CONSERVATION AT THE CROSSROADS: Science, Society, and the Future of India’s Wildlifeby Ghazala Shahabuddin. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2010.
IN the increasingly polarized field of conservation in India, Shahabuddin’s writings tend to be inclusive and moderate, and this work is no exception. On the one hand is the include-people lobby that believes local inhabitants can sustainably utilize forest resources, while on the other is the exclude-people lobby that promotes the relocation of people from forests. Which of these two approaches conserves optimum biodiversity? Can these contradictory positions be reconciled or are they mutually exclusive? These are the questions that face wildlife conservation today and now finally there is a book that explores these two major pathways over eight chapters. Shahabuddin is no stranger to these issues as she had co-edited an anthology of essays in a book, Making Conservation Work in 2007 and is Associate Professor at the School of Human Ecology, B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi.
The total protection formula focuses on the forest department excluding people from forests by removing villages from protected areas, policing the area from all use, and restricting access to researchers. The community conservation strategy comes in a couple of forms such as Community Conservation Areas, Joint Forestry Management (JFM), and the World Bank funded India Ecodevelopment Project (IEDP). These have been implemented in various parts of India under diverse conditions. Critical to evaluating these management strategies is the independent researcher, who is frequently accorded step-child treatment by the forest department, thereby depriving itself of valuable insights in forest governance.
Despite ‘total protection’ being the state’s forest management policy, Shahabuddin chronicles the widespread habitat degradation in India’s protected areas. Infrastructure projects such as roads, dams and mines, as well as harvesting of forest products by a growing human population, both within and without these forests, have taken their toll. Using Sariska as an example, the author examines the deficiency in policy and governance. Prior to the tiger crisis, researchers had reported the extinction of the chinkara and the four-horned antelope, vital prey species of the tiger. It was also known that the habitat was degraded because of firewood and fodder collection, and grazing. By 1990, tree regeneration had already been severely hit, with growth stunted across the ecosystems, the diversity of species was plummeting and exotic invasive plants had made inroads. It was just a matter of time before the tiger disappeared.
On the other hand, the department kowtowed to powerful forces that had interests in mining and timber. The park is so small that the dynamite blasts in the mines on its doorstep can even be heard in the core area now. Despite these larger threats from outside the reserve, when the tiger crisis erupted, blame was pinned on the soft targets – local people. While little has been done to improve and secure the habitat, the entire focus of the remedial measures is on moving local people out and introducing tigers into Sariska.
At the other end of the spectrum, the pro-people lobby holds that the pristine nature model is a failure and promotes a more inclusive style of conservation. The community conservation paradigm co-opts local people as custodians of the forests who are also allowed to use it sustainably. However, some crucial questions remain unanswered. How much can be harvested without affecting the future regeneration of a species? Does extraction of such products negatively impact the ecosystem?
Collection of fruits, flowers and seeds by people deprive birds and mammals of a plentiful seasonal resource. Dead wood collection may negatively impact hole-nesting birds. Shahabuddin rightly notes that few studies monitor extraction and evaluate its impact on the ecosystem. Since most Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) are destined for markets, these tend to change the diversity of the forest, until either the resource is over-exploited or the marketable species is selectively nurtured to the detriment of all others. In forests used by people, the species that are sensitive to habitat change and disturbance fare the worst. In almost every case, livelihood concerns triumphed over the conservation agenda. Even in flagship projects such as the Annapurna Conservation Area Project in Nepal, biodiversity and degradation worries remain unaddressed.
Joint Forestry Management (JFM) was one of the largest exercises in the decentralization of natural resource management in India. Although ‘joint’ is the operative word, in a majority of the cases decision-making powers were firmly in the hands of the department, with little or no involvement of the villagers. In many cases, the benefit sharing agreements were not in place; so although villagers provided labour with the expectation of some returns, these did not materialize. For these reasons, people were suspicious of the department’s intentions; but on the positive side, JFM projects did succeed in providing a source of firewood and fodder by regenerating large areas of degraded landscapes.
The aim of the IEDP was to provide greater synergy between protected areas (and their custodians) and local people for biodiversity conservation. While the poorest people were the most dependent on forest resources, they were effectively sidelined from deriving any benefits from the project as they couldn’t afford the mandatory financial contribution. Conservationists felt that such projects were detrimental to conservation as they led to unnecessary infrastructure development within a protected area causing degradation, while overburdening the officials already charged with protection. Like the JFM projects, there was no consultation with the local people and this appears to be the crucial factor. Periyar and Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserves are celebrated success stories mainly because they delegated decision-making powers to villagers.
Did these community conservation programmes promote biodiversity conservation? Definitely not, is the author’s resounding answer. The include-people champions say that the success of any community conservation measure is security of land tenure. But, with an increasing human population, the corresponding demand for agricultural land and finite forest resources, can forest ownership alone drive sustainability, asks the author. While she agrees that land tenure has to be secure, she also adds that extractive pressure should be low, and access rights clearly defined if effective conservation is to be practiced. How will it be possible to keep the extraction pressure low when there is no sign of the human population growth rate levelling off? Nevertheless, there is an incentive to support this paradigm as local livelihoods are entwined with the ecological services of a rich forest.
Shahabuddin also turns her attention to the state’s discouragement of scientific endeavour in this field. The Indian government took a conscious decision to exclude US funds and researchers from India, and effectively stunted its progress in ecological research. Although the Indian economy has been liberalized, the forest department continues to perpetrate a permit raj. The department’s combative attitude to researchers is captured succinctly by the author, ‘It is as if science-based perspectives are viewed as a mortal threat by a forest department that believes it has a monopoly on knowledge of the forest.’
The title of the book begs the initial question whether conservation was ever on a straight path, when it appears to have staked a permanent spot at the crossroads. Towards the end, Shahabuddin argues that these are not mutually exclusive pathways, even when the choice is restricted to only one of two directions. There is clearly no alternative to well-governed inviolate areas for ecosystem conservation. Community-inclusive strategies are complementary to total protection and both need to be treated on par if conservation goals are to be achieved. These are but many stairways to one goal.
The forest department is perhaps the single largest landowner in the country governing over 635,000 sq km, and no large scale conservation initiative takes place without its approval. In case after case, the author concludes that the failure, or at least the limited success, of almost every conservation programme in the country comes down to the department’s refusal to share decision-making powers with local people. (Indeed, a more appropriate title for the book would have been ‘Conservation at a Roadblock’!) The department does not appear to realize that for conservation initiatives to work, local people have to be made equal partners or that independent researchers are essential to evaluate the sustainability of harvests and benefits to biodiversity conservation and livelihoods. Given the entrenched hegemonic power structure that dictates conservation policy and implementation today, the system does not have the capacity to engage with local people with trust, empathy and respect which predisposes these various strategies to failure. While the author hints at this institutional failure, she misses an opportunity to make a hard case for change within the department.
I do have a few other quibbles; the work suffers from a lack of editorial oversight. There are repetitions, inconsistencies, language issues, use of local names for tree species and tangents that could have been avoided and made this the high quality publication that it deserves to be. However, I recommend this book highly to anyone who is perplexed by the cacophony of voices evangelizing one or the other paradigm. Those deeply rooted in their include-or-exclude people positions might find critical evaluations of their ideology and some common grounds for agreement with the opposite camp. The greater the consensus the stronger conservation actions will be.
FOREST OF TIGERS: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans by Annu Jalais. Routledge, New Delhi, 2010.
Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans was initially conceived of as a corrective exercise. Jalais hoped to focus attention for once on the people of the Sundarbans rather than on its charismatic tigers and threatened mangrove forests – an approach which has repeatedly cast residents of the Sundarbans as villainous squatters hacking away at the edges of a pristine environment, decimating forest canopies out of ignorance or greed and slaughtering royal tigers for illegitimate medico-magical purposes. Yet, the very people Jalais wanted to focus on insisted that she first acquaint herself with the forest. They told her ‘to look also at the jongol and appreciate "their tigers" precisely in order... to value their lives and what gave them the distinct identity of being islanders of the Sundarbans’ (195). With refreshing humility and considerable ability, the author has heeded their advice.
Well-written and informative, the book is accessible to a wide audience. Those familiar with Bengal history or, I suspect, having a background in ethnology or anthropology will have a distinct advantage, but there is much here to inform and intrigue the non-specialist. Readers who are primarily interested in the Sundarbans on account of its tigers and mangroves would do well to peruse the book for its insightful and enlightening investigations into the ways area residents situate themselves in relation to the forest and how they ‘think with tigers.’
The author carried out the bulk of her field work in Garjontala, a section of Toofankali village on the island of Satjelia, which, as illustrated in a fine set of maps hand drawn by Jalais, is about 130 km South of Kolkata. The 245-page book is an adaptation of the author’s doctoral thesis. Besides an introduction and conclusion, it is divided into six chapters that investigate the relationship between the village and the forest, the connections linking land and hierarchy, the significance of ‘elected’ kinship among villagers and forest dwelling animals and deities, the specific experiences and practices of prawn seed collectors, the understood parallels between tiger and human histories and behaviours, and the differences between the ‘cosmopolitan tigers’ that inhabit the imagination of international NGOs and elite Indians and the kindly ‘old tigers’ of the villagers – animals that for the most part no longer exist but for which the islanders express some nostalgia. The book includes a convenient glossary and an index, and is illustrated with several black and white photographs.
The author’s fascination with the topic is evident throughout and her enthusiasm makes for some lively reading without, however, sacrificing a scholarly approach. Jalais introduces her personal connections to the Sundarbans – from her childhood excursions to the region and her subsequent habit of collecting relevant newspaper clippings, through adult reassessments of her early memories and their significance. Particularly evocative is her recollection of how the sanctuary guards she met on a high school nature study camp insisted that villagers could deter the maneating Sundarbans tigers from attacking if they simply wore masks on the back of their heads, even as the guards maintained that it would be too dangerous for themselves, or for Jalais, to go beyond the fence that marked the edge of the visiting area – even were they to adopt the same Janus-faced defence. Most chapters open with similarly suggestive or representative episodes from the author’s experiences in the field.
Jalais describes several ways the Sundarbans islanders situate and hierarchize themselves in relation to other people and to forest denizens like tigers. Caste, religion, and class are not the only factors. One dominant divide is between regions that are ‘up’ and those that are ‘down’, where ‘up’ places are closer to Kolkata, on the stable delta, and endowed with schools, roads, electricity, wealth, and government services, and where ‘down’ places are further South, on the active delta, and outfitted with minimal infrastructure. The liminal nature of the ‘down’ settlements on their shifting deltaic earth and in regions viewed by elites as tiger land – where people should not be – is reinforced by the government’s refusal to invest heavily in the ‘down’ places or their infrastructure.
Within Garjontala, additional spatial divides come into play. Individuals who own land and live near the school and away from the river enjoy bhadralok (literally genteel folk) status. The gramer lok work in the forest or on its edges and live by the river, where they face greater danger from water, wind and wildlife.
Referencing Eaton’s conclusion in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1993) that cultivation and Islam became associated in the region from the 13th through the 18th century as a result of the forest-clearing activities of Sufi holy men, Jalais notes that in the Sundarbans today, people think of the forest, not the fields, as Islamic. The forest, she reports, is where people must act in egalitarian ways, not just amongst themselves, but in relation to tigers, crabs, fish, trees and non-timber forest produce.
In line with the islanders’ own conventions, Jalais equates Islam with egalitarianism. She does so without analyzing in sufficient depth why that association is so consistently made. This is surprising as she elsewhere asserts that Muslim islanders, like their Hindu counterparts, are caught up in hierarchies of ‘up’ and ‘down’, of bhadralok and gramer lok, and that some of them, like many adivasis, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, have resorted to changing their surnames in a bid for higher status. It would have been helpful had Jalais told us more about the precise ways islanders conceived of Islam as egalitarian, if they thought such egalitarianism was a good thing in general or if they considered it inappropriate for cultivated areas, and what the relegation of egalitarianism to the forest might mean for the inclusion of Muslims in village life. Nevertheless, Jalais has made an important contribution in drawing attention to the alignment of the forest with Islam in the Sundarbans.
Sent by Allah, Bonbibi or ‘the woman of the forest’ protects Hindu and Muslim islanders in the Sundarbans from Dokkhin Rai, a threatening half tiger, half-Brahmin figure known for eating human flesh. Far from being his enemy, Jalais reports that Bonbibi is Dokkhin Rai’s ‘elective’ kin and ‘friend’ to his mother. Bonbibi extends her protection to forest workers on strict terms, which include enjoinders not to anger Dokkhin Rai by entering the forest with arrogance, greed, or displays of social inequalities, violence, or strife. Taking only what is needed and sharing forest produce equitably among people and animals appeases the tigerish nature of Dokkhin Rai while appealing to the compassionate, rather than the ferocious, nature of tigers.
A fascinating discovery here is the parallels many islanders see between what they consider to be their own generous yet aggressive, irritable, and short-tempered nature as Sundarbans residents, and the similar characteristics they ascribe to the local tigers. The difficulties posed by the quality of the land itself, and particularly by its salty soil and brackish water, produce these analogous human and tiger ‘personalities’. According to Jalais, the islanders ‘could be called environmental determinists’(8).
Besides the tigers’ potential for aggression and arrogance – qualities stirred up by the same human habits that irritate Dokkhin Rai – islanders cite other factors that can lead to attacks. According to some, the tigers of Sundarbans became maneaters after consuming corpses in the wake of the late 1970s Morichjhanpi massacre, an event that made them realize they could treat islanders as ‘tiger food’ with tacit official sanction. Another theory holds that the government has introduced a new and ferocious breed of ‘hybrid’ tiger into the forest. These ‘hybrids’ breed faster than regular tigers and are meant to exterminate the villagers. The post-Morichjhanpi and ‘hybrid’ tigers neatly echo the villagers’ conflicts with outsiders. Environmental NGOs, international observers, Indian elites, and officials tend to cherish the ‘World Heritage Site’ status of the Sundarbans – as do some islanders – and conceive of the region as tiger ground illegitimately occupied by villagers. Jalais therefore coins the term ‘cosmopolitan tiger’ to differentiate these visions of tigers and their appropriate relationship with people, from the islanders’ conceptions of ‘their’ tigers and legitimate forest use.
On the whole the book is well-edited and readers will not be distracted by more than a couple of errors, the most notable of which is Jalais’s identification – by way of poor sentence structure perhaps – of the abundant rhesus macaque and the hardy wild boar as endangered species. Both are listed as of least concern by the IUCN.
One modest quibble is with Jalais’s somewhat contradictory use of the word ‘reclaimed’ to describe lands made into cultivable fields and also to characterize flooded ground where the waters have taken back land through erosive action. Might this dual usage have been explicitly addressed? Was it a conscious choice on the author’s part? How do islanders speak of their ‘reclamation’ efforts and how do they characterize the changes wrought by wind and water?
Overall, the author’s sensitive analysis offers a marked improvement on popular and scholarly approaches that rigorously separate people and nature by insisting that nature is found only in, and can be preserved only as, pristine and uninhabited tracts. She urges us to look beyond the ‘pristine’, a label liberally applied to the Sundarbans in much of the literature, to see how people are living near, working among and thinking with tigers and the forest. Appropriately conceiving of her work in line with the scholarship of Rangarajan, Sivaramakrishnan, and (most recently) Shahabuddin, Jalais succeeds in further complicating the ‘rather crude opposition... built between tigers [or forests] and humans’(7).
DEMOCRATIZING NATURE: Politics, Conservation and Development in India by Ashwini Chhatre and Vasant K. Saberwal. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006.
Democratizing Nature provides a critical overview of the claims and contestations over resource use of the landscape of the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in Himachal Pradesh. The authors, who have done field work in the area, use their knowledge of the area to provide insight into the dynamic interplay of competing narratives and discourses and their outcomes, especially in the areas of environmental conservation and economic development. The book is structured to provide a contextual platform, on which the authors base the rest of their analyses. This section gives an overview of contested claims and political machinations that are being articulated in GHNP today. In the subsequent chapters, they systematically evaluate the impact and influence of different factors in explaining the observed situation. This includes a discussion of historical contexts that continue to exert a strong influence on present land use claims. It also includes a discussion on the political dynamics that shape and articulate different perspectives to manage contestations in and around GHNP.
The authors also dwell on cultural institutions and beliefs that have traditionally framed natural resource extraction in the region. Subsequently, the book also evaluates development discourses that have dominated natural resource management in Himachal Pradesh and its varying impacts on the GNHP landscape over time. The authors then provide a strong critique of the scientific research carried out in the area, pointing out some serious methodological flaws. Finally, they discuss possible alternatives that might optimise the conservation value of the landscape, while also integrating local land use interests.
Democratizing Nature is a thought provoking and well researched book, though it does have a few notable shortcomings. It marks an ambitious effort to make sense of natural resource management and ideas of nature, both of which are complex, politically charged and heavily contested spaces in India, as in other parts of the world.1 To the authors’ credit, they have done a commendable job of tackling this notoriously complex and volatile issue. Their approach throughout the book is rather systematic and methodical, be it a critique of current conservation practices or highlighting the contradictions of political machinations at different levels. Though the narrative of the book does tend to get a little tedious and dry at times, it is to the authors’ credit that they have not shied from engaging with alternative perspectives to an issue.
This clarity of the arguments and structured evaluation of alternative perspectives and explanations sets Democratizing Nature apart. One does not always have to agree with the conclusions drawn by the authors to appreciate this aspect of the book. However, there are a few instances in the book when the authors seem to be in an uncharacteristic rush to get through the preliminary arguments and jump to a discussion of their own conclusions and viewpoints. For instance, the chapter ‘Local Practices’ paints cultural practices and beliefs in the area with large brush strokes, before plunging into a discussion on their relevance to current land use practices. A more nuanced discussion on these practices, their impact on perceptions of the landscape and their susceptibility to change would have provided deeper insights into attitudes, social norms and institutions in the face of change and political manipulations. This would then lead to more insightful discussion on their relevance to managing natural resource extraction in the area.
The strong critical approach and tone adopted by the authors is another commendable quality of the book. This approach is instrumental in deconstructing and problematising the assumptions and narratives that underpin the political and bureaucratic discourses at play in the GHNP landscape. This process of unmasking is useful to identify undercurrents at different levels and helps widen the lessons drawn from this landscape to other areas. Furthermore, the critical approach also provides insights into the deeply intertwined processes, which influence conservation and development at the local, state, national and international scale. The only complaint one has in this regard is that the authors fall short in extending this critical outlook to the alternatives they suggest towards the end of the book. To their credit, they do point to various shortcomings of the alternative they suggest and offer ways to tackle them, but shy away from subjecting it to critical evaluation.
Also, as mentioned earlier, their willingness to engage with politics, rather than merely comment on it, helps this book stand head and shoulders above other similar books. The link between politics and conservation has been a much neglected area of research in India. Demorcatizing Nature not only engages with the political dynamics that shape conservation but actually make it a central part of their analysis. For instance, it provides a fascinating account of the politics that led to the GHNP being notified as a national park and a site for a World Bank funded ecodevelopment project. It goes on to illustrate how participatory mechanisms reflected the internal power dynamics of the local communities, which diverted resources meant for ecotourism towards repair and construction of temples. It then highlights the political manoeuvres that led to the diversion of 10 sq kms of the national park area for a hydroelectrical project, despite it having high conservation value. Finally, it also traces the political mechanisms that are now being employed to resist implementation of the final notification of the national park, which would legally bar local access to resources in the GHNP landscape.
Through their narrative, the authors also provide a strong critique of existing conservation laws in India that are based on the idea of a nature-culture dichotomy. These laws physically exclude people from landscapes identified for ecological conservation, effectively alienating them. This in turn compromises the long-term ecological integrity of the landscape, while generating political resistance to the ideas of conservation. Furthermore, the landscapes are often targeted for large-scale resource extraction through state-led projects which is illustrated by the Parbati Hydroelectric Project in the GHNP landscape. In this regard, the book adds to the growing body of research critical of India’s conservation law and practices. It, however, takes the argument a step further by also tearing into the biological research conducted in the landscape. The research meant to provide insight into the biological processes of the landscape, instead expressed preconceived ideas of the impact of people on their landscape. The politics of science and knowledge are usually hidden in esoteric, even if shaky, arguments clothed in ‘scientific’ jargon. Unfortunately, this politics of science has only served to further the myopia of conservation practice in India.2
Having said that, the alternative approach suggested by the authors seem rather simplistic. Despite its merits, their suggestions are surprisingly apolitical. While I am no political scientist, the impact of politics on conservation is well documented, and the authors themselves acknowledge this throughout the book. Having provided a good account and analysis of the three issues mentioned in the book’s subtitle, the authors seem to have stumbled in their search for an alternative. This section of the book comes across as speculative and half-baked. One cannot help but speculate if this could perhaps have been addressed in any way, by running and documenting a small pilot project.
Finally, Democratizing Nature also stands out for its ability to place issues in a historical, political, ecological and cultural space and exploring the contradictions and dynamics of these contexts. However, it was difficult to place the position that the authors were adopting, besides being critical observers. They obviously have interests and developed linkages in the area, even if as researchers. It would have been useful to have a more explicit account of their ideas and values, which remain implicit in the alternatives they propose and some of the conclusions they draw.3 This nit-picking may well be the result of my training as a ‘critical’ anthropologist, and does not undermine the important insights and commentary the book has to offer.
1. W. Cronon (ed.), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1995; V. Saberwal and M. Rangarajan (eds.), Battles Over Nature: Science and the Politics of Conservation. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2003.
2. V. Saberwal and M. Rangarajan, ibid.; G. Shahabuddin and M. Rangarajan (eds.), Making Conservation Work: Securing Biodiversity in this New Century. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007, for different perspectives and critiques of conservation practices in India.
3. J. Cassell, ‘Perturbing the System: "Hard Science", "Soft Science", and Social Science, The Anxiety and Madness of Method’, Human Organization 61(2), 2002, pp. 177-185 for a commentary on values and semantics in research.
INDIA’S NOTIFIED ECOLOGICALLY SENSITIVE AREAS (ESAs): The Story So Farby Meenakshi Kapoor, Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon. Kalpavriksh and WWF-India, Delhi, 2009.
THE draft National Environmental Tribunal Bill prepared in 2008 sought to dissolve all authorities set up under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, including all Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) authorities/committees, whose powers were sought to be transferred to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities – a suggestion that led the authors to study India’s experience with ESAs. How are they created? How are they different from India’s other legal provisions for wildlife conservation and habitat protection? What are the results like? The outcome is instructive. The ESAs stand revealed as a concept with frightfully poor implementation till date, but with a lot of unrealized potential.
The ESAs can be traced back to Section 3(2)(v) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, which empowers the central government to take all measures it deems necessary to protect and improve the quality of the environment and prevent environmental pollution. It allows, the authors say, ‘for the restriction of areas in which certain developmental activities can be prohibited.’ Further, Section 5(1) of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, lists criteria like topographic and climatic features of an area, its biological diversity, environmentally compatible land use, extensive cultivation, proximity to protected areas, etc, which can be considered while prohibiting or restricting certain operations. In the process, the focus of an ESA has evolved to be one of restricting industrial and developmental processes which have negative impacts on the environment.
That is the background. So, how has the concept fared? Not too well. For one, 20 years after Murud-Janjira, a small coastal village in Maharashtra’s Raigad district became India’s first ESA, the country has just eight ESAs in all. Apart from Murud-Janjira, there is Doon Valley, Dahanu taluka, parts of the Aravallis range in Haryana and Rajasthan, Numaligarh in Assam, the Taj Trapezium, Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani, and Matheran. The applications of other areas like Mount Abu and Sultanpur are pending.
This is strange. Where are the Andamans, the Lakshadweeps, other swathes of the Western Ghats and the North East? The low number of ESAs is all the more surprising when one realizes that they can be created in myriad ways. In three ESAs, the notification was the result of local opposition to a specific development project. In the other five, developmental activities which had been going on for a long while had abruptly gathered pace and were seen as threatening the region in question. Further, while Mahabaleshwar, Matheran, Aravallis, Doon Valley, Mount Abu and the Taj Trapezium came about due to court orders, Murud-Janjira, Dahanu and Numaligarh came about due to engagement with politicians. This diversity in notification raises a question on why there are so few ESAs in this country.
Further, even the existing ones are not doing well. Take the Doon Valley. While quarrying, the reason why Doon was declared an ESA, has been stopped, implementation of the notification has taken a back seat once Dehradun became the capital of Uttarakhand. Illegal construction is rampant. In Dahanu, locals are upset about the lack of developmental activity. As the book says, ‘The local elected representatives and their supporters were of the opinion that because of the Dahanu ESA notification, the taluka was not able to develop. They wanted the notification to be withdrawn or reviewed to facilitate developmental activities.’ In Mahabaleshwar and Matheran, locals similarly oppose their hill stations’ ESA status. Then, illegal mining continues in the Aravallis. Industry continues to set up shop in Murud-Janjira. In Numaligarh, new applications for industrial work continue to come in.
For all that, the ESAs come across as a concept with unrealized potential. As the authors say, the current system of conservation is dominated by the Protected Area Network. Not only are they limited in size, these are also areas where all human activity is prohibited. ESAs, on the other hand, are relevant to larger landscapes that experience multiple uses by different users. As the authors point out, Section 3(3) of the EPA has been designed to restrict industrial activity for the conservation of any kind of ecosystem – be it coasts (Murud-Janjira, Dahanu), forests (Aravallis, Numaligarh), plains (Taj Trapezium), hill stations (Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani, Matheran, Mount Abu, Doon Valley) or islands. It can also be used to conserve agro-biodiversity landscapes or areas where wild and agro-biodiversity form a contiguous stretch.
This creates intriguing possibilities. Not only can ESAs be used as an extra layer of protection around the protected areas, they can, as in the case of Numaligarh and Dahanu, help a region offset the environmental impacts of large projects coming up nearby. They can also help plan land use in most of the country, and help ensure large parts of India stay relatively environmentally intact.
For that to happen, of course, the MoEF will have to play a more proactive role – so far it has been little more than a respondent to requests from conservation groups, say the authors. They also suggest the criteria for declaring ESAs, currently based only on ecological sensitivity, be expanded to include what they call environment sensitivity. ‘Many of the areas that need protection from further environmental damage have no explicit environmental value like the presence of near-threatened or endemic species. Environmental sensitivity is a much broader term and encompasses more factors based on anthropogenic activities as compared to ecological sensitivity.’
The biggest quandry, however, seems to be around local support. As pointed out earlier, the ESAs enjoy little local support. By their very nature, ESAs will affect local livelihoods unless alternative (and more sustainable) avenues of development are delivered. Fix that, and a more benign model of development might yet fall into place.
SPRINT OF THE BLACKBUCK: Writings on Wildlife and Conservation in South India edited by S. Theodore Baskaran. Penguin Books, Delhi, 2010.
FOR over three decades, the Madras Naturalists’ Society has been the weekend home of several dozen people with more than a passing interest in wildlife and natural history. Some of its younger members have gone on to become highly respected wildlife biologists. Besides mentoring future conservationists, the MNS has played a quieter but no less important role in simply providing the interested citizen a way of learning about wildlife and nature. One of the key ways the society has achieved this is through its quarterly journal Blackbuck. In publication for over 25 years now, Blackbuck has carried a wide range of articles – from reports of scientific studies and surveys, to the more lighthearted recollections of unusual encounters in the wild. Its contributors have been equally varied; they have included distinguished naturalists and writers as well as students and the occasional visitor to the society.
Such a body of essays, reports and accounts written over a quarter century is a rich treasure from which to draw an anthology that traces, if largely anecdotally, the changes in the wild landscapes of southern India. In the recently published Sprint of the Blackbuck, S. Theodore Baskaran attempts exactly this. This collection of twenty-eight pieces culled from previous issues of Blackbuck is an easy afternoon read (more a trot than a sprint), even for a person with little or no background to nature or conservation writing. Baskaran’s selections cover considerable ground in terms of the species and locations that appear in the essays, they offer a succinct overview of conservation issues and questions that arose over two decades ago but continue to be relevant, and they provide a good introduction to some of the better-known writers on these subjects.
A friend of the society since its inception, Baskaran has the advantage of being both a naturalist as well as an insider in the society. And this advantage has been put to good use in the selection of essays. Himself an excellent essayist, Baskaran has carefully chosen pieces that keep their relevance regardless of their age. The essay is a dying form suited to and favoured by writers and audiences of a gentler, more reflective age than the one we live in; there are fewer and fewer publications that will edge out flashy features and racy reports to make space for an unhurried essay. That Blackbuck remains one of those few is commendable and that a modern-day publisher takes the risk of investing in an anthology of essays from a journal of only a few hundred subscribers is even more so.
One of the problems, however, with popular natural history writing in India is that it is haunted by ghosts of writers past – this selection too suffers somewhat from the same malady. Nearly a fifth of the book is dedicated to pieces by the much-anthologised M. Krishnan. While his vast range and sharp style certainly make the editor’s task of choosing among them unenviable, showcasing younger latent talent would have been useful.
One other inexplicable inclusion is a 1986 report on a survey of the Anamalai Wildlife Sanctuary which reads like a scientific paper complete with statistics of animal sightings – with no current figures at hand for comparison, the reader can make little sense of these numbers. A postscript note from the editor, providing a sense of the current status of wildlife in the sanctuary, might have improved the piece.
In fact, the anthology would have benefited greatly from a couple of small additions. Simply providing the date of original publication would have helped place many of the articles in context, especially those in the conservation section of the book. Most of the arguments and pleas laid out here are still relevant today; the inclusion of dates would have provided the reader further perspective on the evolution of these debates.
A few of the essays would also have benefited from closer editing – the Nilgiri Pine Marten (which appears in P. Uthaman’s otherwise enlightening article) does not exist, while the Nilgiri Marten certainly does. Footnotes on the essays would have made another valuable editorial addition. Sitting quietly at the end of the book is a little gem by Kumaran Sathasivam on the unsung efforts and expertise of local field assistants working with researchers. But the essay tells us nothing about the location of the story; in fact, it does not even tell us the names of the field assistants in whose praise it is written! A footnote providing this information would have completed the piece.
Most of the essays, however, stand on their own strength without requiring footnotes or other explanations. Especially excellent is K.K. Neelakantan’s essay on the sometimes strange things that so delight a naturalist, written in a leisurely, amused, easy style that was rare even in its day and is completely absent now. Akash Deep Baruah’s report on the rescue of beached whales in Tamil Nadu gives one hope for both the administrative and the forest service in the country, which are otherwise (so often deservingly) criticized in all matters to do with conservation. R.J. Ranjit Daniels describes the unseen life of ants and their ecological importance in a lucidly written piece. T.R. Sridhar’s account of the fauna of northeast India as it was seventeen years ago, is richly descriptive.
T.N.A. Perumal’s piece on wildlife photography, while a tad lengthy, has valuable lessons for beginners even today. No doubt it was an exposition of cutting-edge technologies and techniques when originally published, but thanks to the digital age and the degree of automation it has enabled, parts of the essay sound charmingly quaint.
While Sprint is as representative as possible of the different subjects, issues and habitats written about in Blackbuck over the years, the overall tone and style differ only slightly between the pieces. This is perhaps less a comment on the anthology itself than on the state of natural history and conservation writing in India. Humour, for example, is almost entirely absent, as are satirical, philosophical and analytical essays. In fact, given the richness of India’s biodiversity and the accessibility of its natural areas, surprisingly little seems to be written about nature and wildlife in the country. What little does exist seems to focus almost exclusively on the tiger and its habitats. Sprint, refreshingly, has little mention of this national obsession.
Anthologies are something of a risk, both for editors and publishers, but they serve an important purpose in providing concise, cross sectional views of a genre or a subject and its evolution over time. Sprint performs this as well as another equally important purpose – of filling the unfortunate gap in the nature and wildlife shelf in Indian bookstores.
THE JARAWA TRIBAL RESERVE DOSSIER: Cultural and Biological Diversities in the Andaman Islands edited by Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya. Unesco, Paris, 2010.
THE history of civilization stems from evolved adaptations to dynamic resources and social circumstances through movement, within and outside landscapes. Ancient tribes continue this pattern of existence, inextricably linked to the natural world, their perspective shaped through community experience of climate, resource use and interactions with other tribal groups. Yet the linkages these people have with their surroundings are subject to disruption, as they are increasingly forced to interact with post-industrial neighbours.
Culturally diverse regions such as South and South East Asia are more susceptible to the forces of social imperialism, and the subtle forces of cultural genocide have swept across entire continents. As Vine Deloria points out in her book, Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Macmillan, New York, 1969), indigenous culture was wiped out either through intermarriage and assimilation in most of South and Central America, or through extermination in North America. Surprisingly, a minuscule number of cultures have managed to survive the onslaught of globalization. They have often been in locations too remote for politicians’ concern or missionary contact. There is, however, a more important factor that has determined their survival, as is lucidly stated in The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: ‘…only those who are hostile survive today…’ (Harry Andrews).
The context of these tribes in today’s world is in sharp juxtaposition to the way governments choose to deal with them. Whether in the jungles along the Brazil-Peruvian border or in the Andaman Islands, these once isolated tribes can no longer pen their own history. All these tribes now stand at the crossroads between their past and a future being dictated to them. Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya have attempted to bridge the gaps in knowledge about one such tribe living in the Andaman Islands, the Jarawa. As editors of this recent report on the Jarawa Tribal Reserve, they draw on years of experience both with the Andamans in general and the Jarawas specifically.
Pankaj Sekhsaria works with Kalpavriksh and is an award winning writer on environmental issues dealing with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, who also hosts a web-based discussion group on the ecology and conservation of the biodiversity of that region. Vishvajit Pandya has participated in ‘contact’ missions with the Jarawas in his capacity as an anthropologist. He has also acted as consultant to the administration on matters of tribal community welfare. They have brought together articles from experts who are also very well-versed with Jarawa tribal culture, with researchers like Manish Chandi and Harry Andrews from ANET (Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team) having spent many years in those areas in order to better understand the ecology and conservation of their study species. Samir Acharya of the SANE (Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology) has dealt with litigation in favour of tribals like the Onge and Jarawas. Inclusion of the results of a study commissioned by the Supreme Court following the PIL regarding the Andaman Trunk Road brings a new facet to the discussion by providing essential insight into the traditional lives of the Jarawa people.
Situated at the crux of sociological, ecological and political change, the Andaman islands are a hotbed for conflict. With few detailed studies on the region, establishing a holistic picture of the Jarawas and their forest has proved difficult. Still, this report brings together pieces about the islands, their biodiversity, people and issues, to provide a picture of the Jarawa Reserve that is more complete than any previous publications have made possible. Based on the premise of creating an understanding for the needs of a hunter-gatherer community from the perspective of a sedentary, civilized society, this report deals with several issues surrounding the point of contact between these two cultures.
Opening with the history of contact between the British and the Andaman islanders, the chapters flow into each other, building a story of how the administration, locals and tourists have chosen to deal with the Jarawas. More significantly, some authors have attempted to understand how the Jarawas deal with the intrusions made into their lifestyle and territory. The unifying thread across the articles in this dossier is the imposition of the Andaman Trunk Road on the Jarawa Reserve. Allusions to the ‘friendly’ tribes of Great Andaman such as the Aka-Bea-Da and the Onge, in the first seven chapters, reveal the level of cultural degeneration that assimilation into modern society has caused.
Although the report focuses primarily on sociological issues, the authors have brought out interesting parallels between the Jarawa situation and that of other endangered wildlife in protected areas across India. Akin to wildlife protected areas, the JTR seems to exist more on paper than in reality due to a lack of law enforcement. The government strategy to deal with a community that refuses to integrate with capitalist economy is comparable to the manner in which it deals with animals that it cannot understand. Shutting the wildlife in and keeping the people out may work in theory, but has time and again proved futile in reality. Just as wildlife must exit these sometimes ill-planned wildlife protected areas, so too the Jarawa must enter a forbidden land of contradictions in order to perpetuate their way of life. The echoes of tactics to deal with conflict between people and wildlife find a reflection in the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. Until reserves are set up and enforced drawing on a strong foundation of research about the habits and behaviour of the beings that they are intended to protect, they will persist in being permeable to threats.
In this situation where the destiny of one culture is being driven by another, the relevance of this report is enormous. Strangely, the role of individuals in facilitating change is rather underplayed. A change in tourist attitudes could easily make a strong impact on how much the Trunk Road affects the lives of the Jarawa people. Every discerning tourist preparing to visit the Andamans should glance through the first three and last two chapters in order to be aware of the impact that he could have on the reserve. Although neither government nor locals seem to be aware of the problem they are creating, both for the Jarawa people and the ecosystem that they depend on, the report is not explicitly intended as a guide to change the situation for the Jarawas. In fact, the stated intent is just to summarize the available information in order to produce a database for the organizations involved in the exercise. Without a clear mandate to reach beyond the confines of Kalpavriksh and the Unesco, the stated agenda appears unlikely to succeed. Further, the dossier’s layout prevents it from appearing attractive to the average reader despite the well researched and written articles. Having to move back and forth across pages in order to access the maps or tables that are mentioned in the text, makes comprehension tedious to all but the informed reader or social scientist.
Despite this, some of the articles are must-reads as the dossier brings together a multitude of opinions and is well doused with history, detailed maps, and statistics. Intertwining sociology and ecology when these subjects usually polarize around issues of forest and tribals, is a feat well achieved in this publication. The editors have brought these two worlds together with such seeming effortlessness by a careful selection of quality articles and because the situation is conducive to the conservation of both a people and an ecosystem. Nature conservation and tribal culture are irreconcilable if the tribals in question wish to integrate and join the mainstream economy. But the fact remains that without integration, decisions will be taken without consultation with the Jarawa.
The situation of the Jarawas is unique against the backdrop of social and ecological struggles that occur almost daily within the wildlife protected areas of India. Whereas the Forest Rights Act (2006) is being distorted to provide roads, electricity, schools and other amenities to tribes who live within wildlife sanctuaries elsewhere in India, the intrusion of these modern day interruptions into the last remaining space of an ancient people is being ignored. That this is a universal problem is obvious from the number of articles, books and even films on the topic. The rule of assimilation or extermination when two cultures meet has even filtered down to children’s films such as James Cameron’s Avatar. The choices are stark, the Jarawas either have to adapt, the way the characters of Dreamworks Over the Hedge did, and then find a way to deal with the development surrounding them, or they will have to fight to maintain their identity like the Na’vi people of Pandora.
VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS edited by Prerna Singh Bindra. Rupa, Delhi, 2010.
AFTER In Danger (Paola Manfredi), Tiger Tales (Ullas Karanth), and Saving Wild Tigers (Valmik Thapar), amongst others, we have another edited volume of wildlife writings, Voices in the Wilderness. Yet another tiger-centric book? No, the cover has a leopard on it! Prerna Singh Bindra has put together an eclectic mix of essays from some of India’s best known wildlifers/writers. The twenty two chapters take the reader through the length and breadth of India from Point Calimere to the icy Himalayan mountain ranges and across a wide variety of habitats – from rain forests and mangroves to marine habitats and mass nesting beaches. The writings, both fact and fiction, have a strong undertone of protection and do not portray wildlife ‘through the barrel of the gun’, as Prerna herself outlines in her introductory chapter.
Voices in the Wilderness comes at a time when India’s wildlife continues to face grave threats from both illegal hunting and destruction and fragmentation of habitat. Many of the essays in the book illustrate this important conservation conundrum and even present some realistic solutions which makes this book relevant from a conservation perspective. Let me quickly add that it is not, however, an undiluted conservation or natural history volume.
Bittu Sahgal writes about the threats that the vast and fragile Sundarbans – ‘a tropical estuarine swamp forest’– faces from people and projects while Hasmukh Hoslo Jiwa illustrates the diminishing numbers of dugongs due to the ‘twin threats of hunting and habitat destruction.’ He also points out the imminent threat to the Gulf of Mannar from the Sethusamudram project. Shekar Dattatri makes a telling point about the havoc caused by mechanized trawlers and Gill netting resulting in ‘a cruel and needless death’ for the Olive Ridley turtles.
Ullas Karanth’s essay presses for ‘science based advocacy’ and ‘timely local action’ in addition to strict protection and eliminating fragmentation through voluntary relocation projects in key tiger habitats. Prerna, in her courageous foray into Simlipal Tiger Reserve immediately after an audacious Naxal attack, unravels the horrendous impact of left-wing extremism and how the ‘Naxals are in cahoots with the timber and Sal mafia’ and operate with the support of local politicians. During her ground-zero reporting, she spots posters of ‘Death to Project Tiger’ stuck in the reserve, which ironically precedes Kailash Sankhala’s recounting of the birth of Project Tiger, the last chapter in the book. In a scathing critique of his own ilk, Sankhala has candidly written that after the initial success, thanks to the strong political will of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the forest department today ‘sits on heaps of their own failures.’
Yet another account from writer Bikram Grewal highlights the plight of avifauna due to loss of grassland habitats and wetlands. His lament that birds and butterflies are also a victim of ‘mega-fauna hegemony’ can only be countered by pointing out that bird conservationists also need to exert themselves in the corridors of the government and fight for their cause (just as the tigerwallahs have been incessantly doing). Bivash Pandav agitatedly writes about the human-elephant conflict in Rajaji National Park due to fragmentation of migratory corridors caused by ashrams with electrified fences to protect their mango orchards.
Many other essays are replete with illustrative nuggets of natural history. Notable amongst these are M. Krishnan’s account of a tusker feeding on Mimosa pudica flowers with dolphins swirling around him as he stood submerged, shoulder deep in the sea at Point Calimere; Peter Jackson capturing the spectacle of a pheasant-tailed jacana moving its eggs to a new nest one after the other on his camera; F.W. Champion’s several behavioural observations on the inquisitiveness of wild animals which makes them ‘do things which normally they would not do’ and ‘run unnecessary risks’; Shekar Dattatri’s lucid description of mass nesting and the pounding of sand by the Olive Ridleys during egg laying; Joanna Van Gruisen’s witnessing of a snow leopard ‘expropriate’ a kill from four bewildered wild dogs in the trans Himalayas; and A.J.T. Johnsingh’s peek into the differences in the social organization of the Asiatic lions in Gir as compared to the African lions in Serengeti.
Some essays that dwell upon scientific insights and discoveries in the field of wildlife biology add an important dimension to the book. Charudutt Mishra and Anindya Sinha, while exploring the remote corner of western Arunachal Pradesh, write about the amazing ‘discovery’ of the Macaca munzala, a primate, hitherto unknown to modern science. Subsequent studies that show the Arunachal macaque being genetically close to the Bonnet macaque which is found more than a thousand kilometers away are interesting findings that the authors offer.
In chapter nine, Karanth presents a scientific account of his findings from long-term studies on tiger ecology from Nagarahole. The chapter weaves together valuable information on how tiger society is structured and how tiger populations can hold steady in prey rich habitats despite suffering ‘annual losses of 20 per cent’ – primarily due to high levels of reproduction. On the other end of the spectrum, Jiwa in chapter six writes about the devastating impact that the loss of just one female dugong can have on the population owing to its slow reproduction and a long ‘calving period of three to seven years.’
Apart from science and natural history, two sombre pieces of fiction have also been thrown in. Amit Chaudhary brings in an element of animal rights with his poignant ‘letter’ about the trauma of a captive bear. Ruskin Bond’s piece on the hunting down of a leopard so borders on fact that the reader will find it difficult to believe it is fiction.
Prerna has cleverly injected some humour too, amidst a lot of gloom and doom which, without doubt, adds to the diversity but also renders the book a tad uneven! Janaki Lenin presents a humorous and racy account of the excitement of living in a house aptly named ‘Pambukudivanam – the woods where snakes live’ with myriads of creatures from frogs and geckos to scorpions and snakes. Especially hilarious are the descriptions about the frog in the toilet bowl and guests not being invited towards the end of summer when the frogs are at their cacophonic best for reasons which you will best enjoy when you read the book.
Ranjit Lal transforms the mundane metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly into a rib tickling narration spiced with outrageous accounts of its ‘gastronomic orgies’ but tempers down the latter part of the chapter during the pupal stage and beyond.
A chapter by Dhriti K. Lahiri Choudhury relates his numerous encounters with a tusker in Dalma, named after a famous Bollywood villain of the ’70s, with humour. However, the essay ends on a sad note with the tusker getting branded as a rogue and being shot dead. And then there are personal accounts of Valmik Thapar with tigers in his favourite haunt – Ranthambhore, Tom Alter and his Corbett experiences and Theodore Baskaran’s ‘new year’ visit to Bandipur.
There’s something for almost everyone in this anthology – a birder, a photographer, a naturalist and a diehard conservationist like me! The essays of most authors are peppered with some pulsating narratives on wildlife encounters and anecdotes that are rooted in their intense personal experiences of working up close with wildlife in varied habitats. The reader will enjoy the sheer diversity of species that the narrative vividly illustrates, and as Prerna in her introduction puts it, ‘a celebration of our wilds.’ While one does not expect high quality image reproduction as in a coffee table picture book, the print quality of many pictures is unfortunately below par.
Prerna Singh Bindra has for over a decade been a crusading wildlife journalist who has fearlessly pursued the truth about India’s diminishing wildlife. She has, in this edition, attempted to bring the ‘voice of the voiceless’ which is well worth a read.
SHORELINES: Space and Rights in South India by Ajantha Subramanian. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009.
IN January 2010, the Ministry of Agriculture made public a draft Marine Fisheries Management and Regulation Bill designed to regulate fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This openness to a dialogue prior to the finalization of a legislation is something a novelty in the fisheries sector. In the past, the declaration of the EEZ, the promulgation of the Maritime Zone of India Act, 1981, and even the marine fisheries acts of various state governments got little or no public air in their formative stages.
Independent fisher trade unions under the banner of National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF) are determined to use this opportunity to focus on the rights of fishers as central to the protection of marine resources. The position taken by NFF and its constituent groups in the present debate on centre-state politics and decentralization, in particular their support for a centralized regulation should, however, not be read as a rejection of self-governance. That charge sounds ridiculous when speaking of fishers for whom the struggle for rights has not been a momentous one-time event ending in the grant of secular privileges to individuals. The fishers have practiced a continuing cultural politics of negotiation during which their collective identities have been made and remade through history.
One such compelling story of the struggle of artisanal Mukkuvar fishers of Kanyakumari is brought to readers by Ajantha Subramanian through her book, Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India. Her anthropological work on this community is a pleasurable read for those who enjoy swimming in deep waters. In investigating the fluid processes of regional and translocal politics, she traverses through 500 years of history that has produced a delta of identities, geographies and alliances on the southern tip of peninsular India.
The Mukkuvar fishers of Kanyakumari district have for long been essentialized as a ‘flock of the church’, technologically backward and primitive marginalized communities. In the initial chapters of the book, the author shows that these ways of circumscribing the Mukkuvars have been by and for the several ‘others’ – be it the Portuguese interested in their conversion to Christianity, the inland farming castes of Nadars and Vallalas who effected the redrawing of boundaries (Kanyakumari went from being under the rule of the Travancore kings to becoming part of Tamilnadu in 1956) that rendered them powerful in electoral politics, and the administration that sought to ‘develop’ fisheries as a national resource.
Subramanian’s story reveals that the Mukkuvars were far from static or submissive. Following conversion, though the village and the parish became inseparable, the Mukkuvars negotiated to have their caste separately represented within the institution. The author demonstrates through her analysis of this struggle that the separation of patronage and rights is not useful to understand politics in a culture where hierarchies are entrenched. The Mukkuvars’ struggle for secular rights while also being members of the parish, draws our attention to the more subtle forms of doing politics through affiliation and alliance building, rather than to the valorized moments in subaltern history that have been about overthrowing existing institutions of power.
The coastal space populated by the homes of these fishers has normally been imagined in one of two ways: it was either seen as the impoverished hem of a flourishing agricultural hinterland or as the gateway to the world of oceanic trade. In the chapter titled ‘changing developmentalisms’, the author elaborates that these are not mere descriptions. They offered the justification for several experiments to ‘improve’ the fisheries sector, both in the last fifty years of colonial rule as also after independence. The author presents the work done by three colonial administrators on the question of trawling. Their perceptions of the threat of famine and the possibility of more food through fisheries, the inescapable capitalist transformation of the sector to render it more commercially viable, and their relentless comparison of this ‘backward’ community with the more politically and socially successful agriculturalists all pointed to the inevitable ‘need’ for mechanization.
Post independence, the fisheries administration magnified these localized experiments to fit fisher welfare programmes. Technology was to be the driver of modern fisheries. My favourite sections of the book are about the unpredictable effects produced by the introduction of technology. The administration assumed that most fishers would move to work on and then own trawlers, and the entire sector would be mechanized. This did not happen. Instead, the community of the Mukkuvars split on technological, spatial and class lines. What was meant to build a cohesive and upwardly mobile fishworker constituency in the service of the nation’s progress instead made possible the production of an ecologically-minded, artisanal community out of the poorest Mukkuvar fishers.
Differentiating themselves from their caste brethren who switched to trawlers and mechanized fishing, the artisanal Mukkuvars manoeuvred the culling out of a three mile region seawards from the shore as their exclusive territory. The production of the artisanal identity, an exclusive fishing territory and a slew of regulatory measures brought about through tedious and sometimes violent negotiations provides a sense of dynamism to the concept of community. Through her powerful narration, Subramanian restores agency to the Mukkuvars, conventionally perceived as inert and timeless by the church, the state and the non-fishers. They assimilated motorized technology and established territory. Not only did they turn their artisanal and motorized craft and gear to weapons to protect their territory in innumerable confrontations with the trawling groups, they also waged discursive battles by deftly mobilizing notions of citizenship, conservation and rights.
The opening up of the marine waters to foreign vessels post economic liberalization gave rise to yet another set of actions that ran parallel to the anti trawling efforts of the artisanal fishers. While the confrontations continued in Kanyakumari, elsewhere on the Indian coast, mechanized and non-mechanized groups undertook combined agitations against the central government’s move to allow foreign vessels to fish in national waters until the decision was revoked in 1997. The role of the NFF during these years in drawing upon the global discourse on marine resource conservation was critical to help build the artisanal fisher’s claim to ‘ecological citizenship’. The final act of the book discusses the events of 1997 when a group of fifteen fisher villages took their church to a court of law. These villages who had resisted trawler activity in their territory were imposed a penalty by their church. Demonstrating what the author describes as their understanding of ‘hierarchies of scales and authority’, they petitioned the state for moral justice.
Shorelines is a brilliant addition to the contemporary work on genealogy located in a South Asian context. Here we find no ruptures that give birth to ‘new’ Mukkuvar consciousness, no neat equations of causes and consequences, and no affinity for popular shibboleths on community and state. Instead, the author’s narration takes us through the complex processes of production of identities and presents them as the relational effects of long, intercepted histories. The author repositions the Mukkuvars, not as a people subjected to power but as those constituted by these relations.
Long time fisher activists still speak of a time when entirely homogenous, self-governing fishing villages all along the coastline managed their space and conflicts internally. The village and waterscape stretched seamlessly as regulations on territory and fishing rights were decided upon and implemented collectively. Fisher governance included a vertical tier system that involved the Diocesan network or caste panchayats. These systems were robust and allowed for a plurality of regulation based on changing socio-economic and resource conditions.
However, mechanization of the sector challenged these governance systems as it splintered the fisher community within a single village into several conflicting interest groups. In other parts of the coast, new groups of trawler owners emerged from within non-fishing castes. Now, with the fisheries sector comprising new groups of actors, the task of artisanal fisher communities to maintain exclusive rights to territory and resources has become more difficult. Even as one can no longer rely on the earlier systems of governance, new forms of decision-making will have to be etched on old parchment marked by history.
The Ministry of Agriculture’s draft has provided an opening to put the artisanal fisher at the centre of planning for the conservation of fish resources. So far, despite the state marine fisheries regulation acts that were legislated to control the conflicts between artisanal and mechanized groups, the trawler fleet has been on the rise. Tamilnadu has the largest fleet and many of them are forced to survive by illegally fishing across state and national borders. This newly proposed central legislation can indeed restrict the profound and crippling effects that technology can have, both on the livelihood of artisanal fishers and the resource itself. The artisanal fishers all across the Indian coast have demonstrated time and again that their superior and diverse craft and gear are best suited for responsible fishing, be it near the shores or the deep sea. They, with the support of advocacy groups, trade unions and researchers are now set to ‘politicize’ the secular legislations for fisheries management that has always ‘remained neutral towards those who fish’.