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Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers and Wildness in Western India by Ajay Skaria. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.


THIS long awaited book is a bold effort to write history in a radically different way, by a contrapuntal juxtaposition of professional history and Dangi stories of the past. Skaria argues that all history hitherto has lapsed into complicity with ‘the hyperreal Europe’ but that hybrid histories such as his will assist ‘struggles against relations of domination’ (p. 14). The method chosen is to structure the text around themes drawn from many ‘true stories’ (khari goth) collected during fieldwork in the Dangs – a mountainous, tribal dominated eastern district of Gujarat. The rich collection of stories gathered over many years attests to the author’s perseverance and tenacity in conditions that few city-bred historians would tolerate.

The material collected is then ordered and presented in terms of an indigenous binary – the opposition of moglai and mandini. Skaria emphasizes that the contrast is not between two clearly demarcated periods, but rather between alternate regimes of power – moglai being marked by liberty to move in the forests, to plunder the plains, while mandini is characterized by the subordination of the Dangis to outsiders.

The book devotes seven chapters to the discussion of moglai and eleven to mandini. Each chapter interestingly cross-cuts a mass of information from diverse archives – in Ahwa, Baroda, Bombay and elsewhere – with the oral narratives collected by the author. The two are used to supplement each other. These 18 chapters cover near 300 pages of closely written text, and it is obviously impossible to summarize them here. Indeed, the author’s style, suggestive rather than argumentative, perhaps deliberately repels such logocentric exercises. Nonetheless, we may identify some recurrent tensions in Skaria’s text.

Two of these are the effort to minimise, if not deny, difference among the Dangi communities and to highlight the extent to which they contest and deny ‘plains’ values. Yet the category Dangi itself is not historicised, even though Ghanshyam Shah – in a paper Skaria does not cite – described how it was being reconstituted barely 30 years ago. Similarly, by contrast to the richly textured study of Dangi life, the plains are seen as stereotypically dominated by Brahman-Kshatriya ideology. This would not be a serious defect if Skaria was arguing that the Dangs were an enclave, isolated from the flawed values of the surrounding civilization; in that case of course, the latter’s traits would be of little relevance to the study of the Dangs.

But Skaria is too knowledgeable to hold such a naive view, and he devotes a closely documented chapter to show how Bhil chiefs participated in the making and unmaking of regional powers. Dangi self-identity ‘in relation to forests, masculinity, femininity, modes of livelihood, raids and giras amongst other things, had significant resonances in surrounding plains communities rather than simply being opposed to the practices of these communities’ (p. 148). But these practices are left largely to the reader’s imagination, with a few mentions of Brahman and Rajput values thrown in to stimulate it. Indeed, some of the most interesting hybrid communities of the macro region – Muslim Rajputs, Qasbatis, alcohol-using Muslim Bhils – never figure in the narrative.

This absence of Islam is a major lacuna in the text. Yet one can hardly look at the records of the 18th and early 19th century without encountering Dongar Khan alias Dongrya Vesava, Tegkhan, Kader Bhaldar, Wahid Ali Khan, ‘Abdool Momin oorf Luxdheer Dulput Rao III’ Powar ruler of Peth, and also the numerous bands of mercenary Arabs, Pathans, Makranis and so on. The mercenaries make some appearances in Skaria’s text, but as transient intruders who leave the essential Bhilness of the Dangs unaffected. Their significant role in enforcing the dominance of various chiefs in hill and plain alike is left unexplored. Similarly, the Kokni peasant underclass in 19th century Dang society is sought to be anachronistically assimilated to a modern Dangi identity, underplaying their own memories of a time when ‘Bhil Rajas many a time oppressed their subjects with the help of their bowmen and took possession of their crops, cattle, food and even their girls’ (Ghadvi village survey, Census of India 1961, p. 2).

In this context, Skaria’s unwarranted transformation of a Maratha official’s exhortation to the Bhils that it would be well if they ceased ‘oppressing the peasants’ into the milder ‘opposing the peasants’ (p. v) is not without significance. But all good ethnographers have been involved with their hosts and this richly textured study could not have been written by a cold devotee of the true/false dichotomy in the human sciences. It bears the marks, instead, of the Romantic revulsion from the scientific stance, and one can imagine Skaria, like Matthew Arnold’s scholar-gypsy, ‘Still nursing the unconquerable hope …Still clutching the inviolable shade.’


Sumit Guha


Natural Premises: Ecology and Peasant Life in the Western Himalaya 1800-1950 by Chetan Singh. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998.


Natural Premises is a book that authoritatively describes the history of ecology and peasant life of a much neglected region of the Indian Himalaya. Until a few years ago there were only two categories of books describing the social life of this region – the richly detailed gazetteers that pertained to specific districts, and attractively designed tourist books. While gazetteers are still some of the best primary sources for understanding the history of various regions of the state, there is no single book that deals with Himachal as a whole. Tourist books provide little more than a cursory glance at history, and have little analytical rigor.

Chetan Singh’s book fits perfectly in the niche, a well researched book that describes the history and life within this region we now know as Himachal Pradesh. The author introduces his book as ‘not only a description of the natural premises which constituted the spatial context within which the Himachal peasant lived, but also the natural premises which were the logical assumptions upon which he based his actions’ (p. 5). While making a conscious attempt to stay away from ecological determinism, this book nevertheless is tied together through the rubric of ecological premises that the author argues defined and structured the socio-political history of this region. The history of settlements, agriculture, pastoralism, forests, markets and society are connected through the underlying theme of inter-linkages between environment, state and territoriality.

I enjoyed the thematic and non-chronological structure of this book that made for easy reading and also effectively highlighted the similarities among various regions of Himachal. After laying out a general schema, the author first highlights the links between environmental factors and political organization of pre-colonial states. Territoriality and the state’s economic base are shown to be bounded by ecological constraints. This is followed by a chapter that shows how settlement patterns and agriculture in the region are also defined by the ecology. Local environment was so influential that there was no ‘typical Himachal village’ (p. 42), and the most common type of settlement was a hamlet located close to terraced fields.

Agriculture, unlike in the plains, was not the main or predominant activity, and it was closely linked with animal husbandry, pastoralism, commerce and forest use. The proportion of uncultivable land was high and subsequent chapters describe how these lands were integral to peasant life. Both these chapters use records from various regions of pre-colonial Himachal to substantiate the argument. These chapters, however, ignore the colonial period when political economic concerns often overran or strongly modified these ecological premises.

One of the major achievements of this book is that it rigorously debunks many prevalent myths about hill society and life. Throughout the book the author presents an image of a vibrant society that is neither isolated nor traditional/backward. Although the money economy penetrated the Himachal countryside rather slowly, even during pre-colonial times Himachal was linked to the larger trading networks of western Tibet and Central Asia.

The chapter on intermediate spaces is another example of the insightful analysis in the book that tackles common myths and misnomers. It also adds two crucial dimensions to the common property resources debate among environmental managers. First, the author unequivocally establishes the linkages and interdependence between hill agriculture and areas that have traditionally been called ‘wastelands’. This buttresses current environmental wisdom that sees the ecosystem as a web of interdependent connections. ‘Intermediate spaces’ is a more appropriate term coined by the author for these lands that lie between cultivated areas and forests, since they are indispensable to hill agriculture. Second, the book also argues that there were no ‘village communities’ that collectively managed these lands; rather, in many cases there were private rights in these lands. This fact questions popular ideas about idyllic pre-colonial societies with benign and equitable property rights that were shattered by colonial intervention.

However, there are two levels of argument which can get fused in the assertion that there were no village communities managing the ‘intermediate spaces’. The first denies the existence of village communities in general, and second, the particular role of these communities in managing these lands. The latter is substantiated by the author, but the former is arguable. At places the author asserts the former as well (as at pp. 208-209). As proof of this absence of community, the author shows that ‘numerous available records argue, quite definitely, that the notion of community was alien to large parts of the region.’

The records the author refers to in support of his argument are mainly colonial ones. Indeed, as the author notes in his Introduction, the book is constructed mainly using colonial historical records (traveller’s accounts, archival records, published settlement reports, and state and district gazetteers). While the lack of other local sources is understandable, the author seems uncritical of the colonial bias in these sources at various points in the book. Villages in Himachal had a village headman, had elaborate labour sharing arrangements, accepted community methods of resolving disputes, had common deities and celebrated festivities together. Thus, what was absent was a community similar to that encountered by colonial rulers in the plains of India. What seems lacking, as the author describes in a different chapter, is the notion of property as defined by the colonial rulers. While broadly noting a colonial bias in the records used, the author uses these records uncritically in most parts of the book.

Another disappointment is that the theoretical structure of the book often promises much more than what is delivered. For instance, in the very first chapter, the author begins with a general emphasis on the external factors that aided state formation in this region. He accepts as persuasive Andre Gunder Frank’s statement that ‘political organization in those sedentary state societies was a function of their "external" relations as well as their "internal" needs. Indeed, many of their "internal" needs were "external" relations’ (p. 8). However, in seeking to highlight that Himachal Himalaya is a coherent historical and political entity, the author often ignores the ‘external’ – the evolution of society in the plains and its constant interaction with this hill society.

Chetan Singh explains and describes state formation in Himachal only in terms of local geographic and ecological factors. External influences which may have substantiated Frank’s argument like migration of Rajput princes to the hills after the Muslim invasions, colonial political economy and, above all, material, cultural and social influences from the plains (for instance the caste system) are hardly explored in the book. A deeper comparative discussion of state and society in Himachal Pradesh and its uniqueness or similarity with neighbouring regions would have added considerable depth of analysis to this book.

This book also attempts to create a history and identity for Himachal Himalaya as a distinct region. Himachal Pradesh is seen as a separate, unified ecological and socio-political entity. The author states in his Introduction, ‘The entire region, despite its internal diversities, was an integrated whole’ (p. 3). An entire chapter is devoted to pastoralists who followed specific paths across the altitudinal gradient and linked various regions. The chapter on exchange relations also highlights the interrelations between different areas. But the linkages and interactions that are outlined as evidence of this unity tend to be subregional rather than regional.

Whether it was the structure of settlements, pastoralist pathways, market exchanges, or social responses to them, these similarities and connections were restricted to specific subregions of what is today the state of Himachal Pradesh. Even if the mountainous nature of the region is taken as a primary linking factor, one needs to identify what distinguishes this region from other neighbouring mountainous regions. It could be argued that the emergence of Himachal Pradesh in 1970 as a distinct and unified political entity as known today was the culmination of the political and economic processes initiated under and in response to colonialism. The premise of this book that Himachal Himalaya was a unified entity in pre-colonial and early colonial times is questionable and unsubstantiated.

However, much of this criticism is made possible by the clear and nuanced structure of the book. It is a pleasure to read and provides a vivid picture of life in Himachal Pradesh between 1800 and 1950.It is a rare book that highlights the primacy of environmental factors in the shaping of this hill society without falling into the trap of environmental or biogeographic determinism. Its uniqueness also lies in the challenge that the author has faced in bringing out the interplay between change and continuity during this distinct transitory period of history. It is essential for anyone with more than a cursory interest in this region. At a broader plane, this book will also be useful to environmental historians and those interested in society-environmental linkages.


Sudha Vasan


Pastoral Politics: Shepherds, Bureaucrats and Conservation in the Western Himalaya by Vasant K. Saberwal. Oxford University Press, 1999.


Pastoral Politics examines the environmental history (1865-1990s) of the nomadic pastoral community, the Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh, in relation to grazing resources and controls by the forest department. It questions the generally held view of increasing ‘degradation’ in soil and catchment hydrologic functions due to grazing, and illustrates in particular the use of half-baked pseudo scientific environmental rhetoric by bureaucrats to push their agenda of curbs on local use. The book is well organized and there is a smooth transition from the generic to the specific. Its main strength lies in the combination of a rigorous environmental historical study and the author’s own observations and data from the present.

The hydrologic response of catchments to land use change is controlled by a complex function of ecologic, climatic and geomorphic processes. In general, a few key factors combine to limit our ability to quantitatively express the hydrologic and sedimentation response of a Himalayan mountainous catchment to land use. These include the large inter-annual variability in precipitation, the heterogeneity of large catchments, natural sources of instability characteristic of a geologically and tectonically active young mountain system together with non-availability of high quality long term data on rainfall, stream flow and sedimentation. Even when these are available, rigorous experimental and statistical methods to separate the influence of human use from natural variability are required.

The history of the understanding of the role of forest vegetation in the hydrologic cycle in relation to other competing land use has often been marked by the prevalence of popular pseudo scientific myths. These could not later withstand scrutiny of experimentation and rigorous analyses. There was an over-simplified view of forests as generators of rainfall and regulators of stream-flow. It was generally assumed that dry season flow under forests exceeded that of other land use/land cover. These ideas were especially promoted by foresters around the world out of ignorance and later when challenged increasingly as a defensive posture.

These ideas spread among the then larger community of foresters and colonial administrators around the world and led to the development of what Saberwal calls the ‘dessicationist’ discourse. The broad sweep of this discourse included concerns over desertification, deforestation and degradation of forests. While many interesting historical developments in this discourse are described, the role of American writer, George Perkin Marsh’s ‘Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action’ published in 1864, is left out. Drawing primarily upon European sources, his work was probably the first to trigger the ‘dessicationist discourse’ in the larger American community. The assumed role of tree planting and cultivation in attracting rain became a major dispute in the land use policies in the American West.

Coming home, the consolidation of British colonial administration over the hill and mountain forests of what is now Himachal Pradesh soon after 1865 empowered the government revenue and forest departments with their separate and often conflicting agendas and interests to manage forest resources. This invariably resulted in control over those dependant on them for their needs. One such group of people are the nomadic pastoral communities that ascended with their flocks of sheep and goats to grazing areas near and above the tree line in summer and descend to lower elevation forests in the winter.

There is a fascinating account of the bureaucratic response to real and assumed conflict of interests between the resource needs of pastoral communities and competing state sanctioned use such as timber production and, in a specific case study, generation of hydroelectric power from 1870s to 1990s. In the latter, curbs on grazing were enforced on an experimental basis in order to gauge any resultant enhancement of winter flows. This Uhl valley experiment in watershed hydrology may well be the first one of its kind ever done in India, although Saberwal points out its limitations.

Well instrumented and rigorously conducted long term studies on land use impacts on watershed hydrology are still an exception in India. The author draws our attention to the use of scientific rhetoric and anecdotal, locale specific observations as opposed to real scientific scrutiny by the forest department officials to argue their case for restrictions on pastoral grazing. A more global ‘alarmist’ view of impending environmental degradation by an explosively growing population (the ‘dessicationist discourse’) influenced foresters’ views on the effects of pastoral grazing on hydrology and soil erosion in the Punjab Himalaya.

The forest department held a long lasting view that grazing by nomadic graziers was detrimental to the objective of forest and soil conservation. In addition, the department also projected a view that population of grazing animals had increased substantially. Saberwal critiques and disputes these premises by quoting FD sources and official reports supplemented by his own observations. The curbs placed on nomadic graziers by the forest department were challenged first by the revenue department and later, after Independence, by successful political lobbying by the Gaddis that undermined the power of the forest department. The use of informal means by the Gaddis such as bribes and opening fences also ensured that curbs were honoured more in the breach. The tussle between the revenue and forest department reminds us that the state cannot be treated as a homogeneous political-economic entity.

The primary data presented by the author relates to effects of grazing on herb/forb biodiversity rather than soils, sedimentation and watershed hydrology, which is a departure from the main theme of the book. The author’s own assertion based on limited data that the negative impacts of grazing on high altitude pasture biodiversity is not significant are not entirely convincing. Similar data and observations from the lower elevation areas have been excluded by the author’s own admission due to severe problems with the space for time substitution and lack of controls.

Drastic effects of manure and urine accumulation from sheep are restricted to approximately 3 ha (100 m radius) around the site. The density of herder camps across the landscape over time scales of several decades which may have a bearing on biodiversity at larger spatial scales are not discussed. There is no mention of the nutrient enrichment and pollution downstream resulting from accumulation of manure in shepherd camping areas.

A section in the appendix to summarize the current understanding of the role of forests in the hydrologic cycle including infiltration, run-off, recycling of evapotranspired water as well their role in soil erosion and sedimentation would have been of benefit to those readers with an inadequate knowledge of these issues. Facts such as that trees consume more water than grass through evapotranspiration should have been explained in the context of effects of land use change in hydrology.

There is no mention of the more rigorously conducted hydrologic experiments in India. Reference to applied research initiatives on land use impacts on hydrology in India such as that of the joint Karnataka Forest Department/Institute of Hydrology, UK, G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development in Sikkim or the experiments in the Nilgiris by the Central Soil and Water Training and Research Institute would have considerably enriched the book.

The final chapter argues for a more rigorous and data intensive approach to studying various anthropogenic influences on ecosystems (that is, barring a few exceptions, sadly missing in India) and questions the process that categorizes the state of the ecosystem as degraded. The new ideas on the role of grazing in maintaining biodiversity are mentioned. However, it is annoying to see the much repeated examples of Bharatpur (a human constructed wetland) and the Valley of Flowers, where more recent data may indicate otherwise, to support the idea that removal of grazing reduced desirable attributes and biodiversity.

In both cases there is no evidence or proof that had the status quo prevailed, desirable biodiversity would have been safeguarded or stated management goals achieved. Such linkages, made in hindsight with no controls, need to be made cautiously. Clearly, as the author points out, we need more studies that quantitatively and rigorously assess the effects of particular human activities on ecosystem functioning and stated management objectives. We should be able to at least address questions such as, ‘How much livestock grazing or non-timber forest produce harvesting is compatible with stated management objectives for a specific protected area?’ Such studies should be the agenda of institutions such as the Forest Research Institute and the Wildlife Institute of India, in collaboration with scientifically oriented peoples’ organizations and the forest department.

Peoples’ participation and their involvement in conservation are of course emphasized, although the example of Kaila Devi sanctuary in Rajasthan is ironic given that the book deals with the problems and prospects of nomadic graziers. The successful elimination of intensive sheep grazing by nomadic graziers that was considered degrading by local pastoralists and cultivators is celebrated. The impacts of these curbs on the evicted nomadic communities and effects elsewhere are ignored. The victory of settled over nomadic was complete in this case.

It should be mentioned that the use of pseudo scientific myths and rhetoric are not restricted to the forest department. NGOs and the environmental activists have frequently resorted to these. An example is the view that devastating floods and sedimentation in the Brahamaputra valley are primarily caused by deforestation in the Arunachal Himalaya rather than geomorphology and tectonics. Similarly, many NGOs propagate the rigid view that exploitation or use of forest biomass resources by resident tribal populations cannot be incompatible with conservation objectives. This is in sharp contrast to the past role of forest departments in defending industrial use of forest resources while coming down heavily on subsistence or local use.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized we need a collaborative network which brings together the forest department, scientists and peoples’ institutions. The best possible science and a progressive outlook would enhance our ability to design management systems that safeguard biodiversity or ecosystem functions and yet sustain livelihoods of some people. India’s forest and biodiversity badly need these inputs.


Jagdish Krishnaswamy


Greener Pastures: Politics, Markets and Community Among a Migrant Pastoral People by Arun Agrawal. Duke University Press, Durham, and Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998.


THE Raikas are a sheep herding community in western Rajasthan who migrate for many months of the year, covering thousands of miles to obtain forage for their sheep. They migrate in large collectives, each camp having over a hundred individuals, with upto 40 different flocks in the same herd.

Agrawal’s masterly study focuses on three broad questions: Why do the Raikas migrate? Why do they migrate collectively? And what are the means by which they deal with the problems that are inherent to collective action? Yet the book is much more than just a study on pastoralism, for he uses the material on the Raikas to examine a number of larger theoretical concerns.

As do other pastoralists in arid and semi-arid parts of the world, the Raikas migrate in order to track the inter-annual variations in rainfall that characterise many parts of western India. Such variation leads to extreme unpredictability with regard to the geographic distribution of forage, forcing the herders to move to meet their animals’ requirements. In recent years, Raika migrations have taken them to more distant regions, into Haryana and even the Punjab. On occasion they have remained away from their homes for all 12 months of the year.

This last has basically occurred owing to a decrease in available forage in western Rajasthan – a consequence of a number of factors. As lands that have been grazed by shepherds come under cultivation, the shepherds are forced to wander farther and for longer periods. Agrawal argues that politics lie at the root of this decreasing resource base for graziers. A developmental state has preferentially provided cultivators with incentives and resources to expand cultivation, while ignoring the requirements of the pastoralist communities in the region.

Closer to home, high caste villagers within villages inhabited by the Raikas have used environmental conservation as an excuse to close off traditional grazing lands to grazing, thereby forcing the herders to stay away from the village for longer periods of time. This enforced absence from the village effectively marginalises the Raikas within village politics, thereby diluting their challenge to the high caste domination of the panchayat.

Agrawal’s study of village level politics is particularly important in the context of the current interest in better involving local communities in conservation and development projects. While many such calls for democratising resource use are morally unimpeachable, romantic notions of egalitarian communities often obscure a reality of communities as constituted of interested and often antagonistic actors. As demonstrated in the high caste attempt to marginalise the Raikas within village politics, the Patwal ‘community’ is anything but egalitarian.

In the second section of the book, Agrawal examines the intriguing question of why the Raikas migrate collectively. Through compelling ethnographic and survey data, the author demonstrates significant economies of scale that result from collective migrations. These come during the bulk purchase of medicines, food and supplementary feeds, the higher saleability of the manure from 5000 rather than 500 sheep, which ensures a greater likelihood of the herders gaining access to a farmer’s fallow or harvested fields, as well as critical savings in time and energy as a result of decision making by a single, appointed individual, rather than by each of the members of the 40-50 strong collective.

But a collective migration is also essential if the migration is to take place at all. The Raikas are moving through densely settled, and often hostile, environments, with the potential for repeated altercations between herder and cultivator. The presence of 40-50 adult males is generally adequate to prevent excessively high demands made by cultivators on herders as the latter move through village common lands or while their sheep are drinking at sources of water within village boundaries. Politics, once again, lies at the root of the Raika decision to migrate collectively.

In the final section of the book, Agrawal investigates the means by which herders deal with the problems that are a part of any collective activity. The Raikas appoint a person to lead them and appear to grant him a large swathe of financial powers. This leader is chosen based on his knowledge of the area the herders will migrate through, his political connections, his contacts within the farming community, and his status within the Raika community. There is, however, the obvious problem that a leader could skim off substantial profits from the various financial deals he wrangles on behalf of the herders in his camp. How do the herders prevent him from cheating them thus?

The author argues that sanctions form a basic weapon in the herders’ armoury in preventing a leader from working against their benefits. They do this in one of two ways – first, a herder may decide to break with the group, an extreme move that would have significant repercussions for the reputation of the leader. Alternatively, the herders will elect a different person to lead them on the following year’s migration, once again, a blow to a potential leader’s status. Herders have also devised a number of ways by which they can monitor the transactions that the leader undertakes on their behalf. They do this by having a couple of herders accompany the leader to the market when he buys medicines, or by ensuring that negotiations with cultivators for access to grazing lands are held in the open, at a time when others are also in the vicinity. Thus, the ability to sanction a leader, combined with a regular monitoring of his activities, ensures an efficient functioning of the collective.

These findings are not entirely surprising, but nonetheless provide important support for the idea that development programmes are more likely to work under conditions of greater transparency and if the principal beneficiaries have the power to sanction (vote out of office) those supposed to provide developmental services. Merely paying lip service to the idea of greater local involvement in development is unlikely to ensure an improvement in implementing development programmes. The power to sanction and greater transparency must necessarily be part of any attempt to better involve local communities in development projects.

Countering standard descriptions of pastoralists, shifting cultivators and tribal communities as marginal to the mainstream of society, Agrawal highlights the many ways in which these herders have contested and resisted their own marginalisation. They have stood for elections to the village council in an attempt to reduce the hegemonic hold of the upper caste villagers on the council. They have approached senior ministers within the Rajasthan government to secure greater developmental assistance. And even as developmental programmes have resulted in a reduction in grazing lands available to the Raikas, they have found new spaces within which to graze their animals, through extended migrations, by bribing their way past forest department guards, or through their exploitation of fresh sources of grazing material such as crop residues that have accompanied the intensification of cultivation. In each of these moves can be seen the willingness of the herders to contest any form of marginality that is imposed upon them by a state and society with stereotypical images of a primitive people, the Raikas, ‘clenched fist in the face of history,’ to use Agrawal’s evocative phrase.

The author brings a great range of analytical tools to the many themes and ideas in this book – I have provided only a sampling of the issues he deals with. In less talented hands, the diversity of issues addressed here may well have appeared forced. Agrawal’s analytical clarity provides the glue that holds this book together, particularly his uncompromising effort to simplify rather than obfuscate these much discussed issues. Reading him is like a breath of fresh air moving through the stale and often hackneyed rhetoric that characterises much writing on community and markets.


Vasant K. Saberwal


The Citizen’s Fifth Report: State of India’s Environment Series, Part I and II edited by Anil Agrawal, Sunita Narain and Srabani Sen. Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1999.


THE First Citizen’s Report in 1982 by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in many ways considerably helped sharpen the debate on the environment in India. The report offered one of the earliest critiques of ‘development’ from an ecological standpoint, based essentially on a pro-people slant that was radically distinct from the then predominantly elite perceptions on conservation and preservation. The second report (1984) adopted the same broad format and focused on exposing environmentally degrading activities, especially their impact on the lowest rungs of society.

In the third report (1991), however, the CSE reorganized its format and structured the entire volume around investigating a single issue – flood control. This thematic approach carried over into the fourth (1997) report, devoted to highlighting the need for restoring traditional irrigation systems in the Indian subcontinent. The third and fourth reports were different on another count as well. Besides being elegantly produced, they were based primarily on original research carried out by the CSE. Clearly the CSE’s State of the Environment (SOE) reports represent an evolving perspective, indicative as much of political trends on environmental concerns as a careful and methodical documentation of ecological degradation and unsustainable development initiatives.

The fifth report has once again been invested with a new approach. Published in two volumes, the first part is a comprehensive evaluation of the status of India’s ecological infrastructure such as land, water, and atmosphere; the second part provides a valuable and carefully enumerated statistical data base on different aspects of India’s environment and economy. In both volumes the facts and figures are meticulously collated and the arguments credibly substantiated. The CSE is truly a professional outfit and the report will serve as a valuable source book to innumerable NGOs and government departments.

The CSE’s overall assessment of India’s environment is unfortunately alarming. The majority of the rivers and fresh water sources are polluted with toxic industrial waste and urban effluents. Existing river supplies are, moreover, heavily overdrawn by irrigation projects and many of these grossly dwindled channels are infused with sewage, pesticide residues, drain water, etc. The Yamuna that skirts Delhi is a poignant example of an entire river regime despoiled by the city’s foul waste discharges. The rate of deforestation remains critical. Though somewhat arrested, natural forests still declined from 55.12 million hectares in 1980 to 51.73 mha in 1999. Untouched forests or pristine forests could be as low as 11.66 mha, i.e. approximating just 3.5% of the country’s land area.

Air quality in cities and towns has witnessed an unprecedented decline. Most big cities are now lethal gas chambers. While Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai all have suspended particulate matter (SPM) levels way above WHO norms, a whole new set of urban settlements are being added to the list. In Hyderabad, for example, the pollution level between 1993-96 has gone up by 170 tonnes. Even Dehra Dun, for long a haven and natural retreat, is now a polluted urban sprawl. The evidence on health, industrial pollution, habitat, etc. is similarly depressing. The limitations of writing a review, however, prevents one from elaborating in colourful detail the grave situation in these sectors.

Even more disconcerting than the pathology of environmental degradation is the repeated failure of all institutional arrangements to check the speedy depletion of these vital resources. Whether it is air pollution monitoring boards, river action plan authorities, or forest bureaucracies – there is a palpable lack of political will to make the writ of any of these agencies effective. In fact, if anything, government initiatives when lacking in popular participation run a reverse course by aggravating situations and severely compromising peoples’ access to their natural environment and resource base.

While the CSE report can be considered substantial and far reaching in terms of documenting the status of the environment and institutional failures, it remains either bizarrely naive or categorically rightwing in terms of advancing a political perspective on the nature of the crisis. To start with, the report operates within an oversimplified political framework for explaining the inexorable destruction of India’s ecological infrastructure. At the top of the list of belligerents, according to the CSE, sits the government and its bureaucracy. Accordingly, government initiatives are corroded and demonized by corruption and inevitably the poor powerless masses bear the brunt and make up the suffering rear. The ‘agents of change’, in the perception of the CSE, are the law courts, which must be/can be used to limit or put an end to corruption.

In sum, it is a middle class moral-posturing view of politics with the emancipatory agenda located outside of politics and firmly limited to the judicial process. Undoubtedly, one does not expect a full blown and complex analysis of the Indian state with a precise assessment of the correlation of class forces in a CSE report. Nevertheless, one does develop an unease of sorts with an over-simplified model.

Can one really confront India’s environmental crisis without a direct assault on skewed relations of class and property? Is increasing productivity through sustainable environmental practices possible with the current complexion of ruling interests, especially given the speed with which liberalisation and privatisation of the economy is occurring. Is it possible to empower people merely through eco-friendly techniques and practices? Surely the CSE with its experience in documenting environmental issues since 1982 has the maturity now to at least begin to evolve a more complex understanding of the larger political economy that underdevelops regions and degrades environments.

Corruption in India is structural rather than individual. It is only one among the many means and methods with which our ruling classes prosper at the cost of the environment and people in general. Not to squarely identify the nature of class rule and reduce prescriptions to issues of administrative detail and technique compromises the strength of the report and its rich documentation. The fifth report will undoubtedly reach out to a large number of concerned activists and motivated individuals and, therefore, makes the need for a political perspective critical. One could not help but notice that the fifth report had another innovation to its credit; while the first report was dedicated to the women of Chamoli and the second to the people displaced by large dams, the most recent one carries advertisements by HUDCO, Indian Oil Corporation, Hero Honda, to name a few. Is there a clear message here?


Rohan D’Souza