Saturday, September 22, 2007

Book Review: Environmental Issues in India

The Varying Shades Of Green

Business World, September 2007

Most people including conservationists think that when a species is in trouble, all it requires is a chunk of protected forest. However, in a high population density India, there are several other constituents or stakeholders involved — local people utilise the forest to graze their cattle and/or collect plant material for a living. How to deal with these people has split the conservation community in two. While one group argues for their relocation out of the forest, the other advocates giving them rights to the forest.

Arun Agrawal and Vasant Saberwal, for example, argue that “cultural sensibilities have combined with an overarching concern with human impacts on the environment, to generate conservation rhetoric on the need to keep people and livestock out of protected areas”. A few chapters later, Ullas Karanth cautions against confusing conservation issues with livelihood issues and concludes “sacrificing the remaining 3 per cent or so area under wildlife reserves is unlikely to make any dent on human problems, which we have been unable to solve by using and abusing the remaining 97 per cent of the land area”.

The relocation lobby tacitly backs the third main constituent, the forest department whose mandate is to conserve these forests despite obvious mismanagement, while the other side views it as an adversary that denies people their traditional rights while selling out to Big Industry. Who is the better guardian of the forest has become the fundamental question fissuring the conservation community.

Understanding the political tangle that includes the aspirations of local people, the limitations of the forest department and the need for landscape conservation, can reduce the increasing polarisation within the Indian conservation community. This is precisely what this reader offers. The anthology of 33 essays is a first for India and promises to be an indispensable tool for anyone interested in Indian conservation and environmental movements. The book spans timelines and histories of various regions, peoples and struggles. India is a microcosm of dilemmas facing much of the developing world that seeks to balance the survival needs of people and wildlife.

Much blame for the precipitous status of several species of animals is heaped on the doorstep of the British Raj. Citing archaeological evidence, Mahesh Rangarajan, editor of the volume, records the collapse of species well before colonial times. For example, over-hunting and habitat loss exterminated the barasingha from Baluchistan by 300 BCE. Several species of plants found in western Indian sites are now extinct. Indians weren’t the traditional paragons of conservation as some romantics will have us believe.

Had we followed the Gandhian model of rural economy would we have avoided the state we find ourselves in? In an incisive essay, Ramachandra Guha evaluates whether Gandhi was the patron saint and Nehru the villain of the environmental movement. The author reminds us that the majority of Indians rejected Gandhi’s model of rural economy. Whereas Nehru, the romantic who “was deeply appreciative of the natural beauty of India”, as the democratically elected representative of the people, acted on the “overwhelming consensus” for rapid industrialisation. However, one of Gandhi’s disciples, Mira Behn was environmentally proactive; nearly 60 years ago she sent Nehru a critique of the forest management policy accompanied by pictures in which she identified the lack of involvement of villagers and the monoculture of pine. To this day, we continue to debate these issues.

Modern global environmental concerns such as nuclear energy and climate change also find a place in this volume. In recent years there have been controversial claims promoting nuclear energy as the new “green energy”. True, it is a low polluting source of energy unlike coal. However, Eliot Marshal puts the cost of going nuclear in perspective: a Natural Resources Defenses Council physicist is quoted as saying that to avoid a 0.2 degree Celsius rise in global temperature at the end of the century, the world would need to build “1,200 new plants in all, at a rate of about 17 per year”. Then there are the attendant concerns over safety hazards, nuclear waste disposal and the misuse of reprocessed plutonium. The book doesn’t offer easy answers, but to present these different perspectives in a single volume is a major first step.

However, there are numerous typographic errors; the punctuation is random. And references mentioned in the text are not in the list at the end. Dates quoted for publications within the text differ from the references at the end. Authors’ names are misspelt. These are irritations that an international publisher of such stature could have easily fixed. Despite these drawbacks, the book is a real steal for the price.

MAHESH RANGARAJAN, is a well-known historian of ecological change as well as a frequently visible TV commentator on Indian politics. He has been a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, and served as corresponding editor of the journal Environment and History. His books include Fencing the Forest; the two-volume Oxford Anthology of Indian Wildlife.


Arshiya Urveeja Bose said...

Hi Janaki,

I came across the abstract of your article in the September issue of Seminar titled 'Do Economic Incentives Work?'. Was wondering where I could read the full version.


Janaki Lenin said...

that's not mine. It is by Shafqat Hussain - see