This landmark book, by two widely admired scholars, has defined the trajectory of environmental historiography in the Indian subcontinent. An interpretive historical account of the use and abuse of forest resources in the subcontinent from pre-modern tines to the British Raj, This Fissured Land remains a unique socio-historical study of ecological realities in India. It provides a general theory of ecological history and a re-interpretation of colonialism and the caste system in this light.
Underlining the continuing importance of this title since its first publication in 1992, this Oxford India Perennials edition includes a new preface by the authors.
Madhav Gadgil is Former Professor of Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Ramachandra Gua is one of India’s best-Known historians, and a full-time author and columnist.
When, twenty years ago, we published This Fissured Land, we had two principal scholarly aims: one analytical, the other descriptive. The first entailed the presentation of theoretical framework for understanding relations between human society and the natural world. Indian social scientists and historians had previously ignored the ecological underpinnings of human life. There were, for example, many studies of how peasants and landlords related to one another, but few of how agrarian life was conditioned by its natural context, by the forests, waters, and minerals which provided so many of the basic materials for subsistence and survival. Seeking to fill this gap, we were keenly interested in the social institutions that regulated human interactions with the natural world, and further, with whether these institutions promoted prudent or profligate use of natural resources.
Pursuing this theoretical ambition, we offered, in the first part of this book, the concept of ‘modes of resource use’, to explain the varying interactions with nature in different historical epochs, the tensions and conflicts these modes produced, and their impact on environmental sustainability. We also examined a wide range of conservation practices in premodern times, demonstrating that in many (but by no means all) instances, unlettered rural communities had developed fairly sophisticated (and sustainable) practices of resource conservation.
The second half of This Fissured Land was more strongly empirical. This presented a wide-ranging social and environmental history of forest use in modern India. We critically investigated the new technologies and legal instruments brought in by the British colonial regime, paying close attention to the conflicts and tensions they generated. We then demonstrated the continuity between colonial and post-colonial forest regimes. Using an exclusionary legal framework bequeathed it by the Raj, the Government of independent India had intensified production forestry, further marginalizing peasants and tribals while greatly eroding biodiversity.
One aim of our book was to open up the field of environmental history in India. Social history, cultural history economic history, women’s history—these were all well-developed sub-disciplines by the late 1980s.Yet environmental history was in its infancy. In the twenty years since This Fissured Land was published, the field has grown in leaps and bounds. Many writers have acknowledged our book as, if not an inspiration, at least a provocation. Neither of its authors were, in a narrow professional sense, a historian; but they had, willy-nilly, succeeded in making the discipline more alert and alive to the ecological dimensions of historical change. This Fissured Land itself has been continuously in print since its first publication. It has now gone through more than a dozen impressions.
Like any work of scholarship, This Fissured Land also bore the impress of its authors’ personalities. Our professed aims were analytical and empirical, and we tried sincerely to honour them. But the book was also the handiwork of two citizens, two environmentally aware citizens. The writing of This Fissured Land was quite strongly influenced by our own encounters with environmental movements in India, the Chipko Andolan among them. In our travels and researches we had seen at first-hand the enormous environmental degradation that different parts of the country had undergone. The loss of forests, the depletion of the soil, the contamination of the rivers, all had profound negative impacts on rural and tribal communities. We recognized that this degradation had its roots in a strategy of development that favoured urban and industrial interests, and which privileged profligate over prudent uses of nature. Our academic analysis had therefore a moral sub-text, namely, the search for a development path that was e environmentally sustainable as well as less socially polarizing.
This Fissured Land went to press in 1991, a year that marks a turning-point in the economic history of India. In that year the license-permit-quota-Raj was dismantled and greater play given to market forces. The change was, in part, salutary; the surge in the IT sector, for example, would not have been possible without it. However, the past decade especially, crony capitalism has come increasingly to ace creative capitalism. The entrepreneurs with the best contacts tend to prosper more than the entrepreneurs with the best ideas. This is because the state retains control of key natural resources such as land minerals, and airwaves. This enables individual capitalists to sign sweetheart deals with individual politicians, at huge cost to the public exchequer, to the natural environment, and to the social good.
In the last chapter of This Fissured Land, we had pointed out that, unlike Europe and North America at a comparable stage of their industrialization, India did not have access to colonies which she could conquer or settle. This should have entailed a more prudent, responsible, and efficient use of the country’s natural endowment. Tragically, since economic liberalization we have instead adopted a more profligate pattern of resource use. The new legal safeguards put in place in the 1980s as a consequence of the environmental movement have been ignored or abandoned. Programmers for water conservation, sustainic4e energy; and the like have been shelved or relegated to the margins. There is an enchantment with American lifestyles, that is to say, with lifestyles that rest on a continuously increasing demand for natural resources. Values of simplicity and frugality, espoused by great Indians such as the Buddha and Gandhi, and once respected, though perhaps never willingly followed except by a minority, have now completely vanished. The ever louder clamour is for ‘Dil Mange More’.
To meet the needs of the corporate sector and the consuming classes, the Government has encouraged a new scramble for resources the tribal areas of central India and in the North-east. These regions ire on their way to becoming our ‘internal colonies’, as a wave of mining and hydroelectric schemes undermine local ecologies, and disrupt and displace local communities, creating widespread discontent. A state such as Odisha had no Naxalites fifteen years ago; now, as a direct consequence of the handing over of tribal lands to mining companies, the insurgents have a significant presence in half-a-dozen districts.
The social strife and environmental degradation currently underway means that, regrettably, the title of this book is even more apt now than it was on first publication. The Republic of India is a more greatly fissured land in 2012 than it was in 1992. The authors of this book cling nonetheless to this slim, slight, slender hope—that a new readership of young Indians will heed the call of the times, and the arguments outlined in these pages, and work towards a more socially harmonious and environmentally prudent path for our nation.
Contemporary India is a fantastic mosaic of fishing boats and trawlers, of cowherds and milk-processing plants, of paddy fields and rubber estates, of village blacksmiths and steel mills, handlooms and nuclear reactors. Its 850 million people live in tiny fishing hamlets and camps of nomadic entertainers; in long-settled villages and slowly-decaying old towns; in suburban ghettoes and burgeoning metropolitan cities. Some build their shelters with bamboo and mud, others with cement and steel. Some cook with small twigs on a three-stone hearth, or with coconut husks on a mudstove, some with electricity and gas in modern kitchens.
Naturally, the demands of this remarkable mosaic on the country’s resources are exceedingly varied. Thus, bamboo is coveted by rural artisans for weaving baskets and to fashion seed drills, by graziers to feed their cattle, and by industry to convert into paper and polyfibre. Landed peasants want the less fertile lands around villages to craze their cattle, the landless to scratch it to produce some grain, the forest departments to produce marketable timber. Peasants want the mountain valleys to grow paddy, power corporations to construct hydroelectric dams.
The resources so varyingly in demand are regulated in equally varying ways. There are sacred ponds which are not fished at all, and beach seiners recognize customary territorial rights of different fishing villages—even though none of this has any formal legal status. Many tribes in north-eastern India own land communally and put it to shifting cultivation, an ownership pattern recognized by law. Village common lands, used as grazing grounds, and wood-lots were once controlled by village communities; they are now government land under the control of revenue or forest departments. There are tenants who cultivate lands that belong to absentee landowners, though much of the land under cultivation is now owned by the tiller. A good bit of the land cultivated by tribals is, however, legally state- owned; this is part of a vast government estate which covers over a quarter of the country’s land surface, mostly designated ‘Reserved Forest’. Business corporations control large tracts of land, as tea or rubber estates, and there are moves to permit even larger holdings for forest-based industries.
A whole range of these resources, regulated and utilized in many different ways, is under great stress. There are very few deer and antelope left to hunt for hunter—gatherers such as the Phasepardhis of Maharashtra. A majority of the shepherds in peninsular India have given up keeping sheep for want of pastures to graze them. The shifting cultivators of north—eastern India have drastically shortened their fallow periods from a traditional fifteen to a current five years. All over, peasants have been forced to burn dung in their hearths for want of fuelwood, while there is insufficient manure in fields. Ground-water levels are rapidly going down as commercial farmers sink deeper and deeper bore-wells. There are long shutdowns in industry for want of power and raw material, and every urban centre is groaning under acute shortages of housing, fuel, water, power and transport.
In this ancient land, which harbours what is undoubtedly the most heterogeneous of cultures on earth, these resource shortages have given rise to an amazing range of adjustments, collusions and confficts. However, the country is living on borrowed time. It is eating, at an accelerating rate, into the capital stock of its renewable resources of soil, water, plant and animal life. Does this mean we are headed for disaster? Or is this a temporary phase before we get back on the path of sustainable resource use? Or perhaps before further technological advances open up an undreamt range of resources? It is obviously true that not all resources are being decimated everywhere. In the village of Gopeshwar in the Garhwal Himalaya, for example, there a nice grove of oak and other broad-leaved species. All families in the village carefully observe traditional regulations on the quantum of plant biomass removed from this grove. But this quantum is quite inadequate for their needs, and for the balance they turn to other hill slopes where exploitation is unregulated and denudation at an advanced stage. This was apparently not the case some decades ago, when the grove was larger and fulfilled the demands of a smaller population in a sustainable fashion.
Human history is, as a whole, precisely such a patchwork of prudence and profligacy, of sustainable and exhaustive resource use. In contemporary India the instances of profligacy clearly outnumber (and outweigh) those of prudence, although this book will argue that such was not always the case. In our own times, acute resource shortages have given rise to a host of social conflicts, and these have significant consequences for what is now happening to the life of India’s people and to the health of its land.
The implications of the uses and misuses of India’s biological resources are only dimly perceived by the rich and the powerful. But we, in common with the majority of Indians who face the burden of this misuse in their daily lives, believe them to be of tremendous significance: hence this book, We have attempted an ecological history of changing human interactions with living resources, using the Indian case illustratively to explore four themes. The significance of these, in our view, is scarcely restricted to one country, nor even to one continent.
First we ask: under what conditions may we expect human beings to exercise prudence in their use of natural resources?
Second, we investigate both the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ of natural resource use in different historical periods. ‘Hardware’ refers to the forces and relations of production—namely the technological infrastructure and the systems of property—open access, family, communal, corporate, or state—governing resource use. ‘Software’ refers to the belief systems (for example, religion, tradition, or science) which ‘legitimize and validate human interactions with nature.
Third, this book analyses the forms of social conflict between different groups of resource users. Here we are especially interested in changes in the intensity of social conflict over time, and in its escalation as one mode of resource use gains ascendancy over another.
Finally, we are interested in the impact of changing patterns of resource use, as well as of social conflict, on the status of living resources. Beginning with the conditions that favour prudence, we come full circle with our analysis of the conditions under which profligacy predominates.
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