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SHIFTING GROUND: People, Animals, and Mobility in India’s Environmental History edited by Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014.

THE adivasi in the jungle, the peasant in the village, the tiger in the forest, and the cow in the shed. These are some of the key actors whose life trajectories are represented in national debates pertaining to legitimizing economic growth, officializing conservation, and revitalizing constructed cultural sentiments. Each of these contains within itself contestable narratives which require nuanced historical perspectives with which to better understand contemporary debates and tensions. The volume, Shifting Ground, edited by eminent scholars Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan, is one such successful attempt which acts as a sequel to their previous two volume India’s Environmental History. Encapsulating cutting-edge research with multidisciplinary perspectives, the essays in the volume can be seen as representing embedded histories of geophysical and biological resources and their interlinked actors and agents in a range of contexts and historical phases and is in line with recent thinking which calls for recognizing both the impact of humans (the anthropocene) on earth’s history and in going ‘beyond an anthropology of humans’ (voce Eduardo Hahn and his work in Thinking like the Forest).

The book provides correctives and inclusions to standard environmental history and makes for an overall interesting read. The approaches bridge the gap between ecological studies that emphasize disturbance, resilience and or adaptation and call for taking a ‘step beyond political ecology to look at cultural categories and affective communities as areas of contest’ (p. 6). Kathleen Morrison’s work that emphasizes socio-natural histories and underscores the role of constant environmental change and its contradictory fluctuations is drawn on to provide a framework for several essays. The representations of animals in art history, the agency of subordinated peoples, identification of extractive processes of natural resources, official narratives that legitimize new forms of governance, and the intertwining of demography and ecological are issues that are highlighted.

A range of animals are represented as actors, symbols, and indexes and their lives are seen as intertwined with changing ecologies and varied regimes of human-nature relations and management. Shibani Bose provides a comprehensive and well-researched essay on the dwindling presence of the one-horned rhino which signals how ‘climatic, biotic, and temperature changes, mounting demographic pressures forced the animal to make way for human settlements and cultivation’ (p. 79). Lions, elephants, and cheetahs make their entry in Divyabhanusinh’s analytical study of the Mughal landscape which was crowded with the presence of a range of animals. Julie Hughes’ attention to wild boars provides not only a corrective to the oversight of boars in the life of Rajasthan’s Mewar kingdom but also provides justification to emphasize how nature and human relations are co-evolved. More particularly, as she elaborates, ‘there is no single, primordial, or "true" condition for any given species or environment’ (p. 127), highlighting the evolutionary and dialogic relationships between nature and humans. Shifting to an analysis of colonial administration, Brian Caton elaborates on how animals were also subjects of such colonial disciplining and the results were evident in the management of the government cattle farm in Hissar. The tiger makes its grand and controversial entry in Ghazala Shahabuddin’s work which calls attention to how ‘ ecosystem dependent people’ (p. 253) are subject to processes of top-down and unscientific policies and administrative measures which run counter to the intentions of rescuing high status wildlife such as the tiger.

If changing ecologies and natural terrains had significance for the life and presence of fauna, what were the results on human relations and conditions? Arupjyoti Saikia provides a review of the colonial conditions of resettling Assam which in turn have become the bedrock for inter-ethnic tensions over resources and rights. Such a perspective begs us to consider if resource conflicts and tensions are at the root of contemporary inter-ethnic/tribal violence across regions in India. Daniel Klingensmith’s essay is a summative overview of key colonial arguments and draws on his seminal work on the Damodar Valley Corporation to highlight how an ‘oversimplification’ of ideas and technical feats combined with economic and political legitimacy of the need for ‘rational organization of nature’ (p. 197) to initiate a major technical reorganization of rivers. Some inner and culturally defined conflicts are represented in Radhika Govindarajan’s essay on animal sacrifices in the Himalayas indicating how new cultural priorities are challenging earlier forms of human-animal relationships, symbolism and practices. From the central belt of Madhya Pradesh comes Vikramaditya Thakur’s study of the peasantization of adivasis in the Narmada valley highlighting how the simultaneously exploitative expropriation of natural resources and adivasis led to the vast deforestation of the belt. More specifically, paying attention to the agency of the subordinated adivasis, Thakur calls attention to how they are also implicated by their decisions and actions in transforming their forested landscape into a degraded zone.

In engaging with and representing a range of cases and contexts in which human actions, ecological characteristics, and animal presence, mobility and interactions are highlighted, the volume provides several key conceptual categories and analytical perspectives. Morrison’s notion of ‘socionatural worlds’ that question assumptions of natural equilibrium, Shahabuddin’s call for ‘redefining wilderness’, biases in colonial and positivist sciences that Caton elaborates on, and Klingensmith’s emphasis on political legitimacy that make imitation compelling are some of the key ideas. As editors, Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan provide an overarching framework that shifts attention to the porosity of boundaries between the social and ecological and for a better understanding of the complex but co-constituted relations between natural and social worlds.

Since this volume provides the much needed broader definition of environment and its histories, it must act as a precursor for forthcoming research to better understand and engage with trends that indicate the making of precarious ecologies and environments which further erode human abilities to judiciously draw on natural resources and which have made unsustainability to become our contemporary predicament. One hopes that future volumes will draw on these interlinked perspectives to elaborate on what are pressing issues such as agricultural and ecological disasters, malnutrition, and so on that are also manifestations of a growing imbalance between natural and social orders. If the adivasi, the peasant, the tiger and the cow provided adequate grist for this intellectual mill, then perhaps the agents of ecological refugees or the displaced masses, plastic, genetically modified seed, and degraded lands and forests will become the next and new subjects of precarious socionatural worlds and, therefore, legitimate sites/subjects of study.

A.R. Vasavi

Social anthropologist, Bengaluru


ENVIRONMENTAL JURISPRUDENCE AND THE SUPREME COURT by Geetanjoy Sahu. Orient Black Swan, New Delhi, 2014.

THE book by Geetanjoy Sahu is a welcome breakthrough in the field of Indian law and legal history, especially on the subject of environment and jurisprudence. The book discusses environmental issues in contemporary India in the context of the Supreme Court judgements on the environment, demanding greater accountability from both government and private (corporate) agencies. The book analyzes the cases pertaining to environmental matters adjudicated by the Supreme Court of India between 1980 and 2010. Most scholarly studies during the last one and a half decade have dealt with individual environmental cases or particular environmental litigations. While valuable in terms of its approach and analytical framework, this scholarship offers at best only a half picture on the history of environmental jurisprudence in India. Within this backdrop, Sahu’s work is a pioneering attempt to move away from such limitations of individual or particular case studies, and advance a general approach on various types of environmental litigation by offering a holistic picture and broader consensus on the part of the Supreme Court of India.

A critical analysis of the apex court’s judgements would reveal its pioneering role in the protection of the environment and, more importantly, in overseeing its implementation. Sahu’s work examines the role of jurisprudence in relation to the environment through a methodical and empirical approach, not in isolation, but by taking together a wide range of environmental litigations, examining the judiciary’s approach to contending parties, the concern for environment as seen in the court’s evolving role as the custodian of the country’s interests in balancing parameters of both development and social justice.

The Supreme Court’s role while raising questions about active judicial intervention in matters of environmental related problems and governance, nonetheless, points to the failure of the executive and legislative branches of the state in curbing pollution and toxicants and in controlling the unprecedented environmental degradation across the country. Sahu argues that the Supreme Court’s interventions not only challenged the careless attitudes of polluters toward the environment, but also made both government and private bodies behave more responsibly toward the immediate environment and prioritize the health of the people and society at large over perceived economic and financial benefits, thereby inaugurating a new era in the evolution of environmental jurisprudence.

The book begins with an introduction, followed by three chapters and a conclusion. The appendix is invaluable, providing details of environmental orders and judgements by the Supreme Court between 1980 and 2010. In the context of the relative failure of the environmental regulatory authority, a closer look at the court’s 191 environmental judgements in this period reveals that weaker parties such as environmental lobbying groups and the NGOs managed more favourable judgements on matters of environmental justice than stronger parties such as the state and industrial lobby groups.

In the first chapter, ‘How Green is the Supreme Court of India’, Sahu traces various facets of the Supreme Court’s dealings with environmental litigation, pertaining to issues such as water and air pollution, as well as matters related to forest and environmental degradation. In this, the apex court also heard the viewpoints of and the conflicts between the state and individuals, as well as between private parties and the public. This chapter provides details on each litigation case against pollutant industries, mining activity near villages, residential areas, and water and agriculture bodies. While concern for protecting the environment gained momentum in India from the 1980s, what is more interesting is how the Supreme Court has come to the fore as the guardian and champion of environmental litigation. While addressing the grievances of various environmental petitioners, the Supreme Court took many steps and initiatives by directing the pollution control bodies and local government agencies to implement safeguard mechanisms against the violators of Articles 48A and 51A of the Constitution. Article 48A emphasizes the role of the state in protecting the environment and safeguarding wildlife. Article 51A, on other hand, makes it obligatory for citizens to defend the country’s ecological heritage and natural environment. It is on this premise that environmental jurisprudence has played a crucial role in reminding and alerting the executive and legislative bodies and other private actors of the need to be responsible in ensuring the right to a healthy environment as a fundamental right to life for the citizens of the country.

The second chapter examines the various presuppositions underlying the judicial decision making process pertaining to environmental litigation. It shows how the Supreme Court sought to protect the environment through its review process of various environmental orders and judgements. But interestingly, in certain cases, the court moves away from environment custodian perspective. Clearly, the judicial decision making process in the three decades was neither uniform nor consistent; the judiciary’s approach differed on a case to case basis. For example, at times the judges directed closure of polluter industries for failing to implement environment safety mechanisms; at others they allowed industries to function on the condition that they would limit or control environmental pollution. In addition to private industries, the judiciary also criticized governmental bodies for failing to implement environmental laws and policies as enshrined in the Constitution. Intriguingly the court adopted a lukewarm approach on matters connected with big infrastructure development projects initiated by the state.

We further learn how between the 1980s and 1990s environmental groups and victims of pollution and ecological degradation sought active judicial intervention for justice. But after 2000, the role of the Supreme Court seemed to shift, leading to lacunae in some of its judgements. The book alleges that in some cases the court not only sidelined the importance of environment and human rights but justified the actions of polluters and corporate groups. The main critique in the context of post-2000 judicial decision making process relates to the court’s inclination towards defending big projects and development works to a degree far greater than in previous decades. Equally that the court pronouncements often lacked adequate appreciation of grassroots environmental concerns and affected populations.

Understanding the judicial decision making process involves more than the just individual behaviour of judges; various legal and extra-legal factors have also played a significant role – the current political mood of the country, the prevailing economic situation, and the dominant ideas prevalent in society at a particular time. Further, additional factors such as the court’s own appreciation for the needs of society, the role of civil society, and rights based movements in environmental litigation. This needs to be understood in the context that legislative and executive bodies are usually unconcerned about ecological problems. Hence, the mobilization of legal strategies by environmental groups also allowed the judiciary to come up with better judgements. Sahu flags the role of the Supreme Court in introducing some innovative methods, such as public interest environmental litigation, expert committees appointed by the apex court as opposed to the state appointed expert committees, ideological orientation and individual thinking of the Supreme Court judges, the role of public interest litigator and lawyers – all these influenced the overall outcome of the environmental litigations and subsequent judicial pronouncements.

Chapter three examines the impact of environmental judgements in terms of their implementation. The Supreme Court’s principal targets have been the environmental regulatory authorities and other implementing agencies who are expected to enforce environmental laws and policies. More than once the court openly criticized the implementing agencies for not performing their constitutional and statutory duties. Although the Supreme Court has been known for its landmark environmental judgements, the compliance with the court’s orders remains questionable at the implementation level. Sahu provides an indepth understanding behind judicial implementation processes by taking up studies of the Vellore leather industrial pollution case and the Dahanu thermal power plant pollution case.

It is generally accepted that ‘powerful players’ such as government agencies, industrialists and business owners or the wealthy, combined with their experience and rapport with powerful political groups, are more likely to manipulate the implementation of judicial orders than ‘powerless groups’ belonging to the disadvantaged sections of society. Sahu’s book interrogates such myths by discussing the cases of the Dahanu thermal power plant (Maharashtra) and Vellore leather industrial pollution case (Tamil Nadu).

The role of the petitioners in the post-judgement scenario presents a contrasting picture in terms of the Supreme Court’s dynamic role in delivering justice as well as overseeing its implementation to the victim populations. The chapter sums up how the court appointed and monitored authorities in the post-judgement period through a democratic, transparent and participatory process that ensured effective results – a powerful story of how a strong and independent judiciary could introduce innovative ways of delivering justice that defied the conventional limits of its role in the governance process.

Overall, Sahu’s book elaborates how the judiciary, i.e., the Supreme Court of India, time and again acted as a harbinger of justice pertaining to environmental litigation and victims of environmental degradation. It exposes how the legislative and executive branches of the state, often in conjunction with private bodies, implemented development projects by ignoring ecological and health concerns. Sahu’s book details the way the Supreme Court has dealt with environmental law by prioritizing ecological concerns, exercising judicial restraint in the case of big infrastructure projects and, finally, by combining both these aspects, followed an integrated approach toward complex and difficult issues. On the whole, the judiciary acted not only as an interpreter of the Constitution but also focused on the functional aspect of the law with regard to resolving environmental disputes. Sahu’s painstaking appraisal helps spell out the critical junctures in the history of environmental jurisprudence in contemporary India.

A comparative perspective on environmental jurisprudence in India in relation to other nations in developed and developing world, would have added to the richness of the book. Nevertheless, Geetanjoy Sahu’s book is a welcome addition in the field of law and environmental jurisprudence as it nudges the jurists, practitioners and specialists of environmental law to rethink and analyze the way green tribunals in India have worked and how the judiciary could best balance its jurisprudence in relation to the country, people and the environment at large.

Vijaya Ramadas Mandala

Junior Fellow, Nehru Memorial

Museum and Library, Delhi


CBI INSIDER SPEAKS: Birlas to Sheila Dikshit by Shantonu Sen. Manas Publications, Delhi, 2015.

FISH in water, it is difficult to say whether it is swimming or drinking’, so remarked Chanakya, comparing the corrupt with fish. The episode of Akbar’s courtier making illegal gains, even while on the ‘condemned’ job of counting the waves of the Yamuna is also well known. No doubt, corruption has been prevalent through the ages. Yet, religion-imbued ethics and values, and strong punishment, more often than not deterred people from such deviancy, and consequently most corruption remained clandestine. But now, religion is only a ritual, ethics and values are a rare thing, and opportunism and greed have become the order of the day. Corruption has become not only rampant, it is brazen, hurting anyone who still has a conscience. More so if she has been a conscious law enforcer for decades, and that too in a premier agency, the primary mission of which is to help reduce corruption.

The revelations of Shantonu Sen in his fascinating book, CBI Insider Speaks, go beyond a mere outpouring of the ‘explosive’ facts he has long been privy to because of his long career in the CBI. They provide an insight into the unknown of the ‘caged parrot’, open the eyes of the lay reader to the realities of governance and have the potential to help professional policemen with useful tips on the nuances of investigation. Every episode recalled not only ‘exposes’ the professionalism of CBI but also the limitations under which committed officers are forced to work. In the few cases discussed, Sen amply exemplifies the vitals of investigation – hard work, alertness of mind and a nose in search for vital clues, all accompanied by a doggedness of purpose – to establish the truth.

In his mellifluous, yet candid and caustic style, Sen discusses several cases in which he played a key role in the investigations. How, when charged with tax fraud, the mighty Birlas managed to get their ‘top’ man off the hook, indefinitely delay the start of the trial against the others, and finally, succeed in persuading the government to withdraw the case; The intriguing power play and machinations in the genesis and nemesis of the Rs 133 crore urea scam; How the unethical use of political power scuttled both the investigation and subsequently the trial in Syed Modi’s murder case; How an ‘avoidable’ faux pas in the Jain Hawala investigations resulted in the Hawala Diaries being declared as inadmissible evidence by the court. ‘The result of transgressions is that the diaries have now sunk without trace, leaving the guilty unscathed for reasons that are shameful and sordid.’

Be it the high and mighty, the bosses in CBI, or the lumpen elements in the judiciary, Shantonu Sen has not spared anyone who tried to scuttle and sabotage impartial probes. His message to every investigating officer is to be truthful to the facts and evidence. ‘The Lakshman rekha is evidence and proof must sustain the charge-sheet.’ While unhesitatingly exposing the burial of fairness in some cases and the inherent weaknesses of the CBI, Sen nevertheless stoutly stands by the institution when good work was done.

He recalls how in the case of the Golden Temple/Blue Star Operation, the even-headed CBI managed to save over a thousand innocent pilgrims who had been arrested by the Army along with militants from the vagaries of prosecution – cases which, if pursued, may well have resulted in death-penalty for the ‘accused’. The chapter also provides a live account of Operation Blue Star and rare photographs that makes it more interesting reading. Writing about the investigation, arrest and prosecution of General Vaidya’s killers, the author reveals how meaningful co-operation between agencies produces fruitful results. The IB, CBI, and the Pune police acted in tandem and the killers were finally hanged after conviction. Equally fascinating is the story of the Ludhiana Bank dacoity. Solving this case helped break the back of a well-knit terrorist network operating in several places in the country.

Overall, Shantonu Sen maintains that the CBI, despite its many weaknesses, is still an institution enjoying a modicum of credibility in an all-pervading ethos of corruption and compromise. For the investigators, his practical advice is: ‘The weak are good fodder for prosecution; the powerful seldom. This is the increasing raucus refrain of the Indian criminal justice system. It is within these restrictive parameters that the CBI must perform.’

Apart from narrating his experiences as a serving officer in the CBI, Shantonu Sen has also meticulously documented the efforts made by the LG’s office in Delhi to improve the functioning of the Delhi Police. The bullet point instructions meant for Delhi Police tell us the efforts made by the LG of Delhi and Sen as his OSD to guide the police on a range of aspects of policing.

The reader of ‘CBI Insider Speaks’ will certainly perceive that the author was not carried away by the bouquets or brick-bats he earned in the course of his duty. Instead, as a professional, he tried to be true to his conscience and negotiate the muddy waters with dignity, wishing all the while for an autonomous CBI. The reviewer, a former policeman, too joins him in his wish that one day CBI would be ‘really’ autonomous, in the sense that it would be free of the clutches of the government in order to deliver true justice and no longer be a ‘caged parrot’.

N. Dilip Kumar

IPS (retd.), Delhi


MEMORIES OF BELONGING: Images from the Colony and Beyond by Malavika Karlekar. Niyogi, New Delhi, 2015.

Malavika Karlekar is an unusual academic – one who can write insightfully and explicate complex cultural texts in an accessible language for a readership ranging from the scholar to the general informed reader. Memories of Belonging continues her fine work from Visual Histories (2013) as Karlekar examines a splendid set of visual texts from the colonial period. Writing in the registers of conversation and journalism, Karlekar unravels the varied, complicated and politically-edged experience of the English in India, the personal dimension of this experience, and documents select Indian responses to the European presence and culture.

Karlekar begins with colonial artists – the famous Daniells, Hodges and others who served up the subcontinent in many colours to the ever-hungry Europeans from the last decades of the 18th century – and their portraits of India. Karlekar treats the English/European visual representations as modes of comprehending India, and thus (rightly) shifts the analysis away from the aesthetic to the political-epistemological by proposing that paintings and portraiture are colonial modes of knowledge-making.

Explicitly political in the colonial visual (izing) project is James Rennell’s Trigonometrical Survey, on which Karlekar spends some time. In sharp contrast to such survey modes were the picturesque scenes of hill stations, notes Karlekar. In her chapter on William Carey, botanist-priest-theologian, Karlekar notes, the cataloguing of Indian flora progressed alongside the colonizers’ interest in building English-style gardens in the subcontinent, thus marking two poles of an imperializing horticulturalism, so to speak. In a later chapter, Karlekar would document the major gardens and botanical societies that the British built – projects that combined science, exoticism (for tourism) and commercial interests.

The organization of gardens was also central to Lord Curzon’s attempts – which Karlekar qualifies as ‘whimsies’! – to organize the space of the colony to suit tourism. Karlekar concludes this chapter with a key question: ‘Why, armed as it is with a rich visual history and landscape and horticultural expertise, has independent India not thought of interrogating this surprising colonial intervention and recreated the clearly legitimate vision of yet another older imperial power?’ (p. 77)

Examining a different genre – photographs of war, destruction and the Great Game – Karlekar argues that such visuals were modes of documenting British ‘workspace’ in inhospitable terrains.

Women like Lilah Wingfield who travelled through India as tourists were also captivated by the visual documentation that served as advertisements in periodicals like the Illustrated London News. The women themselves kept visual records (alongside the memoir and the diary), and thus offer us, as Karlekar notes, insights into another side of the Empire. Travellers like Christina Bremner meditated on the safety of the ‘single’ Englishwoman travelling across India, while the more famous Fanny Parkes seemed to have had ‘more adventurous travels’ (p. 180). Indian women travellers, however, continued to travel under the ‘suffocating’ male gaze (p. 189).

There was also extensive visual documentation of local cultural practices, temples and everyday life. ‘Not all early travel writing or memoirs of India were eulogies’ (p. 115), and so many of the English often focused on ‘heat, squalor, filth’ (p. 115)! Very often, either consciously or inadvertently, these also recorded the changing role of native women, local lifestyles and the social order. Cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and towns like Shimla were also documented, with considerable spotlight on the illustrious (Indian) families. Indians also found the new technology useful to document their own families and lives, and Karlekar pays attention to these as well.

Through the second and latter parts of the volume Karlekar looks at numerous institutions and processes of social transformation in the colony. Colleges, churches, schools, hospitals and the restructuring of gender roles, families, education systems as documented in the enormous and fascinating visual archive. There are also studies of Indians travelling, the arrival and popularity of trains, the ‘risky’ (because prohibited by Hindu law) voyages and resultant cultural mobilities. Karlekar thus documents how Sarala and Sailabala, travelling on a Thomas Cook voyage to Europe, experienced a cultural shock when they saw English women, European cuisine and the modes of social interaction. In other cases, the Raj’s legacies, in terms of architecture and town planning, evoked strong responses in a postcolonial like Madhur Jaffrey, notes Karlekar.

The visual archive that Karlekar’s book uncovers and explicates is at once ‘purely’ aesthetic and ‘contaminated’ with the political. Memories of Belonging unpacks the political aesthetics that constitute the subtexts of personal encounters, the experience of travel, the negotiations with other cultures. We see a diversity of visual codes as well – that of the surveyor, the householder, the naturalist, the statesman, the amateur – in the work Karlekar provides from the archive. Karlekar is alert to this diversity – for example in her examination of Daniells, Carey’s documentation of flora or the amateur footage of Shimla. Yet, I somehow wish that she had drawn out the aesthetics a bit further, so that we could find in these pages and visuals a history of British viewing habits. (Natasha Eaton’s work comes to mind here.) How does the picturesque in Daniells connect with, or transmute into, the imperial surveyor’s ‘official’ realism? How does the staged composition of the ‘family photograph’ (in the studio) connect to the ethnographer’s surreptitious filming of Indian cultural practices? Also, when Karlekar is looking at the texts of American travellers like Eliza Scidmore, it would have been interesting to see if these texts, and their gaze, were in any way different from that of Europeans. But I do not wish to detract from a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The advantage here is that one can dip into a chapter at random, whether on a missionary’s narrative about flowers or the imperial gaze of a Curzon. The variety of travellers who experienced and gazed at India, even as they organized the perception of the land for future travellers, is extraordinary, as the volume indicates. The book is thus a survey of various locations of looking, depending on the class, professional and social position of the Englishman or woman. How these contributed, in their own diffident, confident or aggressive ways to the imperial gaze is really the subject of the volume. If Carey focused on botanical classification as a mode of domesticating India, Curzon sought to translate his view of the monument by landscaping the area around the Taj Mahal and Younghusband had a more militaristic view of the Himalayas. The anecdotes around families (for example the Corbetts, out of which came colonial India’s most famous shikari, Jim Corbett) or colourful individuals (like Bishop Reginald Heber) peppering the book helps the reader get a sense of the personal dimensions of the Raj as well. A clever strategy of combining the public with the personal enables Karlekar to offer us the individual and the social, the personal and the imperial-political. And this last, I would say, is the chief attraction of Memories of Belonging.

Pramod K. Nayar

Department of English

The University of Hyderabad