MultiSession The Environmental History of India, Part 1: Part 1

AHA Session 73
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 303 (Hynes Convention Center)
Mahesh Rangarajan, Delhi University

Session Abstract

India's environmental history has been the subject of active research over the last twenty years at a time of rapid economic growth and wider debates than ever before of how to reconcile waste and wealth, equity and ecology, devolution and accumulation. Given its millennia long history, such issues have a larger background and context. The rich insight and intellectual excitement over its environmental history are impelled by secular changes in the body politic and intellectual milieu. Over the last two decades contemporary India has witnessed intense and renewed conflicts in its terrestrial and marine environments. The boundaries of and relations with farms and forests, waters and wild lands, mines and industrial zones have been and are being are redrawn. Food crises and diminished productivity in agriculture have revived debates on food security and threatened small farms. The reproduction of the Indian farm economy is in question, as distressed farmers cope with volatile commodity prices, soil depletion, water scarcities, and organized violence. The multiplication of joint forest management schemes and protected areas seemed to knit conservation bureaucracies and poor people into more complex relations of regulation and thwarted expectation. Such contemporary crises and polarizations have to be understood in the light of environmental processes affecting land, biota and fauna in the past. While the colonial period and the aftermath of independence have been a major focus, the longue duree is of critical importance. The past is often drawn upon to legitimate particular stances, but it also requires closer critical scrutiny. Forest clearance and recovery, the making of waterscapes, hunting and grazing, the desolation and growth of cities each had complex ecological dimensions. These processes were surely shaped by industrial and agricultural development as they concentrated crops, people, and pollutants in particular landscapes even as they transported humans, animals, and materials across others. And all this occurred, further, in the context of a burgeoning Indian democracy marked by the rise of regional and identity-based political parties, reconstituted federal relations between central and state governments, and the spread of environmental values through an increasingly wealthy and strident urban middle class that demanded a natural heritage consonant with its social and material aspirations. Along the way we are interested in exploring the impacts of mobility and settlement, science and technology, ideas of rights and justice, and values of nature love and conservation, as they took shape in colonial empire, worked their way into social democracy, and remain embedded in the tension between enterprise and entitlement that seems to be at the heart of liberalizing India. The papers in this panel provide a selection of a rich body of work. They will serve as invitation to dialogue with historians of other cultures and countries. Given its diversity and complex historical trajectory, the environmental History of India is certain to provoke as much as inform to stimulate critique and debate.