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Blame it on the Raj?


By Arnab Kumar Hazra
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- IN RECENT years, ecology has emerged as a major research topic and its historical aspect is being keenly analysed. The period between the 17th century to the early 20th century, when most of the nations were under colonial rule, is associated with the exploitation of natural resources. India is no exception. The Indian Forest Act of 1927, in operation till 1980, was extremely exploitative in nature. The 1927 Act was an extension of the 1878 Act, both constituted during the British rule.

There is near unanimity of opinion that any forest policy which sidelines the indigenous people results in greater exploitation of resources. These people have traditionally depended on forests for survival and have also taken the onus of protecting it from various hazards. "Ecology, Climate and Empire" is a book written against this backdrop by Richard Grove, an ecological historian.

The author attributes the occurrence of droughts to deforestation since 1670. However, "the identities and motivations of these interest groups (read indigenous people) were often deeply intertwined and unified in opposition to colonial conservation policy." Hence the author caters to the outdated notion that infringement by people living in and around forests is the root cause of deforestation. To substantiate his belief, the author says, "Many of the wars between Hindu and non-Hindu groups were specifically framed in terms of disputes about political control of forest regions." However, the author fails to provide an example of where and when such a war took place.

Furthermore, the author states that the "existence of dynamic links between deforestation and rainfall decline" was recognised by everyone. Early examples concerning global climate change vis-a-vis deforestation was an integral part of colonial policy. The author tries to prove this point by [inking years of natural disasters with active environmentalism. For example, he says: "The drought of 1845-47 ushered in... and coincided with important departures in the valuation of the Cape environment..." However, he docs not elaborate on the departures and policies at any stage.

The author substantiates his argument by listing various European botanists, activists and those interested in meteorological data. However, individual works or published data in medical journals do not prove that colonial policies were conservationist in nature. The inter-connection between drought and El Nino in the 17th and 18th century and understanding of global climate change getting reflected in the East India Company's thinking is a bit hard to digest. Neither El Nino nor droughts are a recent phenomenon, but active research on this interconnection began only in the 1970s.

The argument at times borders on the realm of mysticism. Roxburg was one such botanist who "actively sought documentary and botanical evidence of these earlier droughts, finding a rich source of material in the informant whom he refers to as 'the Rajah of Pittenpore's family Brahmen'."

Again, one such person was Moloney, who worked in the Gold Coast and pointed out that deforestation would lead to rainfall decline and famine. So he warns "our Eastern allies" to "put a stop to this unlimited practice of shaving the forest of timber". Grove clarifies that "our Eastern allies" implies the colonial government in India.

So does the author accept colonial exploitation in a subtle way? Ironically, he further suggests that Moloney remained unspecific as to the methods by which "forest conservation may be introduced in West Africa". Again, when the author deals with the 1897 Land Bill in the Gold Coast of Africa, he claims that the bill was "framed on the basis of an Indian forest conservation model". But he does not elaborate any further on the "model".

This brings us to the title of the book, "The Indian Legacy in Global Environmental History". The book fails to give a glimpse of what the legacy was like. Overall, the book is a well-researched piece of fiction.

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