Ecology and Society
R. Rajamani
MAN AND ENVIRONMENT: THE ECOLOGICAL HISTORY OF INDIA by Irfan Habib Aligarh Historians Society and Tulika Books, 2010, 162 pp., 315
June 2010, volume 34, No 6

This volume is part of the series entitled A People’s History of India. It deals with the ecological history of India from pre-historic times to 1947. It is designed to deal with a range of ecological phenomena which include not only climate change but also human relation with all species of flora and fauna and those conditions of human societies that influences the responses from us to the opportunities and challenges posed by Nature. The coverage of the evolution of the environment both by itself and in relation to the evolution of human beings in the prehistoric, Pleistocene and the current interglacial Holocene periods is very good and of value to the academic and student community. The prehistoric period is just touched upon as it ends with the Continental Drift and enters the Pleistocene. The Old Stone Age followed by the New or Neolithic period is described in some detail covering the evolution of man and animals and of the tools used by human beings.

The rise of cultivation and pastoralism from about 9000 bc and its implication for ecology are treated well. Then follows the developments in the Indus Valley civilization period including the depiction of wild animals on the Indus Valley seals. The period from 1500 bc to ad 700 gets exhaustive coverage under the title ‘Ancient Times’. Tillage, types of crops, domestication of animals and birds, forests and wildlife, are dealt with followed by a discussion on environment, religion and Society. The rise of Jainism and Buddhism, the doctrine of ahimsa, protection of animals, etc., are set in the context of evidence from the Rig Veda, Panchatantra and the Asokan edicts. While these edicts and the description of animals like the elephant are mentioned, the reference to the Asokan edict near Dehra Dun on the elephant ‘Gajatame’ is left out for some reason. Special mention is made of the protection of trees and forests and discouragement of forest burning. The references to the rise of cultivation and tools like the iron plough and the implications for pristine natural areas are early indications of the authors’ thesis that cultivation had a deep implication for ecological protection.

The next section on Medieval India is more full of textual evidence drawing from Sanskrit and Persian texts in the pre-Mughal and Mughal period. It includes a very interesting coverage of the physical environment like earthquakes, changes in river courses and the efforts of mankind to stem floods by having small dams and tanks while helping crop husbandry. This includes a brief reference to the building of the Grand Anicut by the Chola rulers in peninsular India in the eleventh century. The fact that this dam still exists would have added lustre to this section and the book which has very few references to peninsular India. This section includes climate change, famines and epidemics, population and agriculture, irrigation, introduction of new crops, domesticated animals and forests and wildlife. Painstaking efforts have been made to give statistical evidence of developments based on a careful reading and intertwining of texts. A very interesting observation made here is that probably forests covered a third, if not two-fifths, of the land surface of India in the seventeenth century. It is significant in the context of brave words and efforts to increase forest cover to one-third, now, after five centuries and a six-fold increase in population!

The period of colonial rule is dealt with next. ‘British colonialism controlled Indian resources for its own purposes and in the process created food scarcity, let disease rage, promoted a progressive degeneration of the soil, generated a crisis in the pastoral sector, turned forests into commercialized timber reserves and decimated wildlife.’ In juxtaposition, the view of Viceroy Lord Dufferin in
1888 is also quoted, attributing the ills of India to overpopulation. This became a refrain in official circles which said no food was enough for the additional numbers. This was refuted in a Minute from the official class itself, by one Mr Thomas Holderness, that not only did the land of India provide food for its population but a considerable portion of it is set apart for growing produce which was exported.

The plight of forests under colonial rule is shown as a function of commercialization of timber. The conservators of forests appointed towards the tail-end of the East India Company often promoted extraction of timber for export and the overexploitation affected forests and wildlife. While this has been a subject of debate with several ecological historians upholding the view that imperialist forest policies resulted in denudation of forests, the truth must be somewhere in between. The German and British foresters introduced concepts of scientific management of forestry and the so-called ‘working plans’ were also designed to be conservation plans. The problem was that practices fell away from precepts and principles and there was overexploitation of forests beyond designed limits. As for wildlife, the book itself deals with the domestication of the cheetah from Mughal times which led slowly to its extinction. The killing of tigers for sport was common even in pre-British days, while killing of ‘man-eating’ tigers became more common in British India. Extension of agriculture to feed more mouths and poor intensive cultivation practices, low productivity and loss of forests to grow exportworthy crops also contributed to this. The volume itself ends on a cynical note that the extent of further wildlife devastation was restricted more by the reduced numbers of the animals themselves than by any act of state protection.

On balance, this must be considered a scholarly and remarkable tome with historiography to the fore even in the context of ecology. The voluminous notes and bibliography at the end of each chapter bear testimony to this. If one were to nitpick it must be about the absence of a better and more extensive treatment of the historical developments in peninsular India. While the sangam texts have been referred to, it would have been worthwhile touching on the developments from third century BC to sixth century AD in Southern India like the evolution of the concepts of thinais or ecological zones and the descriptions of abundant flora and fauna, and descriptions of domestication of animals. But this does not take away from the merit and importance of this book which is a must-read for scholars and lay people alike, else it cannot be A People’s History of India!

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