the wayside are familiar phrases like ‘women’, ‘caste’, ‘community’ and ‘indigenous’. While the challenges to the unity and boundedness of ‘state’ have successfully called into question extant analyses of state-society relationships, this assault on categories goes beyond, encompassing not only the utility of theoretical constructs and analytical categories but their dynamic social construction as well.
It has taken more than two decades for environmental studies to carve out a distinct domain for itself, surviving and transforming the orthodoxy that prevailed. The editors of the volume assert that the paradigm of environmental studies itself has assumed an orthodoxy that rides on artificially created distinctions between the cultural and the natural, the arable and the wild, the urban and the rural. The clearest manifestation of such a dichotomy is the spatial segregation of agrarian studies (restricted to the fertile plains and river valleys) from environmental studies (focusing on mountains, forests and deserts).
The editors, in their brilliant introduction, suggest that while such an oppositional assumption was valid for the first generation of environmental studies in South Asia and served the admirable end of attracting attention of a wide array of scholars to issues of environmental conflict, it is time to attend to the linkages between the environmental and the agrarian in order to better comprehend processes of social, agrarian and environmental change. ‘Agrarian environments’ – denoting a blurring of boundaries ‘between an autonomous nature that supposedly stands outside of human endeavour, and a human agency that is presumed to construct all landscapes’ – is the term chosen by the editors to denote such hybrid landscapes, a mix of the natural and the human, where existing ideal-typical analytical constructs have little meaning.
The need for such a collapsing of boundaries also arises from the tendency of social constructs to be conflated; ‘the reification of landscapes into the environmental or the agrarian,’ with their apocryphal universal characteristics, tends to be associated with other social phenomena uncritically. For instance, the editors assert, the use of the term ‘environment’ to represent autonomous nature ‘facilitates the use and fetishization of allied ideal-typical concepts such as woman, indigenous, community and local.’ Such attempts, we are reminded, often ‘reduce complicated social and historical dynamics and the fraught nature of social identities to mere caricatures.’ Agrarian environments are inhabited by fractured communities within the wider social-political contexts, towards the construction of which they contribute.
The introduction also draws attention to the fact that while some social constructs are geared towards political causes and ends that are laudable in themselves, such construction requires that internal differences be glossed over and sacrificed at the altar of politics, a process that does immense violence to the lived experience of the groups that inhabit these constructs. An attention to agrarian environments, as ‘a field of social negotiations around the environment in predominantly agrarian settings,’ would help overcome the oppositional and dichotomous nature of constructs across space and time, and insist on an examination of the boundaries that circumscribe received categories.
The articles largely follow the main theme of calling into question received wisdom on environmental and agrarian domains, and interrogate such constructs as the state, community, gender and caste through historically and empirically grounded narratives of human-nature interactions from different parts of South Asia. Haripriya Rangan documents the changes in the state’s attitude towards forests in Uttarakhand as embedded in regional and global political economy and challenges the belief that the colonial state worked to appropriate forest resources in the name of a coherent scientific forestry policy.
Mark Baker and Vasant Saberwal provide similar insights about the nuances of evolving state-society relations and intra-state politics in the present day Himachal Pradesh. Existing notions of community and state as applied to Himachal Pradesh fall short of providing an adequate infrastructure for analysis of current issues, and thus the need for stretching, revisiting and modifying received categories. Baker’s article sheds light on the artificiality and statist origins of the ‘community’ itself and the interactions of a particular construction with divergent objectives of different arms of the state.
Thus, while the state assumed a benign, even paternal, character when helping communities build and maintain small irrigation works, its construction of the ‘community’ came into conflict with the imperatives of forest management and conservation. Saberwal similarly traces the current forest department polemic regarding ‘ecological degradation’ to intra-state rivalries and its continuation to the contemporary debates. His article cogently links the forest department’s frustration at its failure to curtail access to forests – an important corrective to the general assumption of the success of the forest department in doing so universally – to the assuming of an alarmist position on the impact of grazing.
Jenny Springer draws attention to the fuzzy boundaries of the ‘state’, particularly in its rural development avatar. The point at which the state-society interface is assumed to take place – the agricultural extension worker – is also the site where the distinction is the most ambiguous. The persons occupying this space are both agents and targets of development, as defined by the state. However, in pointing to this existential ambiguity, Springer calls attention to the institutional processes that continually attempt to keep the state bounded and separate from society, while also outlining the tensions that such attempts create at the borders and the invariable loss of unity. The horizontal affinities of the ‘front line’ actors of the state with peasants come into regular conflict with the vertical discipline of state organizations, leading to fractures and ‘corruption’ of the development ideals that require such a clear distinction.
Sumit Guha takes on the construction of community in contemporary literature as the repository of conservation ideology. He shows that pre-modern communities were neither homogeneous nor harmonious, that access to resources was negotiated and most often it was the most powerful strata that got the largest share. This strata was also often embedded saliently in the state or the processes of state formation, making the distinction between the analytical constructs of state and community contingent and problematic.
Paul Robbins disputes the assumption of ‘pastoralism’ as an undifferentiated occupational category with common affiliations. He shows that the relationship of pastoralists with agrarian communities is contingent on individual location within a socio-economic hierarchy, and determines alliances. Therefore, due to internal stratification, along with changes in the larger or wider political economy or ecology, the interests of some pastoralists ally more closely with large land-owning elite while others lean closely towards more marginal agricultural producers.
Cecile Jackson and Molly Chattopadhyay look at the intersections of caste and gender, and show that there is no unified gender consciousness that is independent of caste. Shubhra Gururani similarly argues how the category of ‘woman’ is internally fractured, and how women themselves contribute to the construction, negotiation and contestation of the category they are presumed to represent. Both articles call into question assumed affinity between ‘women’ and ‘nature’, dissecting both categories and, in the process, making them contingent and local. Interestingly, the contingent nature of social identities and constructs, especially gender, is also manifest in the representation of ‘women’ in these articles vis-à-vis Paul Robbins’ article unpacking ‘pastoralism’. Robbins collapses women into a monolithic category, ascribing agency (‘everyday forms of resistance’) and intentionality (‘protection of orans’) to women in his article, that ‘represents tacit coalition, across caste and class, to defend certain key agropastoral resources.’
Gidwani’s article is perhaps the most representative of the theme charted by the editors in the introduction – agrarian environments. He starts with an anomaly to the received wisdom that ‘those who are initially wealthy have systematically more opportunities to become wealthier than those who are not,’ and, in the process, presents a model of agrarian transformation that is embedded in local ecology.
Within this model, opportunities to diversify livelihoods within a space economy and the subsidy that nature provides variably to different activities is balanced by the social and symbolic aspects of ‘labouring’ activities that act as costs to assuming opportunities available through diversification as well as by nature’s inherent unpredictability. These four processes interact dialectically over time and change valence as a consequence of state action, leading to a model of agrarian change that ‘combines loose determinism with contingency.’ He suggests that the model helps in the mapping of agrarian environments, as ‘the complex interaction between historically endowed human dispositions and nature’s agency that manufactures an observed pattern of social striation and flux,’ without losing sight of the state in its myriad forms.
In Part II, David Ludden and Ajay Skaria bring theoretical perspectives to the theme while locating their narrative within the subcontinent, and provide the canvas for the interplay of empirical evidence (in the chapters) and theory construction. In more ways than one, these two articles provide an overview for the chapters and bind the empirical referents in the book to the analytical theme of agrarian environments. They suggest that agrarian environments are a consequence of interactions between hybrid landscape categories and hybrid social identities.
The book’s introduction is careful to point out that agrarian histories of the subcontinent have always kept sight of the social divisions and hierarchies that are central to state-society relations, but that this insight seems to have been lost in the work on environmental history. If the environment came to be constructed as natural, despite earlier work that emphasized agrarian landscapes as a product of culture, it maybe because of the modern mode of power that operates through the creation of binaries and dichotomies. Oppositional categories are central to the assertion of power, as they are to constructs, social or academic.
Initially, these analytical constructs may have been deployed only as strategic counterpoints, but they often become paradigmatic categories themselves. And where analytical constructs begin to fall into oppositional categories, we have the beginnings of a master narrative. The book is a timely reminder of the assumption of such a tendency of familiar constructs to transform not only into oppositional categories, but also of a movement towards a master narrative.
But the articles in the book – with the exception of Saberwal – do not interrogate this characteristic of new constructs to begin life as strategic counterpoints in explicit opposition to received categories, as inherently a function of the modern mode of power; the centrality of dichotomies, in space and time, to explaining contemporary relations between social and state actors itself needs to be challenged. The oppositional categories arise from the presumed universality of their assumptions – a foundationalist discourse – that does not allow co- existing realities. This centrality is challenged only indirectly in the empirical evidence presented in the book through an examination of the process by which categories are constructed, congealed and re-negotiated, but it is not interrogated as the vehicle by which relations of power are challenged and transformed.
‘Third world environmentalisms’ as well as its parallel in the first world – environmental justice movements – are profound manifestations of the struggle against inequity embedded in social relations which existing categories and constructs are unable to represent. It is this struggle for equity that is once again pushing for a transformation of categories, or a resistance to the congealment of existing categories, precisely because it fails to adequately represent social relations, as the actors would like it to be represented. Given the rich and textured evidence that the articles marshal in favour of their arguments, an explicit examination of modes of power as reflected in changing representations of social identities and physical landscapes would have added immensely to the value of the book.
To conclude, the book promises to be the forerunner of a new crop of studies on the environment, and poses a refreshing challenge to existing analytical constructs and received categories that have performed well for a generation of social and academic problems but are now inadequate for explaining emergent phenomenon.
TUBEWELL CAPITALISM: Groundwater Development and Agrarian Change in Gujarat by Navroz K. Dubash. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.
AFTER the Nehruvian ‘temples of modern India’ rhetoric ran its course, planners became more aware of the limits of large-scale irrigation networks and interest was once again evinced in small-scale irrigation systems. One of these has been groundwater irrigation (besides the construction of minor dams and watershed development projects). It is in this connection that in the last 20 years there has been a proliferation of literature on the phenomenon of Gujarat’s groundwater irrigation. One school of thought (Tushaar Shah et al.) has waxed eloquent over the way an indigenous market has developed around the usage and extraction of groundwater. Others (Marcus Moench, Bela Bhatia et al.) have examined the same issue through the lens of sustainability and equity. They have found this ‘race to the bottom’ leading to the ecological degradation of the region and increasing rural disparity.
Navroz K. Dubash’s work seeks to break new ground by examining this phenomenon in terms of the relationship between ‘nature’ and ‘society’. For today’s anthropologists, aware of how each of these is mutually constructed, this neat separation may sound problematic. However, given Dubash’s limited project this would seem to be an acceptable heuristic practice. ‘Nature’ for him stands for the hydrogeological characteristics of the region. ‘Society’ comprises the existing social relations of production. There is an ongoing and dialectical relationship between society and nature that is mediated through varied institutions. Groundwater extraction and distribution leads to the formation of one such institution. In his analysis, Dubash leans on both the new institutional economics that examines institutions from the point of view of efficiency and the political economy approach which stresses class based exploitation of resources.
Dubash grounds his work through an empirical study of two villages in Gujarat. Ratanpura is a village of mainly Patel landholders, whereas Paldi has two major landholding groups. In a survey (1890-1996) of groundwater development in Ratanpura, Dubash points to the important role played by the different successor states to regulate money lending, provide credit and ensure supply of electricity for tubewells. The natural hydrology of the area, which limited water extraction to the area around the river, helped centralize control even as the fragmentation of plots necessitated the laying of extensive pipeline networks. This fostered group investments given that the capital required kept increasing. There was thus a slow shift from cattle driven extraction from dug-cum-bore wells, to diesel engines, to electricity powered tubewell irrigation.
In Paldi on the other hand the pre-colonial state did not intervene to save the peasant from vania usury. Capital arrived via entrepreneurial Patels from Mehsana who brought in diesel engines for cumin cultivation. Landholdings were larger and less fragmented as compared to Ratanpura, and the evenly dispersed nature of the aquifer still allowed farmers to invest in individual tubewells (unlike Ratanpura). It is only perhaps with the decreasing water table that farmers may now be forced to come together to invest in deeper tubewells.
Based on the above findings, Dubash summarizes his argument by stating that the ‘logic of groundwater-led agrarian change’ is based on the relationship between ‘the natural characteristics of groundwater’ and the ‘social organization required to access it’ – the changing contours of this articulation compels ‘constant institutional innovation and adjustment’ (p. 156). Outcomes may differ since development trajectories are contextually determined. Repressive social relations can act as a depressor for productive investments as one can see in the case of the vania moneylenders. Only with the change in social relations of production did investment in new technologies take place. Ownership of land helped in raising capital and affinal ties (samaj) within a caste group provided the social glue for the establishment of innovative institutions to provide a common good. This leads to further accumulation. However, Dubash’s conclusion, on the speed of social differentiation being less due to investment in the non-agricultural sector (p. 166-8) leans too much on Leninism. In fact it leads to a new kind of social differentiation, those who are able to escape the agrarian trap and those forced to bear its consequences (the lower castes especially) by remaining behind – this is shown by his own findings. This gives rise to very marked status and class differentials as my own fieldwork has shown.
Dubash then moves on to examine how exchange systems arise and operate. He does this in the context of competing theories (neoclassical economics; political economy; new institutional economics). Ratanpura has a ‘thick’ market due to the widespread network of pipelines; Paldi on the other hand has a ‘thin’ market. Yet Ratanpura showed a high degree of uniformity in market pricing, whereas Paldi exhibited greater price variability within the same cropping season. Thus, the neoclassical theory of a well-functioning competitive market does not hold good.
Dubash goes on to show through a detailed analysis of water pricing that water rates are not quite based on efficiency and cost-benefit ratios in the way that the new institutional economists see it. Rather there are other elements like coercive and unequal social relations (e.g. the persistence of share-cropping in Paldi which allows the landlord to extract the maximum possible surplus) and institutionalized social norms (e.g. the seller’s power to set the price of water is not absolute in Ratanpura. Since shareholders come from different landholding strata and are themselves buyers in some of their plots, there is an inbuilt ‘public’ forum to prevent excessive charging based on a ‘moral economy’). Dubash thus uses Karl Polanyi’s notion of economic life as an ‘instituted process’ to explain this outcome.
The ‘race to the bottom’ of the aquifer is causing long lasting degradation since this kind of reservoir does not allow for any cheap method of recharge. The author is skeptical if farmers will mobilize to self-regulate this unsustainable extraction rate since agriculture is no longer seen as a culturally valuable occupation. Rather, their attempt is to ensure that at least their sons can move out of agriculture through investments made from their present earnings. The state too is unwilling to regulate extraction, given its record of caving in to the populist demands of farmers (e.g. flat rates for electricity). It is only the impending crisis in the electricity sector that may force the government to price it at a more economical rate – the outcome of this too is unpredictable. The author rightly recommends that whatever the solution, local village groups should be involved in regulation of both water extraction and electricity usage. One will have to build in proper safeguards to ensure that those who are politically weak do not get marginalized. The author warns that the issue is complex (as his analysis shows) and no easy solutions are possible.
Dubash’s study is a well-needed corrective to the quantitative and abstract economic modelling engaged in by some economists. It shows a sensitivity to ground level socio-ecological realities. There is of course an uneasiness that he seems to continuously feel in doing this, in that he makes apologies for what he calls ‘blunt’ categories; sometimes giving in to the urge to set up neat economic models (as in the schematic graph showing the relationship between irrigation capability and plot size even when he knows that social realities will confound this neatness); or in the way he gives precedence to formal meetings (even if these are held in secret). Perhaps as a social anthropologist one is more at home with ethnographic work and would like to see a more detailed study of everyday practices through which these institutions work. After all, the everyday micro politics around water distribution is as much part of an institution as the more formal staging at common meetings. Price-fixing negotiations may thus take place at tea stall encounters, neighbours’ quarrels, factional contestations and also at public meetings.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that while his analysis moves beyond the one theory monographs, one wishes for a greater eclecticism in his theoretical entry-points – after all, the messiness of everyday life does not always fit neatly into any one (or three) grand theory. The rich literature on the sociology of organizations would have been helpful. Another case in point is that institutionalized norms are not subscribed to uniformly – these are constantly contested and negotiated by different groups. The ‘moral economy’ is not necessarily understood in a unitary manner at any given point.
But this is not to detract from Dubash’s contribution; it rather points to further areas of investigation. The work rightly highlights the complexity involved in water markets and the need to be sensitive to local (ecological and socio-historical) contexts. Dubash’s skilful handling of his material permits him to weave a rich tapestry of practical concerns like sustainability, equity, policy imperatives and the theoretical debates that surround them.
Arun de Souza
LAW, STRATEGIES, IDEOLOGIES: Legislating Forests in Colonial India by Akhileshwar Pathak. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.
ALMOST one quarter of India is owned by the forest department and administered (though one may debate how lawfully) according to the state forest acts. Pathak’s slim but important volume is the first major study of the origins of this legal regime, tracing in (sometimes tortuous but mostly illuminating) detail the particular social, economic and political context in which forest law was framed in colonial India. In Pathak’s work, we see law making not as the expression of ‘scientific’ principles or a straightforward assertion of colonial power, but as the intricately forged outcome of local practices refracted through official perceptions and administrative calculations, including provincial demands for autonomy from the centre. The need to expand state control over forests at the expense of local use involved the selection of whichever legal ideas and interpretations of pre-colonial law or existing practice best advanced this.
The book covers the period from 1792 when the British first began to niggle over forest ownership in Malabar to 1882 when the Madras Forest Act was framed. The first few chapters deal with the Company’s attempts to decide who owned the forests in Malabar and Kanara. Disputing parties within the administration struggled to ‘create "archives" on the basis of which a (legal) position could be advanced’ (p. 18), alternatively construing Tipu as the sovereign owner (so that the Company could inherit his rights as conqueror) or privileging local landholders. Eventually, the jenmkar claims were disposed off with what the Company considered an ex-gratia pension giving the state sovereign right. The jenmkars, however, construed this as a continuation of their rights in the forest.
The next section (chapters 4-7) deals with the making of the 1878 forest act. Taking issue with Ramachandra Guha’s account of the personalities who debated the 1878 forest act and their respective positions – the ‘annexationist’ Baden-Powell, the ‘pragmatist’ Brandis and the ‘populist’ Madras government – Pathak argues that in fact Baden-Powell and Brandis had more commonalities than differences in terms of how they treated the question of local rights. For both, ‘moderation’ was a strategy to free the major portion of forests for exclusive government control by conceding certain rights (or ‘privileges’) in the rest. Local governments (e.g. Central Provinces, Bengal and Bombay Presidencies) opposed sections of the draft bill – for violating local rights, for too elaborate a demarcation procedure, etc. – and many of their objections and demands were reflected in the final shape of the act. For example, transit restrictions on timber owe their origin to the fact that Bombay Presidency was interspersed with native states, which made timber pilferage easier. Chapter 7 on the genealogy of forest provisions is essential reading for the social movements concerned with framing an alternative forest bill today, providing as it does the context for many of the clauses. The Madras government’s opposition to the forest act, and its insistence that forests in Madras Presidency were communally owned, came less from any principled stand on community rights and more from its opposition to domination by the Government of India. In the end, when forced to legislate on forests, it overturned its previous stand without any explanation.
The strength of Pathak’s book lies in his sophisticated examination of the differences within the administration, without losing sight of the fact that these differences were ultimately subordinated to the political economy of colonial power. For instance, while conceding Richard Grove’s point that Cleghorn, Gibson, Balfour and others elaborated on desiccationist theories developed in Europe, Pathak simultaneously shows that Cleghorn’s primary concern was to meet the timber and revenue demands of the administration. This necessitated blaming the local population for destroying the forests. The subordinate forest staff was even less concerned with conservation. Thus contrary to Grove, Pathak’s work shows that conservationist concerns had actually very little influence on the legal regime of ‘scientific’ forestry, and that ‘the "science" of forests was learnt, developed and deployed’ in the context of ‘multiple power negotiations’ (p. 156).
Pathak’s study is an excellent example of the current emphasis in anthropology on processual and historical understandings of the law as against black letter readings. His epilogue, ‘Reflections on the Rule of Law’, is outstanding – suggestively pointing the way to a much larger study that needs to be done. Perhaps some day, one hopes, Pathak himself will develop this into a full-fledged book.
ENVIRONMENTAL LAW AND POLICY IN INDIA: Cases, Materials and Statutes by Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001.
‘Rosencranz and Divan’, first published in 1991, has occupied a rather glorified niche in the environmental law students’ repertoire of textbooks. It has been modelled on law books used in American law schools, complete with cases, articles, statutes, notes and questions. Within the purview of Indian environmental law, the book provided the only light in a vacuum, acquiring the status of a Bible, partly because no other codes were available.
It did not necessarily mean that this was the ideal code, although the volume sought to encompass almost all aspects of environmental law. Starting with constitutional law, the book easily traversed over issues as varied as water and air pollution, forests and wildlife, hazardous substances, urban problems, dams, irrigation and hydroelectric power. Considering that it was published in 1991, it served its purpose. It had a rather sketchy introduction on policy, drawing heavily from Planning Commission reports, identifying population growth and economic incentives as the primary causes of environmental degradation, providing a more economistic approach to the study of ecology. There was no coherent theoretical frame visible in the introduction, which might have bound the book together. The conceptual mapping of the authors’ thought process was sadly missing, almost as if the basic principles were not thought through. What did environment mean to Rosencranz and Divan, one wondered. Particularly glaring was the haphazard nature of the book, not only in terms of layout but also in content. Articles, reports and statutes were hastily and arbitrarily assembled in each chapter following a brief introduction. This added to the general disorganized nature of the book, making it student unfriendly.
The book’s silence on civil society participation was particularly suggestive. Like a slice of history deleted or overlooked, as if it was never there, as if voices had never spoken. The new edition seeks to rectify that lacuna. In Rosencranz’s words, ‘The second edition (is) to pay special attention to equity issues and to the environmental problems of the urban poor.’ This focus is not very apparent. Although rehabilitation issues are discussed, they are tucked away in a corner on the chapter on large projects. A small section is devoted to the tensions between people and protected areas. A whole movement, however, about struggles over land and livelihood rights is not represented in the book in its correct perspective. This movement has been a burgeoning force over the last 10 years, providing a formidable affront to environmentalism in India. Many a legal battle has been fought around this issue, and the most challenging problems in environmental law and policy have emerged from this quarter. This seems to have been disregarded, perhaps by oversight.
Other omissions include an inadequate handling of the concept of waste (limited to a discussion on municipal solid waste), which has grown in recent times to include medical and hospital wastes regarding which a large number of rules have been passed under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The credit for this goes to initiatives taken by civil society groups like Srishti which have long championed this cause. The entire business of wildlife trade, a grim and sensitive area in the wildlife lobby, as it involves high profile politicians and citizens, and flaky penalty clauses in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, have been studiously sidestepped. What is truly startling is the oversight regarding biodiversity. Biodiversity is a crucial aspect covering all flora and fauna, governing the perilous domain of traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights, with the advent of the new patenting regime under the WTO. A Biodiversity Bill in transit and the setting up of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) has accelerated the momentum of debate about protection of traditional knowledge, intrinsically linked with natural resources, and biopiracy. This significant and developing aspect of Indian environmental law has not been attended.
There is a visible attempt in the book to bring out the threats development poses to environment. The chapter on dams and irrigation has been modified to encompass large projects, which is an agreeable change and now not only includes a more elaborate discussion on the Sardar Sarovar Project, but on the Tehri dam, Silent Valley and Konkan Railways cases as well. The mining cases of Sariska National Park and Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary and the Oberoi Hotels case at Nagarhole National Park, all of which are prominent high profile litigations, are discussed. A separate chapter on coasts and wetlands, the most fragile of ecosystems and the most threatened by development has been included. These are all welcome changes.
Rosencranz goes on to write, and presciently, ‘The development of environmental law in the 1990s is largely the story of India’s judiciary responding to the complaints of its citizens against environmental degradation and administrative sloth.’ To this effect a lot of new cases have been added but however expansive the inclusions, it is difficult to exhaust the list. Special attention is therefore given to a discussion on the process of public interest litigation as well as on the right to know and environment impact assessments as part of the continuing debate on the need for transparency in administrative and governance matters.
In the final analysis, the new edition has neither altered nor improved on the original format in content, quality or style, it has merely expanded it. One searched in vain for a conceptual thread in the introduction, of more detailed analysis of policy, of linking national and international legislation and their political implications, of a discernment of judicial trend through an analysis of judgements. One expected gifted legal minds like Rosencranz and Divan to provide these insights, where others have failed. Sadly, the second edition is a replica of the first, remaining within the confines of tutorials and questions, rather than elevating itself to a masterly analysis of environmental law and policy in India, which might have given students the inspiration to delve deeper into the paradoxes of the Indian environmental legal arena.
WATER FOR PABOLEE: Stories About People and Development in the Himalayas by Robert C. Alter. Orient Longman, Delhi, 2002.
IN times when community participation is the operative word in all developmental circles, Water for Pabolee is yet another record of these attempts. Robert C. Alter, an alumnus of the Woodstock School in Mussoorie, weaves his 13-year experience of coordinating an NGO – the Mussoorie Gramin Vikas Samiti (MGVS) – from 1981 to 1994. A rural community development project sponsored by the Christian Retreat and Study Centre in Rajpur, this organization targeted 14 hamlets in Uttaranchal that are part of a politically organized community called the Chamasari Gramsabha. The organization started work in 10 settlements, including Pabolee. The book is a narration of the work the MGVS carried out in this area, weaving it with the lives of individuals who it came in touch with and was in turn influenced by.
The book deals in a large part with Alter’s organization’s attempts to lay a pipeline in Pabolee. At a meeting with the villagers, water was zeroed in as top priority. Water represented the aspirations of these people and what followed was a complicated plan that eventually brought water closer to Pabolee.
But what brings the book alive are the portraits of the men and women who inhabit these little hamlets. There is an expletive-hurling village woman, a misinformed divisional forest officer who refuses to give a permit for ringal (local bamboo) since he is convinced it does not grow at that altitude and young men who either take the high road down or languish in the hills. Alter also addresses the issue of dalits in this region through Kewal Das – a Harijan dairyman who is widely accepted as one of the leaders in the Chamasari community. Das, who had played hunting companion to a number of Woodstock staffers, is a friend of many a Pandit and Rajput family in the region. His family participated and benefited from the pipeline scheme that the MGVS initiated and in a show of their new-found confidence even availed of a housing scheme that the government had launched for Harijans. But despite these heartening developments Kewal Das’ extended family does not go very far. As Alter points out, they seem to be living a self-fulfilling kind of public perception: nothing anyone does will ever change them.
Alter does draw a line between the movements to get the Harijans their due in Uttaranchal and the dalit movement in Uttar Pradesh and the rest of the country. The movement in the hills still follows the Sarvodaya model propounded by Gandhi. In fact, the Chipko movement and the school run by Sunderlal Bahuguna and his wife follow Gandhian principles. MGVS too was not untouched by these principles. In the organization’s focus on community participation, economic and social upliftment, one can see the influence of the Sarvodaya concepts of swarajya and their desire to develop a new polity based on democratic decentralization. Though Alter does explain dalit and Rajput-Pandit relations, he fails to capture the complexity of being a dalit in an area predominated by the Rajputs and Pandits. He also does not talk much about how being a low caste can restrict one’s access to natural and forest resources.
The other aspect that Water for Pabolee covers is women and health issues. The hills survive on what is called the money order economy. With the men away working in the plains, the work both in the fields and at home falls to the unenviable lot of women. Combine that with a hostile terrain and little development and it spells arduous treks for just one bucket of water. Thus, the significance of the title of the book can hardly be exaggerated. Healthcare in the hills too is negligible and launching healthcare initiatives always suspect. But Alter and his team blaze on and even manage to make some inroads in this area.
Water for Pabolee is important because it charters stories of involvement in a region that has a history of people’s participation. It is also important for recording not only all the steps that the NGO took for the people of the region but also for what it learnt from them. Its message is perhaps best summed up by the author himself who realizes in the course of his work that there was a real schism between what the villagers wanted and what ‘outsiders’ thought they needed. Perhaps, the real challenge for developmental agencies is to strike a balance between the two.
REDEFINING NATURE: Karen Ecological Knowledge and the Challenge to the Modern Conservation Paradigm by Pinkaew Laungaramsri. Earthworm Books, Chennai, 2001.
MORE than half a million mountain people – particularly ethnic minorities – living in the upland forests in Thailand are being made scapegoats for deforestation and facing resettlement as state bureaucracies, nature conservationists and influential political interests attempt to assert greater control over forest resources. These efforts to physically separate certain ethnic groups from an imagined ‘nature’ by other groups such as state foresters and elite conservationists who have unilaterally decided what that ‘nature’ is, has the backing of institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and international nature conservation groups.
Citing ‘ecological’ or ‘scientific’ theories, for instance that swidden agriculture leads to forest destruction or that ethnic minorities destroy upland watershed areas, foresters and nature conservationists posit their efforts as an ecological discipline required to conserve the ‘human/nature boundary’. However, in essence, these efforts at forest cleansing comprise nothing more than an environmental variation of racial oppression. Racial oppression, like ethnicity itself, is ‘about the power to name others’ and ‘the power to name the self’. Racial oppression works to ensure that stories of ‘ethnic contamination’ and ‘purification’ eclipse other stories about history, power and social relations.1
Redefining Natureexplains the racialization of natural resource conflicts in Thailand by exploring the power and politics involved in naming (and defining) what counts as knowledge of nature conservation, and the state processes of exerting social control over ethnic minority groups or ‘hill tribes’. Author Pinkaew Laungaramsri, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University, shows how an inherently racial and anti-ethnic nature conservationist ideology has come to dominate the politics of forest conservation in Thailand, in the process threatening the livelihoods of thousands of communities living in and dependent on upland forest areas.
Aiming to ‘search for radical questions rather than tacit answers, and hidden falsehoods rather than unquestioned truth,’ Pinkaew traces the historical origins in the development of the state’s ‘anti-peasant nature conservation’ ideas, introducing the reader to the thinking of foresters and nature conservationists and the emergence of ‘forest conservation’ as representing ‘the desire for modernization’ of the country. A key feature of this development is how the modern Thai state adopted the concepts of nature conservation that can be termed as ‘North American wilderness thinking’, interpolating it in the history of pa (forest) in Thai society and its changing meanings.
In this process of building a ‘nature conservation’ ideology, Pinkaew explains how the Thai political establishment has deliberately constructed certain definitions and discourses that discriminate against ethnic hill peoples and their local knowledge.
Within this narration runs one clear strand, what the author describes as a ‘major stumbling block’ preventing foresters from considering the idea of co-management of forests with local people: ‘An obstacle which, I came to realize later on, was a racial prejudice against ethnic-minority hill people. This prejudice [among foresters] is so strong, definite, and decisive that it obviated the necessity of further "truth finding" about forest problems.’
Pinkaew states: ‘In fact, what is repeatedly portrayed by the international conservationist idea of human/nature division is in fact ‘a human/human’ boundary which tends to reinforce or conceal class, ethnic, anti-agricultural, anti-commons or other discrimination in the allocation and permitted uses of land.’ Pinkaew cites the example of the Dhammanat Foundation (DM) in the Mae Soi Valley in Chiang Mai province, one of Thailand’s nature conservation groups, to illustrate how their forest conservation practice is closely allied to the politics of ethnic discrimination.
The high degree of racialization of resource conflict in the mountains of north Thailand is mainly due to the work of nature conservationist organizations such as DM.2 In advocating forest conservation in the Mae Soi area, DM states that a key physical cause of forest destruction is ‘community farming by slashing and burning headwater forests’ for which a solution can be found in the relocation of the hill people.
As Pinkaew writes, ‘This "bio-centric" ideology espoused by DM is not simply a celebration of nature rights, as is often claimed. In fact, what has been advocated is a type of conservation that counters the attempt by any "non-Tai" culture to contaminate the "Tai nature" – a new form of cultural racism which has developed and manifested in the movement to protect ‘untouched’ head waters by DM.’
However, as ethnic communities engage and resist the politically powerful in order to protect their homes, swiddens, fields and forests, the anti democratic effort to impose rigid, monolithic grids or territorial boundaries around ethnic groups in the name of ‘nature conservation’ on a diversity of social and cultural activities relating to forests rapidly becomes an impossible undertaking.3
As the author states, ‘This hegemonic representation of poor ethnic minorities is never constructed without contestation… local contestation begins when forest authorities attempt to assert their power over local livelihoods.’ Pinkaew describes how the Karen ethnic people in Mae Ning Nai village in North Thailand respond in numerous creative and self-confident ways to reassert their political space, their Karen identity and their intimate knowledge of the forest ecosystem.
The author weaves an absorbing narrative about the Karen people of Mae Ning Nai village by taking the reader to their swidden rice fields, forests and homes, and relates their stories of the struggles to protect livelihoods. In the evenings after dinner, sitting around the fireplace, she engages the Karen in often tense yet lively ‘dialogues’ where the Karen enter into and learn to encounter the debates about deforestation and respond with wit and humour about the foresters’ views of ‘hill tribes’, the causes of forest destruction and the efforts of nature conservationists to resettle the hill people.
She writes: ‘For them, the discussion was not simply a series of entertaining intellectual riddles, but a wager on a future of their own as well as of the generations to come… Through these difficult conversations, the multiple voices of concern… especially those of women, often hidden in the shadows where the glimmering light of the lamp did not reach, began to speak loud in defending their swidden territory.’
These debates and dialogues produce another strategically important outcome for the Karen: discussing government forestry maps, the Karen then decide to build their ‘map’ – a topographic model – based on Karen perceptions, to prove their customary land use practices, and ‘as a tool to defend their rights and to communicate effectively with forest authorities.’
The author writes with obvious enjoyment and a deep empathy for the Karen communities and the rhythms of their daily lives based on forests, swidden fields and fallows. Equally, she writes with a firm intellectual grasp about the dominant nature conservationist ideology and its protagonists, the politics of racialization, the conditions for ethnic violence that it fosters and the conflicts it engenders, and the far-reaching impacts on local communities – particularly ethnic minorities living in the upland areas – being targeted by the state for resettlement.
As a dynamic strategy and process of social control, racial and ethnic oppression uses constantly changing tactics as it functions to block democratic inquiry and the attempt to live with diversity and difference. Redefining Nature reveals the power, ideology and prejudices behind ‘nature conservation’ and the structures of racism and racial oppression that are embedded in mainstream environmentalism.
1. The Cornerhouse Briefing, No. 13, January 1999, ‘Forest Cleansing: Racial Oppression in Scientific Nature Conservation’, The CornerHouse, UK.
2. P. Laungaramsri, ‘The Ambiguity of "Watershed": The Politics of People and Conservation in Northern Thailand. A Case Study of the Chom Thong Conflict’, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, 1998.
3. In 1993, lowland and highland groups marched together to protest the expansion of protected areas proposed by Thailand’s Royal Forestry Department (RFD). Subsequently, the Northern Farmers Network (NFN) was established between 107 potentially affected villages in seven provinces in northern Thailand. The central aim of the NFN as well as similar social movements in Thailand such as the Assembly of the Poor (AOP) is to halt the violations of local people’s rights through resettlement from forest areas and to demand state recognition of community managed forests.
LIBERATION ECOLOGIES: Environment, Development, Social Movements edited by Richard Peet and Michael Watts. Routledge, London, 1996.
PLANET DIALECTICS: Explorations in Environment and Development by Wolfgang Sachs. Zed Books, London, 1999.
ROOTED IN THE LAND: Essays on Community and Place edited by William Vitek and Wes Jackson. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996.
IT is almost ten years since the historic UN Summit on Environment and Development and the parallel Global Forum of Civil Society Groups, was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. For the first time on such a scale, the interrelationship of environment and development, environment and poverty and environment and justice were placed centre-stage on the political map of the world.
Later this month, the city of Johannesburg will host the next UN Summit to assess the commitments made in Rio. The intervening decade has witnessed a retreat by governments from the fragile framework of rules that governed the conservation, use and trade in environmental resources. The commercial interests of private actors have taken precedence over the conservation, protection, access and sustainability of the earth’s fragile natural resources. The rights of transnational corporations have been given greater value than the rights of a majority whose very lives critically depend on these resources as well as the rights of the diversity of life on the planet.
Defenders of the neo-liberal agenda continue to argue that economic growth and unrestrained markets will enhance sustainability and improve efficiency in the use of nature’s resources. It is this worldview that was contested by the voices at the Global Forum who raised critical questions that continue to be relevant today: Does the neo-liberal agenda of privatization and deregulation lead to greater ecological sustainability? Do unrestrained markets enhance environmental security? Can disparate, palliative responses address the multiplicity of environmental crises? These voices also gave further substance to alternative worldviews as well as practices that recognized the fragility of the planet, the finiteness and limits of nature’s resources as well as the central importance of justice and equity.
In the post-Rio phase, the diversity of initiatives – by people’s organizations, states and industry responding to the ‘environmental crisis’ – has been truly staggering. There has also been a virtual explosion of websites and printed material. Institutions that were conventionally concerned about development have almost universally sought to create space in their concerns to ‘environmental issues’. The greatest creativity has, however, been visible in the numerous organizations, tribunals, campaigns, movements, statements, reports and books that have spawned on issues as diverse as dams, mechanization, mining, biodiversity, cloning, pollution and economic globalisation.
I have taken a miniscule selection of recent books published outside the country to highlight some of the radical debates that mark this global stirring – issues that will remain at the cutting edge of controversy in the coming years. This review does not claim to represent the vast range of written material nor does it acknowledge the richness and significance of other literature produced from the frontlines of political struggles like the communiqués of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas in Mexico or the continuing reports of environmental ‘racism’ on the reservations of native Americans in North America.
Nevertheless, I thought it important to underscore some of the critical issues that these books address – political ecology (issues at the intersection of political economy and ecology); the commercialization and commodification of life, including the privatization of common resources like water; the philosophical foundation of communities and place; and, gender and class in nature-centred production. This set of books is also important as they critique the very world where dominant industrialism and modernity as we know it was born – a world whose proponents argue is humankinds’ only avenue to progress.
The aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001 now makes this even more problematic as the leader of the country at the apex of this ‘model’ has aggressively and unilaterally asserted what constitutes democracy, freedom and civilization. Finally, these books offer numerous directions for politically engaged research that inspires and illuminates both the range of collapses and pitfalls of the dominant paths of economic and political development, the serious limitations of reformist environmentalism as well as alternatives to the present system and concrete transitions to an ecologically sustainable and just world.
Peet and Watts’ book brings together a cross-section of writers to understand and analyse the ecological impacts of dominant economic, political and cultural processes on the South. A significant introductory essay situates this not only at the intersection of political economy and ecology but also locates this political analysis within a critique of modernity and its rationality. The editors argue that the environmental challenge must be seen as a challenge to the dominant ‘truths’ about what constitutes an environmental problem as well as what forces and processes shape the very construction of these problems. The intention is not simply to add politics to political ecology but ‘to raise the emancipatory potential of environmental ideas and to engage directly with the larger landscape of debates over modernity, its institutions and its knowledges.’ Modernity in this process is not abandoned but actively contested with. Liberation ecology then provides a critical space for ongoing political debates to internalize an explicit environmental consciousness.
The essays in the volume further locate this in the specific contexts of social movements and other popular mobilizations in several parts of the world. They show how a grossly flawed and selective science is applied to superficially evolve palliative responses to grave environmental crises or how a crisis itself becomes the justification to appropriate productive resources and convert community or family-centred production into commodity production that primarily benefits populations beyond the sites of the primary producers. In the case of agroforestry in countries as diverse as Gambia and Indonesia, Richard Schroeder and Krisnavati Suryanan demonstrate how marketization does not lead to stabilization but to an intensification of unsustainable short-term gains most of which are expropriated away from the primary producers on terms that do not favour local food security or ecological sustainability.
More importantly, however, is the move away from practices that expand and preserve diverse production systems. Other case studies (Judith Carney’s on agrarian change in Gambia or Donald Moore’s on environmental struggles in Zimbabwe) also reflect an important political shift from a politics preoccupied with state-centred electoral processes and inter-class, caste or identity contestations to one that is inclusive of the political arenas of the household, place and the commons. Places are more than a site of commodity production; they encompass diverse histories, meanings and practices.
Wolfgang Sachs’ book is a compilation of two decades of influential writing and public exploration. Editor of the Development Dictionary and Global Ecology, Sachs has powerfully and eloquently interrogated the world shaped by the West in the latter half of the 20th century. He incisively bares the myriad ways in which the forces that shape this world have undermined both nature and social justice. If the biosphere has to be saved and humankind has to experience greater dignity and equity, nothing short of a civilizational transformation is necessary.
Not a new message but coming as it does from someone rooted and actively engaged in the very ethos he seeks to transform, he brings both passion and concrete suggestions to transit from the present resource-hungry and iniquitous order to one that respects the limits of the planet and nurtures mutual dignity, well-being and justice. This is not just a theoretical and philosophical statement. In his Greening the North: A Post-Industrial Blueprint for Ecology and Equity, Sachs and his co-authors (Reinhard Loske and Richard Linz) had laid out a detailed transition plan for the ‘global North’ to shift from a resource intensive system of production and consumption to one that addresses both the finiteness and fragility of the planet and the need to significantly minimize the negative externalities of the present patterns of economic development.
Planet Dialectics situates this political and conceptual task in several important chapters, particularly, The Two Meanings of Resource Productivity, Speed Limits and The Power of Limits: An Inquiry into New Models of Wealth, arguing that the transition towards sustainability can be achieved only through a twin-track strategy: an intelligent reinvention of means as well as a prudent moderation of ends. It is time, Sachs argues, that environmentalism does not stay centred on defensive and reactive postures and plans but moves towards broad-range structural change in technology and ways of living.
Rooted in the Land is also profoundly important for India. Along with another American farmer-poet, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson brings a moral imagination to these concerns. In writings that poetically illuminates our collective predicament, Jackson and philosopher Vitek assemble a critical group of authors committed to revitalizing communities in the North, primarily in the US – a country that has experienced the full impact of materialism, consumerism, moral and spiritual breakdown and aggressive capitalism. The lessons for us are numerous. Either we continue to pursue developmental paths that legitimize pillaging the world’s resources and keeping most of its countries and people’s subservient to its needs and designs or we urgently embark on a journey to restore and regenerate this scarred and fragile planet and the resource conflicts that shape the breakdown of social, cultural and economic relationships.
The three books underscore the need for bold political and personal steps from distinctive yet converging perspectives. They outline in considerable detail and with rich case study material what erodes and enhances dignity, justice and sustainability. They also acknowledge the need to build countervailing power and define the political instruments that are essential for the transition to a sustainable and just world.
While incremental and reformist environmentalism plays important roles, it rarely addresses the structures and attitudes that have led to environmental ruin and social injustice. The real divides are no longer between the North and the South but between the globalised rich and the localised poor. Political elites, particularly from the less industrialized world must realize that they can leap into the solar age without going through the same industrial stages as the industrialized. It is these worldviews that will be in contestation and these challenges and opportunities that will be open at and beyond the UN Summit in Johannesburg.
LANDSCAPES AND LIVES: Environmental Dispatches From Rural India by Mukul Sharma. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001.
ENVIRONMENTAL conflict is now the stuff of daily headlines. Drought and floods, the impact of factory closures, the problems of energy transition in the transport sector – it seems that no one has remained untouched by such issues. But the mainstream media has increasingly shied away from in-depth reporting on these questions. Press releases and sound bytes have crowded out reflective reportage that can combine long term perspectives with immediate insights – the journal Down to Earth and the write-ups in the Economic and Political Weekly are rare exceptions. Just when it is direly needed, serious and ecologically sensitive journalism remains a rarity.
This is precisely why the work of Mukul Sharma stands out. For two decades, as special correspondent of the leading Hindi daily, Navbharat Times, he not only followed ‘cold trails’ to come up with new narratives, but went a step further, often returning to the same site after a break of several years. It is no surprise that he won many awards, the first of which was the Journalist of the Year award way back in 1987. Two years later, his consistent track record of reporting in both Hindi and English earned him a commendation for being the ‘Best Asian Journalist’ reporting on the environment. What is less widely known and is worth recounting is that much of this work was done in addition to a full time ‘beat’. This makes it doubly welcome.
The significance of the work emerges clearly in a lucid introduction. The reports have one element in common: they elucidate how people from different walks of life, especially from marginalized sections, have been ‘confronting or evading the question of ecology and landscape.’ The rhythms of production and settlement in village India have episodic aspects: rivers change courses, forests recede, ravines advance. But they also have deeper, systemic patterns. In ravine and on riverfront, on seaboard and in forest India, the episodic downturn sometimes becomes a regular occurrence and eventually a daily reality. Pollution destroys marine systems, dams displace villagers, and denudation menaces local livelihoods. It is resistance to such adverse transformations that gives life, breath and colour to this book.
Yet, the author is perceptive enough to assert that struggles of the poor, which are centred on control of resources, may not always overlap or coalesce together. Many campaigns are sharply focused around specific local issues. The very impetus they derive from these roots can prevent them from making common cause at a wider level. The range of conflicts and the diversity of movements makes ‘common cause’ difficult in practice.
As a founder editor of Labour File and former labour union leader, Sharma is especially insightful on the troubled links of workers’ associations and the environmental movement. In the ’90s, many factories faced closure as public interest litigation led to strong action by the courts against polluting units. The threat of losing jobs often led to sharp conflicts. At the same time, there have been positive initiatives such as those of fish workers, who unite on issues of combatting pollution and the health of fisheries on a common platform.
The refreshing aspect of the book is the personal touch to the narratives, in line with the well-known work of P. Sainath and Harsh Mander. Sample this gem, ‘Meet the Forest Minister of Tinsimani government of Mahuwa toli of Chotanagpur. With six other ministers and a Prime Minister, he is the member of a government formed in 1989 by tribal villages of Vishnupur region to look after their forest, water and land.’ The fights for the forest, over the control of produce, both wood and non-wood products, is a staple of the environmental movement in India and forms a section in this volume. Other chapters chart conflicts in varied landscapes, including the sea coast, the riverfronts and the Himalayas, dam related issues and contests over agricultural land. What emerges is a rich tapestry, linked together through the common threads of livelihood and survival. Some landscapes are less well known than others. They remain marginal to our consciousness even though their fate concerns many that live and work in them.
Two sections chart the conflicts in chronically neglected and under-reported landscapes. One builds on the travails and troubles of fisherfolk who inhabit the border zones of South Asian nation states: Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. These are both similar to and distinct from the wider issues that confront fishing communities of coastal South Asia. Another looks at fickle river basin lands where the border between fertile agricultural field and riverbed, far from being fixed, is highly fluid and also the subject of bitter, even bloody contest.
The reader is left wanting more. Sharma is at his best tracing the course of encounters of the powerful and the dispossessed in the northern plains and along the seacoast. The diara kshetra along the rivers comes alive in a manner it simply cannot in dry as dust narratives, packed as they are with statistics and tables. Equally so, his deft handling of the violent battles about water rights over ‘the private Ganga’, still menaced by water right-holders who trace their lineage to Mughal times. The coastal fisherfolk movement also emerges in flashes: amidst the host of issues is a story of formidable achievements in organisation. This is what whets the appetite, and makes you wish there was more to some of the pieces.
This in itself is no bad thing. Isaac Deutscher once wrote of how the journalist is a victim of immediacy. The shots have not all been fired; the drama is yet to fully unfold. All that he or she can do is to give a vivid account of a moving picture. So far, Indian journalism has often been about high politics. But this work will stand in a different category. In common with Kalpana Sharma’s Dharavi or Bapu Kuti by Rajni Bakshi, it catalogues tales of struggle and resistance. But it also does more. At a time when the environment as an issue threatens to be reduced to a subject for academia or an issue for donor funding, it links the fate of the earth with the lives of the dispossessed. A must for all those who care about the issue, truly a pick of the best.