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Book review of "Environmentality: Technologies of government and the making of subjects"

Book>> Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the making of Subjects by Arun Agrawal Oxford University Press, Delhi 2006

Published: Friday 29 February 2008


What makes people care for the environment? Do natural resources play any role in social identities? The book under review attempts to answer these questions.

It's an ambitious quest. But author Arun Agrawal is more than equal to the task. His study is located in Kumaon: a region that has been studied extensively by environmental historians since Ramachandra Guha's pioneering foray. Agrawal takes an inter-disciplinary approach, borrowing from history, political theory and anthropology, to study the area. In doing so he, takes issues with a variety of scholars including development theorists and eco-feminists. The former, when talking about rural citizens in developing countries, assume that their needs are primarily antagonistic to any sense of long-term environmental care. Environmentalist sensibilities don't make much sense unless people's bellies are full, they say. Another group of scholars argues that rural women have a natural inclination to protect the environment because they rely on natural resources.

Agrawal shows that both approaches are ahistorical. In fact, in the first two decades of the 20th century, people in Kumaon villages set fire to thousands of acres of forests in response to the establishment of state forest reserves. But by the last decade of the same century, many Kumaon villagers were engaged in community-based forestry programmes and passionately defended the protection of trees and forests.

In the first part of his study, the author pays close attention to the development of the "strategies of knowledge and power" that created forest environments as a domain fit for modern government. Forest surveys come in for particular attention.

The process of statistically enumerating the subcontinent's forests resulted in new classifications and forms of representation of forested lands, which paid short shrift to local knowledge of forests. There were new ways of attributing value to forests and villagers were excluded from decision-making. Foresters saw themselves as "guardians of forest" when they were actually at the beck and call of colonial commercial interests. The more threatened nature was seen to be, the more imperative it became to protect it.

Down to Earth Increased protectionism led to more protests. Around 9,200 ha of forests were burnt down. An embattled government had to find new ways of dealing with the crisis which drove fissures down its establishment. Agrawal describes how the colonial state moved from a top-down approach to forestry to a less centralized form, dense network of forest councils and van panchayats. Local resource management, in Agrawal's analysis, is not a counterweight to the state, as is commonly assumed, but a "form of government that encourages (and depends for its success on) the willing participation of those subject to rules".

The author makes an important point here--forest councils determined each villager's level of access to the forests and that this was based on many factors, including their social status in the community, gender, and wealth. But we wish he had dwelt more on this. Agrawal's arguments are compelling but at times the reader may wish for extended narratives about the villagers' lives and work in the forests. Given that Agrawal's area of study is not far from the region that produced the Chipko movement, many readers might appreciate a brief exploration of the links between the two regions.

There are other places where he leaves us yearning for more. For example, he asserts that some but not all villagers became more environmentally conscious following the creation of forest councils but he does not investigate the variations in levels of environmental consciousness. Then he says that some villages chose to form councils, while others did not, but does not address reasons for this discrepancy. A map of the area of study could have helped as well.

These loose ends notwithstanding, Agrawal's book is another important work in understanding the role of ecology in social change.

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