Relevance of history

History provides important lessons in the management of the environment for administrators, conservationists and their ideologues. But have we really learnt anything from the past?

By Max Martin
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Relevance of history

Animals such as the elephant a POLITICAL history cannot be separated from cultural history, and cultural history is not a catalogue of events or a roster of events or a roster of personages, but an unfolding process of interaction between humans and nature. German scholar Leopald von Ranke, the father of modern positivist history, defined its objective in 1830 as the process of " acquiring knowledge about human affairs". But, as eminent environmental historian Donald Worster insists, humans are essentially a part of nature, and it is impossible to disentangle human affairs from what is happening to forests, animals, insects and microorganisms. Hall Distinguished professor of American History at the University of Kansas, USA, Worster says that history has mostly been understood as a chronology of political events-the rise and fall of kingdoms and their rulers-a simplistic notion that presumes that those who did not record their history did not have one. But developments in the social and natural sciences changed that outlook. History became more interpretative and oral narratives of history from tribes and other marginalised groups began to be taken seriously. A distinct strand in the new interpretation has been the ecological and naturalist point of view. But investigations into India's ecological history have been few and far between. In its continuing efforts to understand the relevance of ecology in Indian culture, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) brought together academicians and practitioners from various fields at a conference on ecological history and traditions. Held in New Delhi on March 27-29, 1997, the conference focussed on three major issues: How much do we know about ecology in early India? How nature-friendly were Indians in the past? What was the role of the State in managing the environment? Reconstructing the past A great deal is known today about ancient Indian culture and civilisation. Recent archaeological investigations and interdisciplinary studies of contemporary cultures have helped cultural historians explain the rise and fall of early civilisations, says M K Dhavalikar, former director and head of the department of archaeology in Deccan College, Pune. "Earlier, scholars could explain what happened in Mohenjodaro or Harappa. Now we can tell you why. It is called the new archaeology," says Dhavalikar. Interdisciplinary study, an essential part of the new approach, trashes the classical definition of history and the old notion of various disciplines as watertight compartments. The new mode of research depends on teamwork. Studies over the past 13 years in Inamgoan near Pune are a good example, Inmgaon had a developed culture around 3500 BC. Archaeologists unearthed large rectangular houses, burial sites and remains of a canal irrigation system. This was followed by contributions from physical anthropologists, biologists, geologists, climatologists and others. The conference underscored the importance of such multidisciplinary studies. Other contributions to the conference demonstrated the need to study events with global repercussions. A paper by Richard Grove of the Australian National University, Canberra, traced the influence of EL Nino-an irregular, southward current in the Pacific Ocean associated with weather changes-on the monsoon in India in the 18th century. Grove contends that a strong EL Nino always induced a drought in India; often, there were droughts in Australia as well in the same period. Cultural adaptations to nature What do ecological historians look for? "We commonly identify three dimensions." Says Worster in the context of the history of the US. First, thee is the history of the earth and its ecosystem. A second dimension is the history of economic production and consumption, including factors of production and the evolution of techniques in farming, hunting and fishing. Then there is the history of a cultural. These dimensions have a universal validity. Inamgaon offers a classic example of environmental history studies. The people of Inamgaon were non-vegetarians and domesticated cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and horses. The Ghore, Inamgaon's local river, used to be in high flood. To divert the flood waters, the people built canals, which also helped in irrigation. With irrigation, they could grow wheat, a crop alien to the Deccan. Flour was made from the roasted grain crushed on flat stones, remains of which have been found. "By 1200 BC there had been a marked cultural change," Dhavalikar explains. Smaller round houses replaced the rectangular, pottery became coarse, and silos were no more used to store grain. With less rainfall, cultivation declined, and wheat eventually disappeared. A pastoral economy took over, as suggested by a larger population of goat and sheep. Also, only 0.05 per cent of the remains at the site in previous times were identified as deer bones. In the later period, more deer bones are found at the site - up to 15 per cent of the total. "That means they had to depend much more on hunting," Dhavalikar concludes. This is the period between 1200 Bc and 800BC(known as the 'nuclear winter' in Europe) - when there was' immense aridity throughout the world.

Similar close links between ecological and historical phenomena Are evident in Harappan townships. D P Agarwal, former professor and chairperson of the palaeo-climatic group at the physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, says that Harappan town dependent on crops cultivated on the alluvium of the Indus and its tributaries. Forests were confined largely to river banks. As the region became increasingly arid around 1700 BC, they began migrating towards the densely forested region in the Gangetic doab (the land between Ganga and the Yamuna). "They came right up to the fringes of the doab, but could not colonise the forests with their copper and bronze technology," says Agarwal. Thus, the second phase of urbanisation had to wait till middle of the first millennium BC when iron technology made it possible to drain swamps, clear forests and cultivate alluvial plains.

Carrying capacity and culture
Agarwal emphasises the role of population pressure on environment, which, in turn, influenced the fate of these cultures. For instance, the semi-arid ecology of the Indus Valley could not sustain very large sedentary populations. The bronze technology exploited its environment too severely: agriculture expanded, forests were logged, and available water used incautiously, resulting in the collapse of the civilisation. Agarwal summarises the lesson learnt: "Whenever a population increases beyond the carrying capacity of the local ecology, it dies out."

The onset of drier climate in 1700 BC left its mark on southern India as well. According to a paper published by M Cartini and others, pollen studies in Uttara Kannada (south-west India) indicate a decline of forests and mangroves and an increase in savannas (Current Science, Vol 6 1, No 9 and 10). M D Subhash Chandran of Dr Baliga College of Arts and Science, Kumta, Karnataka, adds that the agri-pastoral people probably migrated towards the more humid west coast. Chandran postulates that the slash-and-burn agriculture associated with agri -pastoralism and the reclamation of estuaries for rice farming could have led to the vegetational changes recorded in the second millennium BC in the area.

By 1700 BC, the Harappan culture declined and an identifiably different culture known as the Aryan gradually replaced it in northwestern India. While "no specific ancient work on the science of ecology has come to light," says S P Dasgupta of the Centre for Study of Man and Nature, Calcutta, instructions recorded in holy texts do indicate a positive approach towards the environment. Aryans worshipped nature. Indra, the god of thunder and rain, Varuna, the lord of wind, Surya (Sun) and Prithvi (Earth) were their deities. Says Jaweed Ashraf of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi: "Their lifestyle involved close interaction with nature in their day-to-day life. Hence their attitude towards nature was that of ecstatic worship."

The cultural centre shifted to the Gangetic Valley during the later Vedic era (circa 2500 BC to 1000 BC). But the cultural emphasis on affinity with nature remained. For instance, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: "The earth is helpful to all living beings, and all living beings are of helpful effect to the earth." Ashraf points out that the later scriptures such as the Puranas included diktats on nature conservation and pre- scribed punishments for offenders. The most comprehensive social code of the times, the Manu Smriti (circa 1000 BC), Stipulates: "For cutting down fruit trees, shrubs, creepers or flowering plants, a person should be made to mutter the prescribed Vedic mantra a hundred times for his atonement."

The age of the epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) brought forth new attitudes towards forests, such as adoption of vanaprastha (life in forest) in one's twilight years. Inroads into previously unsettled regions brought the Aryans into conflict with forest dwellers. Ramayana is said to have been uttered by Valmiki on witnessing the hunting of two birds. The Mahabharata exhorts kings to protect forests and wildlife.

The forest cults
After the period of the epics, janapadas or republics flourished in northern India. Studies show that the republican tribes often adopted popular eco-friendly practices. Protecting sacred forests (chaityas) was one such practice. Historian Romila Thapar notes that such chaityas were popular cult objects. While the Vedic tradition gradually bred an orthodoxy, sects like Buddhism and Jainism emerged around 500 Bc. Buddhism adopted the cult of the chaityas. For instance, in Vaishali, the Buddhist places of worship came up in three mahavanas (great forests) named Gotamak chaitya, Chapala chaitya and Ananda chaitya. There is considerably more evidence of ecological practices after Chandragupta Maurya ascended the throne in 321 BC. Arthashastra, the famous text on state policy written by Kautilya, classifies forests and stresses the importance of protecting certain types of forests. Kautilya systematised change in landuse from jungle to agricultural fields and orchards, says Ashraf. In the transformation of natural to 'cultivated' wilderness people could maintain optimal density of plantations, depending on the carrying capacity of the land, he explains. Perhaps this foresight explains why forests and wilderness in India remained intact for centuries despite wars, urbanisation and the spread of agriculture and commerce.

Kautilya also realised the importance of irrigation, and suggested a water tax for state-assisted irrigation. One of Chandragupta's governors built a dam across a river near Girnar in western India, creating a large lake meant to supply water for the region. Romila Thapar notes that a local inscription records the continuous maintenance of this dam for 800 years after it was built. The famous edicts of Emperor Ashoka refer to protection of forests and wildlife. Interestingly, non- vegetarianism in the period came to be regarded as undesirable.

In the Gupta period (300-600 AD) the great Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidasa wrote Shakuntalam. The work has some of the most beautiful verse on human-nature interplay. Taking care of forests was apparently considered a virtue for the nobility, though hunting was permitted. In south India, the Sangam literature (100-400 AD) tells us that villages were surrounded by large forest tracts akin to the mahavanas of the north. Under dynasties such as the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras, worship of trees was a common practice. Notes Chandran: "Despite much deforestation in the Deccan, substantial patches of forests remained until the systematic exploitation by the British in the early 19th century. Relics of sacred groves remain to this day, sheltering rare habitats and plant and animal species. Hunting and tree-felling were subject to communal regulations." For tribes all over India, forests were always associated with dieties. Even after they were absorbed into the varna system as low castes or as casteless people, they continued worshipping sacred groves and deities.

The Muslim period
Ashraf points out that during the rule of Ghiyasuddin Khilji (who proclaimed himself sultan in Delhi in 1320), the process of clearing jungles started "at a serious pace" around Delhi for reasons of security. Meo tribals from Mewat, taking advantage of the thick forests around Delhi, attacked the city regularly. So the sultans replaced the jungles with extensive orchards. During the reign of Firoz Tughlaq, Delhi alone had 2,500 orchards, Ashraf notes. The Sultans promoted Persian herbal medicine, organiseed hunting and lift irrigation; wells and water bodies developed by them still dot Delhi's landscape.

During the Mughal period (1526-1720), the stability of the society depended on settled villages and revenue-yielding land, point out David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha in Nature, Culture, Imperialism.

However, chronicles of Mughal expeditions note forays through thick jungles and vast tracts of uncultivated land. Shahbaz Khan, one of Akbar's generals, had to spend "nearly two months engaged in cutting down trees" before capturing a rebel fort in Bihar, narrates the Akbarnama.

But the Mughals struck a balance between deforestation for strategic reasons and protection of the green wilderness. They protected forest their own shake, and built orchards in, and around their cities. Ashraf notes that they were ones who gave the north Indian landscape a distinct character till Indian Forester, for instance, played an important role in colonial and more recent interventions led to its destruction.

The British period
Natural resource management under the British was a radical shift from earlier conservation policies. For the first time, commercial forestry practices became widespread in India. Forests were categorised on the basis of commercial value, points out D D Dangwal of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS), New Delhi. The impact of the policy was soon visible in the Himalayan region. Replenishing and restocking forests with commercial species was an essential component of the strategy that led to monoculture in forests. The policy ignored the value of non-commercial species for the local communities and the effects of overexploitation of forests.

Gibson, a conservator of forests in the then Bombay Presidency, wrote in 1846 that deforestation was leading to diminishing soil fertility, an increase in temperature and aridity. He cited the example of south Konkan. Gibson represented the stray liberal voice in the British bureaucracy. Although the British under stood the significance of forests and saw deforestation as an ecological threat, this did not affect government policy. In March 1929, a silviculture conference held at Dehradun passed a resolution for the preservation of flora - but only the United Provinces and Bihar were represented. Nandini Sundar, a researcher from Edinburgh University, UK, sums up the British experience: "It is an accepted fact that the colonial state arrogated to itself the right to regulate the ecological and social landscape of the country." The best example of British arrogance could be seen in the way they dealt with Bastar from 1891 to 1947. The ban on grazing and the beginnings of commercial forestry from 1891 onwards resulted in a rebellion in 1910. Between 1921-1947, the British attitude changed somewhat. Shifting cultivation was allowed in Abujhmarh. But conditions in the rest of the state remained the same. The experience of Chhattisgarh - where land and forest laws overruled tribal rights, leading to revolts - was similar. The construction of canals was another example intervention. The British irrigation practices Parveen Singh, studying for a doctorate at JNU: "The intervention in irrigation precluded rehabilitation of the traditional system. It also drastically altered the drainage patterns of NISTADS says that creation of public opinion was the main 19th century conservation movement, both in India and abroad. Popular science journals were a the appreciation of forestry issues among the public.

It is clear from contemporary accounts that, throughout and exploit nature. While foreign influences contributed to ecological degradation, valuable lessons could be learnt - for example from the Mughals, who introduced landscape gardening. The British and the Portuguese, on their part, made it a practice to collect weather statistics, which is invaluable for environmental research.

The role of the State
The question inevitably arises: What was the role of the State in the management of the environment? Obviously, the State was not as well defined in the past as it is today. "There are two principles on which a modern government works. The first is to nationalise a resource; second, to create a bureaucracy to manage that resource," says Anil Agarwal, director of CSE.

Most of the past regimes of India left natural resources more or less out side this system. Traditionally, communities had a substantial say in matters relating to the use of local natural resources. State intervention was mini mal, positive and unrestrictive. Later kingdoms experimented with different forms of forest administration. There were hunting reserves for kings. In the Mahabharata, Krishna argues for the creation of an efficient administration to look after forests, and setting up of wildlife reserves and sanctuaries. Bimbisara, the king of Magadha in the fifth century Bc, made it mandatory to seek State permission before forests could be cleared and wastelands reclaimed.

Was the State, then, all powerful? Niladi Bhattacharya of JNU notes that, often, the power of the State has been exaggerated. While historians perceive the Mauryan, the Chola and the Mughal eras as ones in which highly centralised states flourished, recent research contradicts this assumption. Local communities were incorporated into the State and certain rights of the communities were retained. Systems of management of local forests were flexible and depended on local needs. Even strong empires that espoused forest conservation and wildlife protection left legal options open for domestication of animals and hunting of dangerous wild beasts.

According to noted historian and Gandhian, Dharampal (see Interview: page 53), village communities in pre-British India enjoyed almost total rights over their natural resources. The rudest shock to this system was delivered by the British who introduced a rigid bureaucracy. Gandhi's plea for rural small-scale industrialisation and village-level people's organisations found a nationwide echo during the nationalistic movement, but not after Independence. The result, in Dharampal's words, is that we still live under a'hegemony of a minority. The majority have little power.

Lessons of history
So what does history teach us? There can be no doubt that there are important lessons in conservation to be learnt from the past. According to Mahesh Rangarajan, fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi, we have at least two role models for eco-conservation. Ashoka's empire provides the first. Another is symbolised by a traditional bird sanctuary, Vedanthangal, near Chermai. Killing nesting water birds in the sanctuary was taboo. This is just one example of indigenous conservation practice. Conservation has been supported by customs and religious beliefs in India for ages. It is ultimately people who exercise the option of conserving resources.

The task of the ecological historian today is to study, evaluate and analyse such practices and their relevance. As noted historian Kapila Vatsyayan said in her address at the conference, what is known today is only a fraction of the know- ledge available. India has scores of volumes of unread scripts. The environmental historian has to make that knowledge available and place it in the present context. Perhaps there is a pattern to history. After 50 years of 'planned failure' in rural development, self-organisation of the people is reaping rewards, as in the well-known Sukhomajri village in Haryana, where villagers have regenerated their forests. People have been striving to take control. Perhaps one has go to the people to find the right answers.

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