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New perspectives on the politics of conservation

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By Bhaskar Chatterjee
  • Published 8.12.06

Preservation of environment has been a professed concern for our social scientists, legislators and political leaders, as well as the administration and the judiciary — at least the matter has been presented as such. But there are a number of different approaches to this problem, defined by different interests. Anybody interested in this subject should have a primary acquaintance with it, and this book may be read for this reason, if not for anything else.

This is an interesting book written by a historian-cum-environmentalist. Some parts certainly add to the knowledge of the reader. For example, Guha has shown in the chapter entitled, ‘The Indian Road to Sustainability’, that the history of environmentalist ideas in India is long. He has presented the ideas of Patrick Geddes, Radhakamal Mukherjee and J.C. Kumarappa in this regard. The description of the origin and growth of the Chipko movement is also interesting. On the implementation of the Nehruvian idea of developmental planning, the author seems to have missed an important point. It is not only that environmental considerations were brushed aside, but also that the welfare state ventured into those industrial areas in which private capitalists could not mobilize enough capital. The neglect of environmental considerations is largely explicable in terms of this fact that became clear later on. Guha has correctly pointed out the dangers to environment latent in globalization.

The chapter, ‘Democracy in the Forests’, is interesting in places. One point argued by Guha, perhaps correctly, is that peasants lost their sense of providing communal protection to forests once they came to realize that the forests were no longer their communal property. The history of thought on this matter is also interesting because we learn about what Mira Behn and Dietrich Brands had argued concretely. The arguments put forward by the advocates of community forestry did not have much impact on state policies. The author’s characterization of the Jharkhand movement as a movement for a separate state for the tribals is problematic. The Jharkhandi identity consists of not only tribal people but also many other groups, some of which are semi-Hinduized.

The chapter, ‘Authoritarianism in the Wild’, is enlightening. When human beings are considered less valuable than tigers, one might argue that the tribal people who have from time immemorial lived near forests should be uprooted from their homes and traditional means of livelihood, which do not include rampant felling of trees but collection of fruit, honey, firewood and so on. Guha has correctly emphasized the need for an alternative approach because, as he himself argues, “The perspective of the traditional wildfire conservationist is based on faulty history, flawed science and anti-democratic policies”. One may, following him, liken this view to the attempted takeover of triple-cropped agricultural land for industrialization on pseudo-scientific grounds that industry generates more income, while carefully eschewing the question as to whether the dis- possessed will be able to participate in these income-generating activities.

The forces behind the propagation of traditional wildfire conservationism need to be identified, and Guha could have explored the relations, economic and political, which bind these forces with this conservatism. The chapters on Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhab Gadgil are interesting and they should induce the reader to learn more. Lewis Mumford particularly should be studied more; the reader may find his curiosity not quite satisfied by the short discussion by the author. Guha’s comments on Gandhi’s ethics misses certain points. Among the most profound admirers of Gandhi were some bania capitalists whose greed transcended everything. So, a more careful examination of Gandhi’s ideas on environmental ethics should have been undertaken. The green development strategy prescribed by Guha is seemingly faultless, but the problem is that in the socio-economic milieu we live in, prescriptions like “firms properly internalize externalities” is almost utopian. Guha, however, is careful enough to suggest that his “development model can only succeed if India becomes a far more equitable society than it is at present”.

But the fact is, any move towards a more equitable society is bound to be resisted by forces having a considerable hegemony in the realm of society and politics. How to overcome this resistance is a question that one should not expect the author to answer, but at least a mention of the problem would have been welcome.This book is immensely readable, and written lucidly. Perhaps its best merit is that it will encourage others to read more on this subject.