Environmental History in India: Part II: Ecology and Society in Colonial India

Environmental History in India: Part II: Ecology and Society in Colonial India

In the previous post, we discussed the environmental history writing genre and looked at how people and nature interacted in pre-colonial India. In this post, we'll talk about the 200 years (1750–1947) during which the East India Company first changed the way the subcontinent used its natural resources, followed by the British Empire.

Rangrajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2014: 02) discuss how "the overarching perspective on India's environmental history sought to draw a sharp line in terms of the impact of colonial (or British imperial) economic policies, legislation, and executive measures"1. They express the opinion that "much of India's environmental history - at least until the year 2000 or so - focused on forests, in part due to the context and conditions of its flowering.". According to them, forests are "contested spaces, with different sets of humans crowding the stage or the forest floor, seeking to imprint their imprint on the landscape in different, mutually contradictory ways," according to an environmental historian. The resource gatherer or rentier, those who cut down trees or trapped animals, grazed cattle or collected honey, gleaned wood or set fire to create and cultivate swidden plots are just a few examples of the conflicting, overlapping, intersecting set of actors.

"Simple linear narratives of landscape transformations in the face of growing demographic pressure or state demands for resources and revenues," according to Rangarajan and Sivaramkrishnan (2012: 05), are subject to academic scrutiny. They express surprise that "some of the most thoughtful synthetic histories" like Richards and Tucker (1983), Richards and Tucker (1988), and Ludden (1999) "find it difficult to shake off such linear tendencies.". The majority of the 1870s, 1880s, and later were highlighted in environmental history anthologies that first appeared in the late 1980s in order to tell the stories of "the enormity of the shifts in landscape.". Following Arnold and Guha (1995), environmental history scholars were astounded by "the ways in which forests, covering over half a million square km of land," were brought under governance "by 1904, and managed by foresters" as a magnificently unprecedented moment. Rangarajan and Sivaramkrishnan (2014: 05) assert that "the first major anthologies on nature and culture in the 1990s, drawing mostly on work done in the 1980s, had looked mainly at the imperial impact on state-driven changes, or alternately at the multiple hues of the encounters of nature, the Orient, and colonialism.". They contend that anthologies that have begun to appear since the mid-1990s have given "a more nuanced treatment of the ways in which the colonial state had engaged with varying degrees of success in making agrarian landscapes.".

We also discover that environmental historians frequently cite the Indian Forest Act of 1868 by the British and their inclination toward the German school of "scientific forestry" as the justifications for imposing restrictions on communities that had access to forest grazing. They also emphasize how these groups were branded as criminal and denotified tribes by colonial rulers who failed to grasp the rhythms of pastoral mobility and saw them as threats to law and order. According to Irfan Habib, there is ample proof that even in the upper Gangetic basin, where the available data prevent us from creating an exact map of the region's forests at that time, there were still forests. According to Habib, who quotes from the 1837 book Forests in Southern Districts of AwadhI, "such forests were situated within the agricultural zone and generally served the neighboring rural inhabitants, supplying them with fodder, firewood, and timber," and "similar was the case with pockets of forested country in the Peninsula where such isolated jungle tracts bordered the cultivated zone.".

Irfan Habib (2011: 131) describes how there developed into "a brisk trade in timber that was logged by local communities and sold at neighboring marts," describing the fate of the Himalayan and sub-montane Terai forests, those from the north-eastern regions and in the Western Ghats, as well as other dense forests in central India. In another passage, he makes reference to the practice of "floating down the logs thus obtained from the Himalaya forests through Punjab rivers by middle men or merchants.". Irfan Habib suggests Sumit Guha's book, Environment and Ethnicity in India, 1200-1991, in addition to Fissured Land and Nature, Culture, Imperialism for environmental history focused on forests. This book provides an in-depth analysis of several communities with a connection to the forest from modern Maharashtra, southern Gujarat, and central India. He also draws attention to a book called Annals of Rural Bengal, written by colonial author William Wilson Hunter in 1897, which presents a study of the Santhal people of what is now the state of Jharkhand.

Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2012: 07), citing Sumit Guha's work, contend that "the larger landscape was the reverse of what exists today: islands of intensive cultivation .ted a vast ocean of forest.". They contend that "upon closer inspection, forest as a single unified category was in fact a mosaic of semi-natural landscapes with old growth and scrub jungle interspersed with tree-covered savannah and secondary growth.". When the nation came under British rule, the East India Company's officials framed no specific policy with regard to forests, and these were seen as landscapes to be cleared in order to facilitate colonization of them by extensive cultivation and to facilitate the eradication of wild animals (in the early years, company officials actually declared rewards for hunting down the big cat). Irfan Habib (2011: 132) calls our attention to a Donald Butter prediction that "once Awadh came fully under British control, all the minor forests would vanish there" and notes that this was found to be quite well founded.

Irfan Habib (2011:113) also warns against the limited perspective that sees ecology during colonialism as primarily a matter of what happened to forests and its traditional users. He emphasizes the importance of comprehending and researching the colonial experience as it affects all forms of natural resources and lives that depend on them, such as soil, irrigation, pastoral resources, wildlife, and public health.

Riverine resources and ongoing irrigation have drawn the attention of colonial India's environmental history scholarship next to forests. The history of irrigation canals in India dates back thousands of years, as we discussed in the first module on environmental history, but the canals constructed during the Mughal era were inundation canals that depended on monsoon floods. However, as Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2011: 6) remind us, "canal construction on a vast scale gave British India arguably more acreage than any other political entity on earth.". Irfan Habib (2011: 127) draws our attention to the late colonial era, in particular the years that followed 1858, when "the British government began to show some interest in construction of canals, particularly for growing crops required for export, such as cotton and wheat, which especially needed to be watered by artificial means.". By 1925–1926, "canal and other government-funded works served 11.8 percent of the entire net sown area of the British India," he continues, and "of areas artificially irrigated, the canals served just over 51 percent, but wells generally owned by peasants still accounted for nearly a quarter (24.2 percent) of the irrigated area, and tanks were used to irrigate another 13.1 percent.

By the middle of the 1990s, environmental history scholarship had begun to focus on the role of perennial irrigation not only as a tool for farming but also as a means of reconfiguring social infrastructure through the establishment of canal colonies in Punjab and Sindh. Environmental history scholars also examined how colonial experts perceived the powerful rivers of eastern India and their monsoonal floods, referring to the Koshi River as the "sorrow of Bihar.". While much of the environmental history scholarship has also been aware of the negative impacts of perennial irrigation, such as soil degradation, interruptions to natural drainage, giving rise to disease vectors like malaria-spreading mosquitos5, and water logging, they appear to have ignored the impact of perennial irrigation canals on the cat. Rohan D'Souza examines the emergence of the idea of Multi-Purpose River Valley Development Projects in colonial Orissa. In 1907, writing about Montegomery and Sind breeds of cattle, J. Mollison and L. French (1907:254-155) alerted:
“A vast extension of canal irrigation has taken place in neighbouring districts across the Ravi river, and many good cows have been taken and sold by their owners into the new Chenab Canal Colony…The breeding of Montegomery cattle is likely to suffer unless special precautions are taken to maintain the purity of the breed, because the extraordinary prosperity of Chenab Canal Colony across the Ravi, has diverted the attention of the nomadic “Bar” tribes to the profits derived from agriculture when assisted by canal irrigation. It is also to be remembered that the whole of the “Bar” tracts of the Montegomery district are destined within the next few years to receive irrigation from the projected Lower Bari Doab Canal”
Similar to this, W. presents "A Note on Cattle Breeding.". During a meeting of the Agriculture Committee of the Bombay Presidency (Poona, 1927), Imperial Dairy Expert Smith spoke to colleagues about how, since he had just arrived in British India to work with the newly established Military Dairy Farms department, "the quality of milch cattle available in India, including in Punjab, but excluding Sindh, had become much worse than those available some 26 years ago.". Smith mentions several factors, "the spread of irrigation canals" was one of them. Smith expressed this opinion ten years prior, and N. C. Wright (1937: 60–61) reaffirmed these opinions by saying:.
“At present there is a very general impression that the introduction of irrigation rapidly leads to the deterioration and even to the virtual extermination of good breeds of cattle. This, for example, is true of Sindh and of certain tracts of United Provinces. If full advantage is to be derived from irrigation, I am convinced that farming in irrigated areas will have to be modified to allow the inclusion of mixed farming system in which both crop and animal husbandries play their part” 
Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2012: 08) describe the impulse of "the mission of writing a nationalist environmental history" and "the clarity provided by a moral imperative" and how this impulse drove environmental historians to add to "the record of colonial infamy the evidence pertaining to the despoliation of nature and destruction of tribal culture carried out by the British.". To be clear, not all colonial officers shared the High Modernism and demeaning views of native people. James Mollison, E. J. D. Clouston, W. Bruen, and D. About the abilities of nomadic cattle breeders, Smith spoke and wrote with great admiration. According to a study written by Fraser Darling while he was the director of the Commonwealth Animal Genetic Bureau, "Throughout the history of colonial development, and particularly in that of British colonisation, we find that settlers and governments alike have attempted either to raise animals of the homeland in the new territories or to improve the existing stocks and conditions to a state comparable with that of the mother country. Some dazzling successes and some glaring failures have been associated with both of these goals. It seems that the stockbreeder's critical eye and his European standards of excellence have far too frequently led him down perilous paths that a more thorough understanding of the relationships between environment, structure, and function would have prevented. There is, however, an expanding body of new knowledge about traditional breeding methods' underlying genetic principles, as well as about the economic fate of animals, as well as about the various nutritional conditions and the metabolic responses of various animal types to these. However, Shereen Ratnagar pointed out that there were only a few ethnographies of the various animal-rearing groups in India as recently as 1991. As of yet, we are hardly able to gauge the significance of the work of men like Rattray in West Africa and Evans Pitchard in Sudan. 

These comments by a scholar who later continued to serve the empire as the director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Animal Genetics, but also occasionally had disagreements with British imperial powers and founded the human ecology school of academic scholarship, suggest that colonial India's environmental history also attempt to understand how similar and how different that experience was from that of other colonies. Similar arguments are made for viewing colonial India in a broader geographical context by Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2014: 13–16).

The fact that less has been written about domestic animals and how colonial policies on "scientific livestock management" and interventions in the field of "veterinary medicines" have affected peasant lives is also somewhat surprising given that environmental history writing has focused on colonial policies on "scientific forestry" and wildlife. This is especially true of the early phase of environmental history in India. Schneider (1983: 226) argued that "the particular role played by livestock and their particular relation to agricultural operations in socioeconomic systems throughout the Third World has been neglected long enough" in his review of Raymond Crotty's book Cattle, Economics and Development from 1983. This book is still regarded as a significant contribution to the field of livestock economics. Hanumantha Rao (1988: A-142) very openly acknowledged that "agricultural economists in India have been interested essentially in the economics of crop production and comparatively less in livestock economics, their interest in rural ecology has been negligible" while speaking to his economist colleagues, not historians. A session titled "Impact of Agricultural Development on Ecology and Environment" was held for the first time at the annual conference of Agricultural Economics in 1987, the national seminar where he expressed this opinion. Even after these reminders, it took until the middle of the 1990s for pastoral concerns to become apparent in environmental history, and it took another 15 years or so for a study of the political ecology of cattle management in colonial central India to be published in books and doctoral dissertations.

According to Rangarajan and Sivramakrishnan (2014: 22), who describe the effects of colonialism on non-human life, "in the early years of colonial rule, the growing British demand for horses and other draught animals as well as animals used for military purposes was mainly met by adapting available Indian practices.". They continue, "Over the course of the nineteenth century, British breeding activities for horses and cattle expanded, and it was increasingly justified in the name of scientific management and development of veterinary medicine. Government Cattle Farm, Hissar, is used to illustrate the history of a colonial institution. Caton (2013) explains how this farm was established in response to the Bengal Stud's inability to produce an adequate number of horses and the realization that bullocks had been useful as draught animals in India for a long time. Dot Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2014: 19) also remind us that "the curbing of nomadism, of itinerant groups.

The impact of the railroads and printing press on the reconfiguration of the relationship between village and town during colonial India has been well documented in the writings of thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and M. K. B. and Gandhi. R. Ambedkar and several others. Communities in some riverside villages that faced being uprooted by a hydropower dam, however, were organizing themselves to stage an anti-displacement and, to some extent, anti-dam protest even as these thinkers criticized the relationship between town and village. The World's First Anti-Dam Movement: Mulshi Satyagrah 1920–1924 by Rajendra Vora traces the history of what Madhav Gadgil and he believed to be "Narmada Bachao Andolan's forgotten predecessor.". The early 20th century served as a forum for discussions about what constitutes development and nature from both the Indian National Congress and the anticolonial block as well as those who were associated with the colonial state and its administration. Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2014: 25) state the following in reflection on those circumstances:
“Driving by a growing and overt commitment to what David Ludden identified as India’s Development Regime, the colonial state in the early twentieth century had come to view its legitimacy in India as derived in good measure from its ability to promote economic development through mastery of natural resources like forests, agricultural lands, and productive domesticated animals. But by the start of World War II a critique was brewing within the colonial state and its civil society of Anglophile Indians. Most often they offered documentation of failed efforts to contain the furies of natural calamities, and reminded the state of the disasters unleashed by badly designed landscape engineering or land utilization, be it in the form of rivers turned or soils eroded by increased extraction of the bounties they had to offer. Figures like Albert Howard and Wiliam Wilcox became emblems of this skepticism that combined both a critique of colonial state policy and the attitudes to nature they expressed.”
Rangarajan and Sivaramakrishnan (2012) remind us that while discussing the need to pay close attention to both continuities and significant breaks with the past, they themselves have fluctuated between the two in their own work. They claim that "ruptures did occur as when the imperial state was in the high gear, mainly in the last decades of the nineteenth century" and that thinking from a similar experience "underwrote much of the thinking when India's developmental democratic state launched social engineering on a vast scale in the Nehruvian era.". They remind us that both of these events "constituted major shifts with significant ecological consequences.". 


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