The environment,” writes Anil Agarwal, “is an idea whose time has come in India.” This is the opening line of “An Indian Environmentalist’s Credo”, from Agarwal’s “The Fifth World Conservation Lecture: Human Nature Interactions in a Third World Country”, published in The Environmentalist in 1986. It is reprinted in Ramachandra Guha’s edited volume Social Ecology. Guha obviously agrees with what Agarwal had to say almost a decade ago. So, how much has the world changed or how much have the academics not changed with the passage of years?
The collection, boasts the hard-back jacket, seeks to bring together “a selection of pioneering essays” on a subject of increasing interest to sociologists and social anthropologists. The blurb claims that the contributions assembled provide a ‘state of the art’ survey of the field as well as an orientation to future research. Produced as part of the Oxford in India Readings in Sociology and Social Anthropology, the volume, we are told, is carefully planned to suit the needs of the general reader, students, teachers, as well as scholars from other disciplines. It is a pity that, somewhere along the way, the second objective was lost sight of.
It is difficult to imagine how articles written more than a decade ago can survey the present ‘state of the art’. True, there are some gems like Radhakamal Mukerjee’s “An Ecological Approach to Sociology” (first published in The Sociological Review in 1930, pioneering and hard to get). However, most others only reflect the interests of specialist scholars.
An example is Verrier Elwin’s “Civilising the Savage”, written almost half a century ago. Elwin’s work might have been significant for policy formulation then, but the Beiga way of life has so traumatically changed that the piece is only of academic interest to researchers like Guha, who also happen to be researching Elwin’s biography.
“Bewar is still practiced by the Kawardha State, of Pandaria Zamindari, in many parts of Bilaspur, in the Beiga Chak of Mandala, and until quite recently in Rewa,” wrote Elwin in 1939. Is it still practiced? One would have appreciated a note on the present situation.
Guha’s “Colonialism and Conflict in the Himalayan Forest” is excerpted from his own “Forestry and Social Protest in British Kumaon: 1893-1921”, originally published in Subaltern Studies in 1985. While other articles in this volume take care to explain in some detail the methodologies and approach used, it is not clear why Guha chooses to omit all notes and references in Social Ecology.
Guha seeks to examine the “trajectory of social protest in Kumaon during the early decade of the century”. He begins by recalling that since 1973 Kumaon has been the epicenter of the Chipko Andolan, possibly the best known social movement against the exploitation of forests by outside agency. The author’s sympathetic interest in this movement seems to have coloured his vision, and the not so distant mirror he holds up to illumine the present, to my mind, only succeeds in distorting the images.
Guha’s paper does evoke, as does his other work The Unquiet Woods, the excitemen t of the Kuli Utar agitation which shook Kumaon in the 1920s and the Chipko of later decades. (Kull Utar was the subject of a PhD dissertation by Shekhar Pathak, a Kumaon University historian and the editor of the Himalayan journal Pahar, who was involved with Chipko from his undergraduate days.) Guha reaches many of Pathak’s conclusions and traverses the same routes as followed by Pathak. (That doctoral work has since been published in Hindi but is as yet untranslated in English.) It is difficult to agree with many of Guha’s interpretative comments as it is impossible to distinguish between ‘shared views’ based on extended conversation between him and Pathak, and data generated from first-hand fieldwork and archival research.
Much water has gushed down Himalayan streams since. A recent reassessment of Chipko (Himal, Jan/Feb 1994), is far more stimulating and invites the reader to take a more insightful, detached and sympathetic look at the movement. It is less nostalgic/romantic and much more realistic. Euphoria of the Chipko days cannot be so conveniently linked to a colonial past.
There are other articles like the one especially written for the volume by R. Sukumar, which leave one quite disturbed. Sukumar has written that wonderful book on the Indian elephant, Elephant Days and Nights, which attains the poignancy of poetry. Unfortunately, the short command-performance in Social Ecology does not give the reader any idea of the passion of this scientist and the grace that his prose can attain. Telegraphic sentences are strung together mechanically to prompt us to think seriously about wildlife and human conflict in India:
We live in a rapidly changing society. It is too much to expect the poor to remain as silent spectators. Conservation can succeed only if legitimate aspirations of people dependent on forests for their livelihood can be met by the rest of the society. Today the local people see sanctuaries or national parks as simply the pleasure resorts of the affluent. There is urgent need to orient management of our wildlife resources so as to pass on economic benefits to local communities. It is time that we also take bold new approaches towards combining economic development with conservation. In the words of ecologist Norman Meyes conservation should not only sustain the spirit but also the stomach.
At that level of encapsulated wisdom and generalisation, it is difficult to disagree with anything at all.
The pulls of ideology, interest and scholarship do not always coincide, and the discourse, as a result, is not always coherent. Scholarship in the field of social ecology seems to follow the trends in eco-politics and is tinted in similar hues—red, green and brown. It is a difficult to maintain the delicate balance between the logic of science and socially relevant emotion. The result, often, is not satisfactory.
Sukumar, usually so scintillating on animal population management, is reduced here to over-simplification and equivocation. “The tiger is highly endangered and every effort should be made to avoid culling of these animals. However, there would be no other option but to capture or shoot identified man-eaters. The decision could be easier to take if the offender is known to be a male tiger. There is a pressing need to both conserve wildlife and to minimise its impact on human lives and property.”
Stating the obvious has the advantage of pre-empting disagreement. The natural scientist cannot enrich the work of social scientists in this vein.
The volume also does contain some fascinating articles like the one on the sacred uses of nature by Madhav Gadgil and V.D. Vartak, who frankly preface some conclusions as pure speculation—”more tantalizing than fruits of field work”. The duo is also candid enough to admit that how far the taboos were observed in the past is “difficult to ascertain”.
Charming candor apart, here too, one finds many of the assertions difficult to accept uncritically, “Present-day India still abounds in many forms of nature worship. All forms of life forms—hedges to fig trees, and from crabs to peacocks and tigers—continue to be considered sacred and inviolable in relation to a variety of primitive cults. With deforestation proceeding at a rapid pace, the sacred groves are assuming a far more important role in the daily life of local population as the only remaining source of forest produce.”
It is difficult to comprehend how such perceptive scholars can overlook the transparent loss of faith and desecration which has kept pace with and fuelled deforestation. The commercial exploitation, profitable for some members of the local forest communities and collaborating elites in the short term, has demystified the sacred groves and led to reckless exploitation of these and other community property resources. The tiger is the vehicle of Durga, but this association does not save Ranthambore’s denizens. Gadgil and his associates have done extensive fieldwork in the Western Ghats. The experience of peoples elsewhere, say for example in the Himalaya, may not necessarily bear out the same conclusions that they have reached.
Those interested in the state of Himalayan environment today would do well to mull over the complexities and not yield to the temptation of seeing the world in a grain of sand.
Pant, a Kumaorri, teaches International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.