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Himalayan upheavals

NATURAL PREMISES: ECOLOGY AND PEASANT LIFE IN THE WESTERN HIMALAYA 1800- 1950·Chetan Singh·Oxford University Press·New Delhi· 1998·pp252·Rs 475

By Arnab Kumar Hazra
Published: Friday 15 December 2000

-- it is difficult to categorise Natural Premises: Ecology and Peasant Life in the Western Himalaya 1800-1950. It unveils changes in the society, geo-politics, political economy and ecology of the western Himalaya. The book contributes to understanding the region better.

The book aims to explain the response of the people of 'Himachal Himalayas' to the changes that have occurred in their environment. The author theorises on the adverse repercussions of external forces, including the advent of colonial rule, on the environment, economy, and societal-framework of the region. He talks of long-term stability of the political system as a crucial determinant of the social response witnessed. This long-term stability of the political system, the author writes, was in turn fashioned by a multiplicity of factors, not the least important being the relation between the socio-economic structure and the way the polity related to it. The author elucidates, in detail, aspects like housing pattern and architecture, location and extent of cultivation, size of land holdings, categories of land, crops, and irrigation besides other things. All these aspects of human habitation shed light on the creation of permanence in settlements and agricultural practices.

The author lays importance on the management of wastelands situated near villages and devotes an entire chapter to it. The reason for the special attention is two-fold. First, wastelands provide resources which are crucial for agricultural activity. Second, the study of wasteland management provides an inkling of the character of collective response of the peasants. To quote: "by responding to the ecology of the area, peasants devised appropriate means for obtaining the greatest possible benefits from wastes". Apart from providing resources that helped cultivation, wastelands, the author shows, were significantly linked to the pastoral economy of the time. Shepherds were essential to the economic system of the state in the pre-colonial period. The state used them to extract resources from the nature. The Gujjars, Gaddis and other shepherd communities were an integral part of the village-level economy across most of Himachal. The author brings out this point well and devoting two chapters to it.

The author goes on to document the intricate economic interdependence of the the village peasantry, pastoralists and the state and how it was disturbed during the the British rule. Under the British, timber extraction began in right earnest.

Although the commercial exploitation of timber in Himachal has a long history, the scale at which timber extraction was practised under the British was unprecedented. This had a direct effect on the environment, the society as well as the economy. The British did realise natural resources were being plundered and attempted forest conservation by different methods. However, the entire purpose of the exercise was convoluted as they planted only the commercially lucrative species.

The most outstanding characteristic of the Western Himalayan region, that emerges from a reading of the book, is the diversity of the region, which peculiarly bounded the different parts of the region into a system of interdependence and self-sufficiency. This is borne out quite vividly and remains the strength of the book.

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