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Book review: Environmental issues in India

Book>> Environmental Issues in India: a Reader edited by Mahesh Rangarajan Pearson-Longman 2007

By R Uma Maheshwari
Published: Saturday 15 March 2008

In an era where the environment and the intricate, and challenging, relationship between communities and natural resources has come to occupy a crucial space in the development debate in India, this volume couldn't have been timed better.

The Reader, a compilation of written articles and lectures/talks by eminent historians, journalists, activists and scholars, tries to weave a chronology of environment-related issues in India's history. In this, it fills a lacuna, for rarely do we find books on environment (barring works of people like Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil and the editor of this volume) that traverse the path of history to address these issues. For a lay reader seeking multiple views on these subjects, this book is a welcome source. It's a must-have for groups working on these issues who may rarely, if at all, turn the pages of history.

Here they'll find nuggets like Romila Thapar's piece on forests and urban settlements in the early millennia bc; or archaeologist-historian Makhan Lal writing about climate and the end of Indus valley civilization.

Environmental issues have deep resonance in current politics. The volume could have done well with latest information
Down to Earth

The articles here approach their subjects through perspectives on nature and wildlife, forests and settlements, state and environment, gender, etc and are set in neatly-divided sections--"Pre-colonial India", "Colonial India", "Independent India's Environment" etc. But it would have been far more interesting if the sections had been thematic and based on perspectives, say, looking at what comprised 'environment' and 'nature' in different periods of India's history.

These would have led well to the sections on current times where perspectives on environment vary from the exclusivist, exotic, conservationist to more inclusive of communities who live close to forests and rivers.

Wildlife protection and community access to protected forests has been one of the most contested environmental issues in independent India. Today a new force is added to these contested spaces--private investors and multinational conglomerates looking to tap the country's mineral resources. Unfortunately, some of these new challenges aren't highlighted in the volume. Also missing is a look at contemporary world politics that force certain choices on India with adverse environmental consequences.

However, several articles make interesting reading. Mayank Kumar's piece on water management in Rajasthan, for instance, highlights how environment is central, and not just a backdrop, to a region's socio-political structure. Kumar shows historical evidence of water intensive cash corps in Rajasthan since the 17th century, though cultivated mostly by the richer peasantry. There have been numerous perspectives regarding the role of women in environment, since they are seen as living closest to nature and hence considered most vulnerable in the face of environmental degradation. Bina Agarwal tackles the gender question in a thought-provoking essay. She talks of "statisation" and privatisation, where both state and private interests impinge upon spaces women once had access to.

A large section of the book is dedicated to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, undoubtedly India's most long-drawn debate on dams and displacement. Yet there isn't a much called-for note on the present status of the Sardar Sarovar project. The 'latest' on the subject in this volume is from 2001. A mention of the long debates within the movement, the splits, the shift from 'anti-dam', to 'rehabilitation and resettlement' should have found a mention. As should have another very controversial project--the Polavaram dam. This single multi purpose project, if built, will displace more than 276 villages and over three lakh people, the majority being tribal and dalit communities.

There are several other lapses. Another contentious concept--river-linking and its environmental and socio-political implications, is ignored. On global warming, a more recent study than one written in 2000 would have been welcome, considering the debate on climate change has come a long way since.

Environmental movements and campaigns for human rights and equitable access to natural resources have converged in many regions in contemporary India. These movements have to contend with radical, and often violent, politics in many states where private industry and the State have merged as a formidable power racing towards industrialization. In this scenario, groups working on environment-related issues have either quietly receded to the background or compromised on previously-held stands, often at the behest of their funding agencies. One misses comment on these important and contemporary aspects that, ideally, shouldn't be ignored in a reader of this nature. Yet as a whole, the volume will always be relevant for those of us looking for instant access to some of the most valuable contributions on environment in India.

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