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Staking the Terrain – Political Economy, Environmental History and Nature Conservation: Shashank Kela

Guest post by SHASHANK KELA

The aim of this essay is to make connections between things that are usually studied separately – environmental history, political economy, conservation practice and adivasi politics – and I apologize in advance for the demands it makes upon the reader’s attention. The belief that this potential convergence could do with wider discussion is my sole justification for putting it up here.

Environmental history in India is not a very old discipline – the first mongraphs began appearing in the 1980s, and more and more books and papers have been added to the historiography since 2000. Let us examine certain themes as outlined in a cross-section of recent scholarship.

One key debate centers upon whether the colonial period can be regarded as an ecological watershed. An influential book by Ramchandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil argued that, before the advent of colonialism, there existed a harmonizing tendency between human beings and the environment, a balance between resource use and preservation mediated largely through the caste system: colonialism shattered this equilibrium and the values associated with it.[1] This idealizing view, eliding different time periods and state structures, was bound to come under attack and much subsequent scholarship has been devoted to unpicking its conclusions.

Sumit Guha shows how at least one natural resource, namely wild grass for fodder, had become scarce in the Deccan by the Maratha period thanks to the demands of armies, nobles and zamindars, who engrossed it by enclosing tracts of common land. This fierce arbitrariness fostered a system of free grazing and discouraged sustainable management through collective protection of the commons.[2] Meanwhile the argument that sacred groves are strands of untouched forest – repositories of biodiversity – is refuted by Claude Garcia and J-P Pascal in their study of Kodagu.[3] Far from being untouched, groves there are heavily used and managed, and show clear signs of degradation associated with use. Continue reading Staking the Terrain – Political Economy, Environmental History and Nature Conservation: Shashank Kela