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ENVIRONMENTALISM AND THE LEFT: Contemporary Debates and Future Agendas in Tribal Areas by Archana Prasad. Leftword Books, New Delhi, 2004.

Environmentalism and the Left sets out to ‘outline the contours of the debate between the Left and the environmental movement in the context of the development of tribal societies in India.’1 Given that social movements and the organized left have begun to draw closer to each other, defensively at least, in the face of the rising tide of neo-liberal economics and right wing politics, this would appear to be a useful thing to do. Unfortunately Archana Prasad’s book is notable for a series of omissions that damage the argument she wishes to present.

The problem begins with the definitions. Early on we are told that the left in this book refers ‘to the organized left in India which is primarily represented by the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), and their mass organizations.’2 The environmental movement is ‘an umbrella term used to describe a series of local struggles and conflicts that highlight issues of livelihood and ecological security in the development debate.’3 In practice this appears to mean movements like Chipko and the Narmada Bachao Andolan as well as NGOs working on issues of livelihood and ecology. Now there’s a sharp dividing line between movements and NGOs in general: it’s fair to say that most movements are increasingly critical of the NGO current. When institutions like the World Bank began singing paeans in praise of NGOs, which was some years ago, alarm buttons began to be pressed. Since then non-governmental organizations have become a cottage industry in which the interests of funders tend to override any tendency towards radicalism, an honourable minority apart.

There is also a fundamental distinction between movements like the NBA and Chipko and what in this book are called ‘other tribal rights movements, many of which share the assumptions of the environmental movements, inspired as they are by the same neo-Gandhian philosophy.’4 What Prasad means are adivasi movements, and the last part of her statement is factually incorrect. Adivasi movements are diverse, ranging from organizations like the Kashtakari Sanghatna in Dahanu (Maharashtra), the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan in western Madhya Pradesh, autonomous struggles against the Koel-Karo dam in Jharkhand and mines and factories in Kalinganagar and Kashipur in Orissa and the movement for land restoration in Kerala’s Wynad. Few of them are inspired by a ‘neo-Gandhian philosophy’ however – their methods, for one, tend to be much more militant (the Kalinganagar and Koel Karo blockades, the occupation of the Muthunga sanctuary), eschewing such quintessentially Gandhian tactics as the hunger strike. Nor can their motivations or philosophies be usefully defined in terms of Gandhism. At least one, the Kashtakari Sanghatna, in one of its early documents explicitly describes itself as Marxist.5 In other words, out of the great variety of social movements in the country, Archana Prasad isolates a section that appears to fit the formulations of Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil, while implying that tribal rights or adivasi movements share substantially the same perspective. In practice she jumbles together arguments used by campaigners like Vandana Shiva, movements like the NBA, and activists like B.D. Sharma.

Social movements is a term that encompasses what are here called environmental movements and adivasi movements: since Environmentalism and the Left effectively conflates the two, it will be used in the rest of this essay as a convenient shorthand for the book’s definitions. According to its author, the debate between the organized left and social movements is important because ‘both have a long tradition of work amongst tribal people and in regions where they form a significant proportion of the population.’6 However, the organized left despite its past history is, and has been for a long time, rather marginal in tribal regions where the predominant radical current is Maoism, omitted entirely from the discussion. It’s no accident that the site of the formative Maoist insurgency (Naxalbari) had a significant tribal population, or that the CPI (M)’s unit in (tribal) Srikakulam went over in a body to the CPI (ML) shortly afterwards. In other words, not only are the premises of adivasi movements (which easily outnumber ‘environmental movements’ in tribal regions) misstated, the strongest current of the left in these regions is not even mentioned: Environmentalism and the Left sets up a debate about tribal regions in which the main protagonists are reduced to shadows or omitted.

The limited presence of the organized left in these regions (outside of West Bengal) reflects its failure to address adivasi issues and concerns in any adequate fashion. Besides, its relationship with adivasi movements has been more fractious than Prasad indicates. Communist cadres in Dahanu set themselves against the Kashtakari Sanghatna.7 C.K. Janu, who worked for a while in the party, has been consistently critical of the CPI (M) in Kerala.8 In a sense the very emergence of an independent non-party movement for land restoration in Kerala demonstrates the insensitivity of the organized left to adivasi issues in one of its strongholds. Finally there is Tripura which brings us to another notable omission. A largely positive assessment of the adivasi policies of left administrations in Tripura manages the feat of avoiding any reference at all to the state’s tribal insurgency.9 After 1947, a flood of Bengali speaking migrants from Bangladesh reduced the tribal population of Tripura from a majority to about a third in a few years. Their political, administrative and social dominance eventually produced a violent secessionist movement amongst indigenous Tripuri communities. The tribal support base of the CPI(M) in Tripura was eroded by the proliferation of armed groups: the creation of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council by the state’s first left government (which incidentally chose a Bengali, Nripen Chakravarty, rather than a tribal, Dasarath Deb, as chief minister in 1977) failed to contain discontent. It’s true that Tripura’s insurgency is exceptionally violent and exceptionally criminalized; but given Archana Prasad’s assessment of left policies, she should have attempted to explain it in some way.

These elisions matter the more because her assessment of the organized left in tribal areas is overwhelmingly positive (in terms of its policies in West Bengal and Tripura, its theoretical positions generally, and the record of its campaigns). Why in that case it should be so marginal is a question the book sidesteps. The perceived difference between the organized left and social movements is set up early – the latter use traditionalist arguments that come perilously close to defending ‘pre-colonial feudal structures’,10 while the left ‘argues that development has to be structured in a way that benefits the poorest of the poor in Indian society... The Left’s support to the idea of modern development is thus rooted in a critique of tradition; unlike the Indian environmental movement it does not believe that traditional systems are either sustainable or egalitarian in character... modern development is seen as having the potential for charting out a path that was socially, economically and politically sustainable... through a transformation in the nature of the State and, indeed, by bringing about fundamental changes in the current course of development.’11

Both halves of this syllogism are defective. The traditional structures of Indian society, underpinned by caste, were hierarchical and deeply inegalitarian. However, it does not follow that economic, political and social arrangements in tribal regions were also feudal. Prasad quotes just one observation by B.K. Roy Burman to the effect that ‘communal tenures have a tendency to benefit the dominant lineages in tribal society’ to buttress her contention that ‘iniquitous primordial relations... pervade[d] the traditional system.’12 No analysis of any kind is even attempted. Did superior rights vested in families that first settled villages amongst the Munda of Chhotanagpur indicate ‘feudal’ tenures? Did the existence of kingdoms in adivasi regions imply that the relationship between ruler and ruled was ‘feudal’? Can 19th century Bhil chieftaincies in western Madhya Pradesh or Chhotanagpur’s Munda Manki system be described as ‘feudal’ in any meaningful sense? Pre-colonial tribal societies (not a homogeneous category in any case) were disfigured by patriarchy, often by attenuated versions of caste etc. Nevertheless, their economic and social arrangements were, on the whole, considerably more egalitarian then those of the dominant social order. It will not do to call them feudal, as though the two were essentially indistinguishable, without proving the assertion in detail.

In the chapter on the Narmada struggle (which has some factual misstatements – the Maheshwar dam is not in Maharashtra; the NBA did not press for a reduction in dam height) one of the central arguments was over the legitimacy of building a dam that would displace a large number of the poor (approximately 60 per cent of those displaced are adivasi or dalit) in order to provide irrigation water to, for the most part, prosperous farmers in south and central Gujarat. Water allocation to Kutch and Saurashtra was a transparent fiction: it was clear that the primary beneficiaries of the dam would be in areas where capitalist agriculture was well developed. The organized left failed to take a position on this question (in spite of its assertion that ‘the design and planning of [large development] projects [should be] such that the main beneficiaries... should be the poorest of the poor rather than the richest section of the society’13) preferring instead to concentrate on conditionalities of displacement and rehabilitation.

There are useful, if often elementary discussions in the book – on forest policy and tribal livelihood, for example. Throughout Archana Prasad’s conflation of adivasi movements with ‘environmental movements’ in terms of approach fails to hold up – indeed, apart from the Ekta Parishad (uncharacteristic of adivasi movements in any case) she scarcely mentions one. There are basic errors – Jaipal Singh (more properly, the Adivasi Mahasabha) did not campaign for a separate Santhal state in the 1930s.14 The assertion that the left ‘does not sympathize with the ideal of the restoration of traditional rights in forests. Instead it has been demanding that pattas be given to all landless farmers on the land that they are continuing to till’15 appears to imply that there’s a contradiction between traditional rights (by which adivasi movements usually mean rights of access and use) and individual tenure. However, as Prasad acknowledges in another place, legal tenures for what the state calls ‘encroachments’ has been a central demand of adivasi movements. What else was the campaign over the forest dwellers bill (to which the organized left gave full support) about?

Adivasi movements can be criticized on other grounds: for their inability to deal with class formation within adivasi society; for failure to build wider and more enduring organizational structures; for being unable to halt the rise of the right in adivasi regions; even for not being environmental enough. It’s easy to argue, for example, that local communities can effectively protect forests; much more difficult to prove that they will do so, given the pressures of contemporary capitalism and the factors driving change in tribal societies. These however are questions Prasad ignores.

The term environmental is consistently conflated with opposition to modern science and technology. But environmentalism itself is a thoroughly modern ideology, an offshoot of the Enlightenment’s cataloging and classifying impulse, its ambition of mapping the world, in this case the damage the industrial mode of production has done to it. Nor are traditionalist arguments necessarily retrograde, as Prasad implies. They must be carefully distinguished from the arguments of the right – and it’s true that neo-Gandhian positions have a tendency to fall into them. But there have been Marxist attempts as well to reapply lessons from the past: William Morris grafted some of the values of feudal Europe to his 19th century socialist utopia, News From Nowhere.

Finally, Environmentalism and the Left accepts the theoretical positions of the organized left on modernity and development more or less uncritically, without examining their contradictions or asking whether they’re consistent with the paradigm of industrialization that the CPI(M) and the CPI have consistently espoused in practice. To pose this question is not to deny the necessity of industrialization. It is simply to ask what dissident European Marxists such as Rudolf Bahro began asking in the ’70s and ’80s – how much should be produced? At what cost? For what end? These are elementary, but profoundly difficult problems. To take the organized left’s pronouncements at face value without examining the contradictions between ends and means in the light of historical experience is to evade any genuine debate. Approximately 40 years ago, Daniel Thorner pointed out, in the context of West Bengal, that the productivity of modern industrial equipment placed increasing restrictions on the transfer of the workforce from agriculture to industry.16 There’s more to this phenomenon than jobless growth, or the ratio of capital investment in manufacturing to jobs created. Given the genesis and development of the industrial mode of production, it has proved impossible for any except a handful of countries to follow even roughly what, for the sake of convenience, can be called the European paradigms of industrialization (including the planned, socialistic industrialization of eastern Europe and the USSR) without incurring very different social and ecological consequences. There’s nothing in the formulations of the organized (or even the Maoist) left that indicates their awareness of this cul-de-sac, nor any recognition that subsistence arrangements, suitably reinforced, offer a genuine alternative to the kinds of wage labour wholescale industrialization necessarily produces.

It’s true that the floodtide of neo-liberalism and the rise of the right in adivasi regions make some kind of alliance between social movements and the Indian left desirable, at least in terms of strategy. Unfortunately this complacent book is unlikely to provoke much reflection or debate amongst either.

Shashank Kela


1. p. 14.

2. p. 116, endnote.

3. p. 11.

4. p. 15.

5. See ‘Kashtakari Sanghatna (The Warli Uprising Revisited)’ by Kashtakari Sanghatna in A.R. Desai (ed.), Agrarian Struggles in India After Independence, New Delhi, 1986.

6. Environmentalism and the Left, p. 1415.

7. See footnote 5.

8. See Mother Courage, The Unfinished Story of C.K. Janu, as told to and written by Bhaskaran, New Delhi, 2004.

9. Environmentalism and the Left, p. 47-52 and 107-110.

10. p. 27.

11. p. 13.

12. p. 27.

13. p. 78.

14. p. 93.

15. p. 38.

16. See, The Shaping of Modern India by Daniel Thorner, Delhi 1980.


DROWNED AND DAMMED: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India by Rohan D’Souza. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006.

IF history is the only ground for evaluating ideological claims then, given the experiences of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, socialism was a disastrous mode of government. Equally, capitalism has had to temper its triumph given that its model is now threatening the very existence of the planet, as current projections on climate change indicate.

Through an assessment of flood control in colonial Orissa, Rohan D’Souza argues that capitalism, as a specific social form, with its assemblage of practices, has a unique (and devastating) ecological impact as compared to other, say subsistence driven, social arrangements. He makes the broader point that ecological interventions are not benign conquests of nature but correspond to the precise social form and the distinct political economies at play. So capitalism fundamentally recasts its relationship with nature through its extractive processes and the ensemble of ecological practices that it unfurls can only be explained through dynamics peculiar to its political economy. In so arguing, D’Souza distances himself from exponents of the colonial watershed thesis, including Ramachandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil and K. Sivaramakrishnan, who view ecological change under British rule as a consequence of particular policy interventions.

D’Souza reckons that the colonial watershed account, though a useful descriptive framework, lacks the power to explain why colonial (and postcolonial) authorities continued to persist with catastrophic interventions in their efforts to tame flood-prone rivers. In his view this can only be explained by the irresistible logic of capitalist dynamism and its insistence on refashioning ‘nature in the image of capital’, by gearing it exclusively towards marketable productivity.

D’Souza, who teaches science policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, disaggregates these claims through a splendid genealogy of defeat in attempts to control flood prone rivers of deltaic Orissa. For that alone Drowned and Dammed is necessary reading for policy-makers eager to impose ‘pre-packaged’ projects, such as large dams, unmindful that such solutions have historically originated in unique politico-ecological contexts, which can be calamitous when imposed on other socio-hydraulic landscapes.

In the first half, D’Souza make two important points that ought to inform discussions on contemporary water related interventions: the relevance of local knowledge in managing water and the social impact of enforcing capitalist (extractive) relations on nature. He demonstrates that ‘colonial capitalism’ unravelled both the indigenous ecological practices that peasants in Orissa crafted to cope with annual floods and the social apparatus existing under Mughal-Maratha rule that smothered the shocks effected by inundation. In fact, as attested by numerous colonial authorities, floods were not perceived locally as an unmitigated threat to begin with. Orissa was instead a flood dependent landscape, the annual floods were integral to agrarian production as farmers depended on and harnessed the silt-laden floodwaters through skilful (and often temporary) breaches and embankments that drained and irrigated fields. (The muddy floodwaters over the fields and tanks incidentally deposited fish eggs that hatched into fish that fed on the larvae of mosquitoes thus eliminating malaria.)

Peasants had long pursued overflow irrigation which involved diverse cropping strategies such as planting varieties of rice and other crops at different times, effectively scheduling harvests to dodge floods and thereby distributing risk of total inundation. Besides, Mughal and Maratha revenue administrations, antedating colonial rule, were structured to be sensitive to calamitous possibilities in the delta and granted deductions for losses during flooding and so on. Indeed they allowed intermediary officials considerable latitude in writing off revenue demands and granting agricultural loans in times of distress. In fact, as D’Souza writes, land under the Mughal-Maratha dispensation ‘was more than possession and less than property’ and revenue administration ‘was organised around an emphasis on creating and renewing social alliances and political infrastructure’ which colonial rule dismantled.

The institution of capitalist private property in the form of the Company zamindar virtually eliminated the Maratha intermediary and the obligatory support mechanisms in place for the peasantry. This is where the plot thickens. Having abolished existing monitoring mechanisms, unable to comprehend the welter of agrarian practices and convinced that land as private property ought to generate projected revenue regardless of context, colonial authorities set about separating land and water. They set up extensive, permanent embankments which disturbed the ‘agrarian rhythm’ that thrived on inundation and instead turned Orissa into a ‘flood vulnerable landscape’. Colonial authorities persisted with flood control methods aimed at securing land, the only presumed resource, and when they failed (by 1857) employed Colonel Arthur Cotton, who gained fame as a hydraulic engineer, to retrieve the situation.

Cotton proposed ‘the comprehensive diversion of its rivers into a plexus of irrigation and navigation canals’ (as part of a proposed larger navigational grid in peninsular India) accompanied by marginal embankments to insulate land from flood spillover. This was impelled not by particulars of deltaic flooding in Orissa as shown by Cotton’s agenda to lobby for irrigation and navigation schemes and conversely argue against the railways. Soon private capital investors in the form of Madras Irrigation and Canal Company (MICC) secured government guarantees to build embankment related works and deliver canal transport and irrigation services – in return for a fee, and within 60 years of a colonial rule, had somehow managed to charge Orissa peasantry for water to irrigate their fields in an area where water was literally everywhere! Cotton’s scheme collapsed (with the government having to bail out investors) aided by lack of demand for irrigation water, peasant resistance and bureaucratic fatigue; the official machinery simply couldn’t cope with the social effects of enforced, rapid ecological change. It was also an ecological disaster; flood control provoked hydraulic volatility, fragmented the delta’s alluvial plains into ‘sharply demarcated zones of protected and unprotected enclaves’ causing social tensions and creating interest groups who had a stake in retaining the embankment and canal system.

By the late 1930s, multi-purpose river valley development (MPRVD) techniques using large dams to harness the river for hydroelectricity, navigation and irrigation gained currency in India – shifting the scene of flood control from the delta to the catchment. This was inspired by the success of Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the US. As in the case of Cotton, TVA represented a technological breakthrough deployed at a ‘specific political moment’, in that it was the means by which the US federal government sought to break the monopoly of private power companies and spur the development of electrical and manufacturing industry necessitated by the Great Depression.

In India, there was a great degree of ‘unchecked zeal’ in pushing through MPRVD projects in the early 1940s; administrative, legal and constitutional instruments were overhauled to ‘accommodate logistics for constructing river valley schemes’ and projects, like the Hirakud Dam, were pushed through without proper feasibility studies. This could only be explained by the relationship between Indian industrial capital and the colonial government, particularly following the charged political climate following the Quit India campaign of 1942. World War II was good for Indian industry through wartime contracts but authorities were plagued by fears of large-scale unemployment, expected to add to existing political turbulence, in a post war scenario. It was decided, in the words of then Secretary of State, that a ‘large scale programme of social improvement’ will be started to ‘secure the support of the mass of Indian opinion during the war.’ It was thus in the context of having to drive a wedge between industry and nationalist churning that MPRVD projects and related interests took root; and it is those very industrial interests that continue to control the narrative for large dams today.

Rohan D’Souza, through an engaging symmetry of exhaustively plumbed historical record, theoretical rigour and comparative insight, relates these bends in the plot with unflagging energy and demonstrates that there are no context-free interventions in ecology. He persuasively establishes that the one-size-fits-all view of hydraulic regulation, be it large dams or interlinking of rivers – usually derived from a confluence of Malthusian paranoias, business interests and technological availability – in the end undermines political stability and ‘ecological integrity’.

Sushil Aaron


ONE VALLEY AND A THOUSAND: Dams, Nationalism and Development by Daniel Klingensmith. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007.

SINCE the mid 1980s, dam projects throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America have generated passionate debates and struggles. No longer are they mere symbols of modernity signifying human triumph over nature. If anything, with social conflicts dramatically intensifying and given their large scale impact on the ecology of the catchments, the discourse on dam-building and development now constitutes a contested terrain.

Daniel Klingensmith’s book is a timely work that provides fresh insight into the genesis of dam-building in India and how it was influenced by the developmentalist model of multi-purpose river valley projects in the United States during the 1920s and ’30s. The book, a perceptive work of meticulous scholarship, is a comparative study of two multi-purpose river valley projects that shaped the development paradigm in micro watersheds of Damodar and the Tennessee Valley. The author reflects on how these technological marvels, built on the notion of modernization and technological neutrality, became symbols of progress, democracy, freedom and nationalism and entered the popular imagination of the people as ‘democracy on the march’. The book, through careful historical narrative, demonstrates how the TVC became a symbol of development and progress in independent India. Klingensmith looks into the life histories of scientists, planners and policy-makers in independent India, who had a mimetic imagination of Damodar in TVC as a ‘blueprint for development’.

The author peeps into the making of Indian and American engineers, planners and administrators like Meghnath Saha, Kunwar Sain and others who later became the architects of the DVC and Bhakra-Nangal projects. Saha was mesmerized by Lilienthal’s Democracy on the March, a well-crafted political tome, strongly emphasizing that freedom and development could only be achieved through basic research in the sciences. He was averse to the Gandhian idea of local and indigenous technological innovation.

Klingensmith’s narrative synthesizes the evolution of a development model in the post-war United States and its influence over the post-colonial nation states. His analysis is explicit as it seeks to portray how the idea of developmentalism and post-war nationalism influences policy-makers and their conception of development through technological gigantism, such as building of big dams in India and other independent states of Asia.

Looking into the life histories of the engineers who made big dams a reality in India, Klingensmith argues that Sain’s positioning with respect to the nationalist political movement was similar to Meghnath Saha’s, although he was not from quite such a disadvantaged background. ‘Both sympathized with anti-colonial nationalism, but felt unable to take an active part in it politically; in their family and social context, the cost of giving up British institutions was too great. Saha would endeavour to serve the nation through the scientific institutions of British India. Sain vowed to serve India through the Raj’s irrigation service, to be a nationalist, even while a part of the colonial establishment’ (p. 230). Both these architects of big dams drew inspiration from the popular meta-phrase ‘Democracy on the March’ and imagined their own categories for India. See for instance America Through Indian Eyes that was written by Sain after his return from a trip to the United States.

Saha, like many of his contemporaries, viewed science as a universal liberator and big dams as images of modernity that would absolve the nation of its bereavement and underdevelopment. His imagination of technological modernism and its apolitical identity did not allow his technological expertise to scale the social complexities and variance that existed between the two nations. He viewed technology as an apolitical intervention machine that could find remedies to all social problems. As Klingensmith writes ‘…he embraced a universalist modernism that would improve on the imperfect modernism of Colonialism and Capitalism; he thought he found it embedded in TVA’ (p. 148).

Like many other post-independent technocrats, Kunwar Sain was inspired by America’s anti-colonial uprising and the growth proximity between the post-colonial nation states and the American counterpart. But the imagination of ‘internationalism’ and apolitical scientific and technological intervention for the welfare of humanity was disclosed to be more complex and politically crafted, embedded in international relations which Sain himself acknowledges three decades after the programme started. Indo-American political and technical collaboration was an example of a sane internationalism, an alternative and substitute to the ‘internationalism’ of colonialism.

In the final chapter the discussion shifts towards an analysis of the political meaning attached to the building of dams and how Nehruvian monumentalism – dams as temples of modernity – got legitimacy from the emerging Indian urban middle class comprising of politicians, scientific expertise and administrators. The constellation of experts and technocrats who surrounded Nehru, inspiring his modernization and development dreams, was also vital in pursuing the national policy on big dams and modernization. Klingensmith’s work gives a remarkable account of how technical experts and bureaucrats have perceived development through hydraulic manipulation of river basins and tried to project them as symbols of national pride and achievement. But, the book fails to do justice to its commitment by limiting its discussion on the political actors and the role of private interests that benefited most from the initiation of large construction activity. The political mandate that propelled debates in British India on the adoption of multi-purpose river valley projects as a logical solution towards mitigating flood hazard has been somewhat glossed over in the book. It does not venture beyond individual life histories of engineers and planners to explain the political economy of decolonization and nationalism.

As D’Souza points out, at the heart of the multi-purpose river valley development (MPRVD) project and the rapidly changing arrangements for rule was the complicated relationship between Indian industrial capital and the colonial government.1 However, it is noteworthy that the book sheds new light on the ideologies and representation of the river by planners, technicians and bureaucracies both in the United States and India. This intensive analysis of the transnational influence that the TVC and its proponents had on the Indian political and educated class provides a unique insight into the actors who were involved in materializing this monumental development project. The book is a fresh attempt to understand political dreams and anxieties that has impelled technical expertise to reorganize rivers and their valleys since the post-war period with enormous consequences for lives, landscapes, and politics.

The current debate on the interlinking of Indian rivers is perhaps an extended dream in the belief of technological modernism. It reflects how technological solutions to emerging water scarcity have become the cure-all for development among the planners and engineers as also points to the politics of water management in the subcontinent – the lobbies that are pushing the national government to undertake such monumental projects. Klingensmith’s book provides a critical counter-narrative drawing on the life histories of engineers and planners to show how their ideologies on democratization, technological neutrality and post-war liberal nationalism resulted in both a disappointing outcome for their supporters and disaster for those who were relocated in the name of development.

Debojyoti Das


1 Rohan. D’Souza, ‘Damming the Mahanadi River: The Emergence of Multi-Purpose River Valley Development in India (1943-46)’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 40(1), 2003, p. 95.


THE STORY OF ASIA’S LIONS by Divyabhanusinh. Marg, Bombay, 2006.

The Story of the Asia’s Lions by Divyabhanusinh, as the title suggests, is the story of the charismatic lion and the history of its interaction with man. The author has taken up the enormous task of synthesizing every historical detail connected with lions, seeing and interpreting human history almost entirely from the lion’s point of view. The uniqueness of the book is that the author steps back like a true historian and narrates the various events relating to the story of the lions without imposing his views. This book is of great relevance not only for its cogent compilation of lion history spanning several centuries but also because it is the first historical account of Asia’s lions written in the English language. It is unbelievable that the story of Asia’s lions did not till now have a single reliable source reference!

Historical events and establishment of dynasties alter cultural practices and lifestyles. One cannot separate the status or distribution of lions from these historical events. Significantly, the lion has consistently been an icon and symbol of many a dynasty. All three topics – Indian history, status and exploitation of lions and lion symbolism – are intricately connected, and the author has blended these with meticulous detail. He has to be appreciated for his research and the amazing variety of illustrations collected on the topic of cultural history and lion symbolism.

The book begins with a rush of rustic colours of the Gir, its charismatic lions and lovely people. Lion facts, ecological detail, historical accounts – almost every detail is summarized. Genetic facts to gentle poetry, the entire gamut of information is presented to the reader at the very outset. The bhurio, pilo, kalio, the pagis and velars all come alive before the reader. One wonders, since all facts are synthesized in the first chapter itself, what is to follow?

The author rightly observes that, ‘The lion’s fate seemed to have been sealed from very early on in human history. >From the dawn of human history depredation of the lion’s environment and prey-base was laid siege to meet the need of sustaining and developing human culture and civilization. In addition, they (humans) relentlessly pursued the lion to tame it, hunted it for sport, and in many cases eradicated it simply as being nuisance to themselves.’

The book has been divided into thirteen chapters and takes the reader through time – from the pre-historic era, early Indian civilizations, the Mughal period, the British era, the rule and the role of the Nawab in lion conservation, post-independence era and the present day challenges. Chapters three to ten trace the history of lions and the last three chapters are related to contemporary events and issues. In the final chapters, the author summarizes the lion census’ from the earliest reliable records, conservation measures taken since the declaration of the Gir Lion Sanctuary Project in 1972 and research findings of the past few decades. Lion distribution and population figures are common knowledge but the author additionally describes the vision, earnestness and backdrop of each of the census operations and discusses the credibility of the estimates. The contributions of people like M.A. Wynter-Blyth and R.S. Dharmakumarsinhji are well brought out.

The conservation of the Asiatic lion is synonymous with the name of the Nawab of Junagadh. But how many of us realize that it was three generation of nawabs who diligently built up the lion population and its habitat? The contributions of the sixth nawab, Mahabatkhanji II (1851-1882) and Rasulkhanji (1892-1911) were particularly crucial. While the former initiated efforts to protect lions, the latter consolidated the efforts to protect the Gir forest. The ninth nawab, Mahbatkhanji III, otherwise known for his eccentricities and his ‘monumental acts of political folly’, continued his predecessor’s efforts to save the lions.

In advance of the times, the Junagadh state enforced strict hunting laws and even prepared the first working plan for Gir. Rasulkhanji was the first to establish the Gir sanctuary. The author emphasizes that Rasulkhanji’s bid to protect a large carnivore was the earliest anywhere in the world. The nawab’s efforts were ‘a tradition easy to follow and difficult to ignore.’ They were appreciated and respected by the colonialists who further strengthened conservation measures despite compulsions to sacrifice the interest of the Junagadh state to larger colonial interests. The incident relating to Lord Curzon was a benchmark and further spurred conservation efforts. The details pertaining to the period of the nawabs, administrative constraints and anecdotal accounts are well described by the author and make for interesting reading.

Can any story on the lion be complete without bringing up what has become the ‘perennial debate’ of conservation – the issue of lion translocation? Since the author is a great one for historical details, we learn that a second home for Gir lion population was first proposed as early as 1952 by the Indian Board of Wildlife. Two other attempts were also made prior to independence – first, the successful introduction of lions in Shivpuri, and another in Nepal which failed. Subsequently in 1956, lions were introduced in the Chandraprabha sanctuary but despite initial success the effort failed. In 1993, out of three sites, Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary was chosen as a second home for the Asiatic lion, but the matter continues to be steeped in controversies and doubts. Maintaining a neutral tone the author says that, ‘It is in the interest of the species to have a viable home such as the Kuno-Palpur or elsewhere (Barda proposed by the Gujarat state) for their long-term survival’, without himself campaigning for any particular site for translocation.

‘The Story of Asia’s Lions’ at first appeared to be a coffee table book, though my knowledge of the author and his credentials should have told me otherwise. The book is certainly not ‘light’; rather it is packed with details in a way that the target audience sometimes may becomes confused. Perhaps, the text could have been made more lucid for the layperson.

Though the recounting of the lion’s history engenders sympathy along with anxiety for the future of this majestic cat, the impact is lost in repetitive descriptions in the concluding chapters. The importance of accurate census figures and lion translocation should have been emphasized in a simple and direct way. The veracity of the book is compromised by the use of misleading facts from unscientific sources, and the use of terms such as ‘home-range’, ‘carrying capacity’ and ‘upgradation of the forests’ are misplaced.

In the final analysis, the book makes for an interesting and useful read and is recommended for anyone interested in history and love for wildlife, in particular for those who love the ‘remarkably resilient’ lions of Asia.

Meena Venkat


ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN INDIA: A Reader edited by Mahesh Rangarajan. Dorling Kindersley (India), Delhi, 2007.

THE disturbingly rapid pace of environmental degradation across the globe over the past few decades has provoked increasing concern about the long-term health and stability of the natural world. In India too, rising urban and rural pollution levels, widespread deforestation, unpredictable patterns of climate change and the resultant impact on agrarian production cycles, amongst others, clearly indicate an urgent need for sustainable development policies which enable the use of natural resources in a manner that aids the regeneration of both human beings and resources. On the other hand, the increased incidence of violent conflict between a wide cross-section of people and their governments on issues ranging from big dams to the exclusion of local communities from protected forest reserves and national parks, points to the failure of the authorities, as well as large numbers of lay persons, to show an equal and simultaneous concern for both the preservation of the environment and social equity.

The field of environmental studies in India has emerged in an attempt to better understand the origin and nature of these ecological and social dilemmas as well as to reflect on possible solutions to them, and has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. Environmental Issues in India, a wonderful selection of essays compiled by Mahesh Rangarajan, adroitly conveys the dynamism and excitement of this relatively young discipline. The pieces in the book are divided into five sections which give the reader an idea of the remarkable range of disciplinary approaches that have been brought to bear on questions related to environmental change and policy. With a vast temporal and geographical reach, the different essays together construct a complex and compelling narrative of environmental change in India down the ages.

The first section of the book concerns itself with the ecological history of pre-colonial India. The four essays on ancient India engage with a range of issues and relate to larger historical concerns. While V.N. Misra’s work brings together evidence on how climatic change may have impacted the fortunes of the Indus Valley civilization, the essays by Makkhan Lal, Romila Thapar and Mahesh Rangarajan delineate varied dimensions of the interface between forests and agriculture. The other pieces in this section present the reader with vignettes from the ecological pasts of medieval India. Particularly interesting is Divyabhanusinh’s attempt to reconstruct the history of lion hunting under the Mughals through an exploration of a wide array of source material ranging from the visual, especially miniature court paintings depicting hunting scenes, to the detailed hunting memoirs kept by different emperors.

The three pieces which find inclusion in the next section on the history of colonial India display a great deal of thematic unity, in that they are all studies of important figures who have, in their own very different ways, left a lasting impact on the environmental movement in India. Ramachandra Guha’s provocative essay analyzes not just Mahatma Gandhi’s own ideas on environmentalism and development, but also the implications of his appropriation as an inspirational figure by early Indian environmentalists, particularly those associated with the Chipko movement. Apart from Gandhi, Salim Ali and Jim Corbett, names indelibly associated with conservation in India, form the subject of biographical essays by Madhav Gadgil and D.C Kala respectively.

While these three essays are in themselves stimulating and well-written, one wishes that the editor had thought fit to incorporate some other exciting work on the environmental history of this period, including studies of colonial forestry, hunting and wildlife conservation, and colonial hydraulic management amongst others.1 It is hoped that a second edition of the reader will include some of this work.

The third section of the book comprises essays on a varied set of environmentally related concerns that came to the fore in the post-colonial period as the newly independent government attempted to push forth a policy of modernization and development. The themes that are explored here range from the green revolution to water pollution, from analyses of pastoralism and shifting cultivation to lucid appeals in favour of granting protection to endangered ecosystems. Mukul Sharma’s hard-hitting examination of the displacement, dispossession and exploitation of the underprivileged that invariably accompanies the monsoon in the diara regions of Bihar each year; Bina Agarwal’s attempt to analyze processes of environmental degradation, resource distribution and development through a gender, and within that, class specific perspective; and J.R. McNeill’s article on the hidden costs that accompanied the more visible benefits of the green revolution are some of the most thought provoking pieces in this section.

The papers in the next section are given over to discussing the multifarious environmental movements that have emerged in different parts of the country over the last two or three decades, focusing also on the alternative conceptions of environmental protection and resource use that they envisage and embody. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha’s article presents not only a comprehensive survey of social conflicts that have sprung up around the issue of natural resource use – be it over forests, big dams, fishing or mining – but also a nuanced analysis of the tactics and developmental ideologies that are adopted by these movements. Particular conflicts are subjected to detailed analysis, as in the case of Ajantha Subramanian’s paper on struggles over fishing rights along the Coromandel Coast and Sanjay Sangvai’s article on the Narmada Bachao Andolan. A most original and interesting piece in this section is Savyasaachi’s paper on the practices of the forest dwellers in the Simlipal reserve in Orissa, notified under the Project Tiger scheme. Having explored their ideas about and experiences of the forest and its denizens, he suggests that current perceptions of biodiversity would benefit much from a wider understanding which incorporates within it alternative modes of resource use and nature conservation.

This volume concludes, most fittingly, with papers which engage with issues that hold much significance not just for India, but also globally. V.K. Nagaraj and N.V. Raman raise issues of industrial safety, compensation structures and management responsibility in their paper on the Bhopal gas tragedy and its aftermath. Anand Patwardhan tackles the ‘of the moment’ concerns of global warming and climate change in his paper, emphasizing the urgent need to improve our ability to deal, plan for, and adapt to extreme weather conditions.

Environmental Issues in India is an invaluable introduction to the field of environmental studies, cogently expressing as it does the great complexity, dynamism and heterogeneity of India’s environmental pasts and presents. Bringing together in one volume some of the finest work on India’s environmental history, it should be of great interest and importance not just to scholars and policy-makers but also to a much wider lay audience interested in understanding issues related to environmental change, social conflict and sustainable development.

Radhika Govindrajan


1. On colonial forestry, see K Sivaramakrishnan, Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in Colonial Eastern India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1999; on hunting and wildlife conservation see Mahesh Rangarajan, ‘The Raj and the Natural World: the war against dangerous beasts in colonial India’, Studies in History 1998 14, pp. 265-299.; on colonial hydraulic policy see Rohan D’Souza, Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2006.


THE ENVIRONMENTALISM OF THE POOR: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation by Joan Martinez-Alier. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005.

THIS book seeks to help establish ‘two new fields of study, political ecology and ecological economics, investigating the relations between them.’ Professor Martinez-Alier begins by describing the different currents of environmentalism, emphasizing the environmentalism of the poor, goes on present several concepts of ecological economics, after which the author moves to the field of political ecology. Details about several cases of the environmentalism of the poor are followed by discussions of urban sustainability, environmental justice, the state and other actors, and international trade.

Some ideas that this book puts across are as follows. Environmental conflicts are widespread. Whether in mining, shrimp harvesting or in industrial production, externalities often take the form of a severe loss of livelihood or negative impacts on the health of the poor. Environmental values are often incommensurable, or not translatable. Loss of human dignity cannot be compensated by payment. Values also reflect a given distribution of power. Studying the environment requires being rooted in physical reality.

This is neither a standard academic book, nor is it technical. The author is ‘interested in reflective activism and participatory research in ecological conflicts, whether this helps academic advancement or not, whether it fits into any academic discipline or not.’ Martinez-Alier draws heavily on newspapers and the literature of environmental activists, apart from the work of researchers.

According to the author there are three main currents of environmental activism. The first, the cult of wilderness, is concerned with the preservation of wild nature. The second, the gospel of eco-efficiency, is concerned with the wise use of resources. The third, the environmentalism of the poor, has its basis in ecological distribution conflicts which arise from economic growth and social inequalities. This third type of activism has not identified itself explicitly as ‘environmental’. The environmentalism of the poor emphasizes the geographical spread of resources and wastes. As economic growth occurs there is an outward geographical spread as new areas are tapped for oil and gas, copper, shrimp and so on. The environmentalism of the poor sees the environment as a source of livelihood.

Ecological economics sees the economy as embedded in a larger finite global ecosystem, drawing resources from and emitting waste into it. Ecological economists are interested in developing several material indicators of sustainability. They also aim to examine how changes in property rights and the use of new instruments of environmental policy can help achieve sustainability. However, Professor Martinez-Alier stresses that they do not believe that there exists a set of ‘ecologically correct prices.’ Also that in this book, unlike neoclassical economic theory, distributional issues are not ‘introduced as a charitable afterthought’, but are central. Drawing upon work by Josef Popper-Lynkeus in 1912, it goes on to discuss ‘social metabolism’. This discussion of the historical evolution of different ideas is one of the central features of the book.

The birth of political ecology in the 1980s is explained in the context of different instances of activism related to copper mining at different times and in different locations. Political ecology was born from local case studies of rural geography and anthropology. And it is here that Martinez-Alier puts forward a key idea. Conflict and resolution are distinct, and intensification of conflict may in some instances lead to a resolution of an environmental problem. For instance, only after experiencing environmental conflicts did sulphur dioxide emissions begin to decline in Japan. Another key idea is the belief that nature and conflicts over nature are concrete and material, not as in the postmodern approach, without real substance.

In the chapter on ‘mangroves versus shrimps’ Martinez-Alier discusses cost-benefit analysis. In 1999, a team of economists performed a cost-benefit analysis of shrimp farming in Thailand. If only marketable products were taken into account, the net present value of a commercial shrimp farm was far higher than the same area preserved as mangrove forest. However, if indirect benefits were also considered, the net present value of the mangrove forest would be higher than that of the shrimp farm. However, since such estimates are sensitive to the discount rate used, several ecological economists stress pluralism of values and advocate a multi-criteria approach. Rather than use a cost-benefit analysis to judge whether to preserve or not preserve mangroves, the author prefers using different criteria such as food security and cultural values to decide for or against alternatives. Cost-benefit analysis could be one criterion. Through the exercise of evaluation, a matrix of social interests and values can be developed which makes explicit the different social conflicts.

This book covers a wide spectrum of environmental issues, including mining, mangroves, and urban unsustainability. The author also poses a series of questions. For example: ‘Would a prosperous world then have a stock of five billion cars, almost ten times as many cars as in the year 2000? Would the 21st century be the real century of the motor car? Would the car become an object of mass-consumption worldwide, or would its expansion encounter ecological limits?’ I found the following example of the author’s careful attention to physical realities and mass balance fascinating: ‘We know that, while the endosomatic energy consumption of a citizen is about 2500 kcal per day, that is, a little over 10 megajoules per day, that is 3.65 gigajoules per year, the expenditure of energy of one person during one year only in individual transport in an urban region characterized by urban sprawl, such as Los Angeles, is about 40 gigajoules. In comparison, in compact cities, with metro or bus, one person will spend 4 gigajoules per year in urban transport.’

The book is impressive in its sweep, going across the earth and back and forth in time presenting different conflicts over the environment that involve the poor. Martinez-Alier poses several questions that will help researchers think more deeply and advance their understanding of environmental issues. Students from different disciplines – economics, history, sociology, environmental studies – can read the book to cross over into different territory while still finding something familiar. They will also find the extensive bibliography useful. Environmental activists who read this book will perhaps connect to other places and people with similar concerns, and get a sense of context.

Vikram Dayal