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Epilogue - Env mgmt India

Epilogue - Env mgmt India

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Published by: Somnath Bandyopadhyay on Sep 04, 2008
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Somnath Bandyopadhya
The notion that the environment could be, or should be, managed, is relatively recent inIndia. Like any other old civilization, Indians traditionally revered nature even while theygradually learnt to manipulate it to an extent that met its own basic needs of food andshelter. However, the degree of manipulation seldom achieved extraction of resourcesbeyond subsistence levels, either from the farm-lands or from the forests, thanks totheir ecological characters, whose variability remain largely unpredictable even today.Tropical location, Himalayan Mountains to the north and open seas to the south createunique conditions of air circulation over the sub-continent that lead to a seasonaldistribution of rainfall, referred to as the “monsoons”. The variability of the rainfallpattern was not only the major external determinant during the early development of human habitations in the sub-continent, but continues to influence the economic growthof modern India significantly.The long-term variation of rainfall over space and time led to the development of distinct vegetation patterns over the sub-continent, dominated by various forest types.The original inhabitants of these forests – often referred to as
were predominantly hunter-gatherers, who extracted a wide variety of plant and animalresources offered by the forests themselves. Fire, along with other crude implements,was used as a key management technique to extract resources that were relativelyabundant, protect resources from other wild competitors and fulfil the consumptionneeds of a human population which had a very limited life-span and even limiteddemands.Gradual increase in life-span, improved knowledge and consequent diversification of demands for natural resources brought with it a variety of fundamental changes. Basicsocial groups and rudimentary institutional forms emerged in order to share theextraction and use of these resources. Elementary norms were evolved for the
The author is a Ph.D in Environmental Sciences from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi,where he specialised in wetland ecology. He has, thereafter, worked for over eight years with the GujaratEcology Commission, Govt. of Gujarat, as a Senior Ecologist and Nodal Officer. He has managed several policy research programmes, including the development of a State Environmental Action Programme,supported by the World Bank. He has an advanced training in Environmental Economics and PolicyAnalysis from the Harvard Institute of International Development, Harvard University. Presently, he isSenior Programme Officer at the Aga Khan Foundation in India where he manages outreach andinnovation in rural development programmes. The views expressed in this article are entirely personal andshould not be attributed to any institution that the author may be associated with.
protection of certain species, particularly during their breeding seasons or when theirnumbers needed to recover and justify a certain degree of hunting effort. Norms weregradually established through forms – such as cultural and religious rituals – thatdefined personal food habits as well as community outlook on local resources such asvillage tanks and groves. Although constrained by a lack of any written scripts, there isincreasing evidence to indicate that individual and community rights had evolved amongindigenous communities even on the basis of oral traditions.Even though written by “outsiders”, references to “
” in the early texts andfolklores provide glimpses of the lives of the original inhabitants of the sub-continent.Resource extraction under such conditions has been as variable as the environmentalconditions that determined its availability. This had, in turn, left the dynamics of thehuman population at the mercy of sudden food shortages (famines), sudden emergenceof high population of competing species (like locusts) and sudden development of conditions that sustained pathogens (like cholera and plague). In short, native Indiansseemed to have survived more as an integral part of the ecological systems, learning toaccept (and, often, revere) the eccentricity of Nature’s bounties rather than dominatethese systems by actively controlling their production processes in his own favour.
Conflicts and the phenomenon of hereditary occupations
The quest for an active control of the production processes began to succeed first in theagricultural settlements of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Any agricultural system, like thePrairies and Steppes in the temperate regions of the world, is more uniformlyproductive, that allows for the rapid fulfilment of basic needs, creates surpluses andprovides opportunities to diversify the economic base. The Indo-Gangetic river system,however, distinguished itself for being far less uniform and predictable in its floodingpatterns, responding as it were to the unique variability in the monsoon rains of thesub-continent.Shifts in river courses are known to have eliminated an entire civilization along theIndus valley, wiping in its course amazingly advanced systems of trade, industry andurban settlements. Although less dramatic, similar shifts in the courses of rivers in theIndo-Gangetic plains have often led to large-scale disputes over the possession of fertilelands – the key productive asset in an economy dominated by agriculture – resulting ina deeply fractured and caste-ridden social system.Mythology and ancient history of the sub-continent provide enough evidence of strife inthe chequered polity of the Indo-Gangetic plains. However, its relations with controlover economic resources are not as easily apparent. Communities had to use force to
maintain control over transient productive tracts in the floodplains. Communities alsohad to use elaborate trading skills and systems to stabilise the consequences of extremely variable farm productions. And, above all, success of communities was linkedto institutions of knowledge for expansion and improved control of the productivesystems. This complex social organization – or the
– that developed in ancientIndia to manage the natural production systems has been studied from an ecologicalperspective by a few sociologists only.The quest for expansion of the agricultural systems introduced a new dimension to therange of conflicts over control and management of natural systems. Fire – amanagement tool of the forest-dwellers – was used in a more devastating form to clearthe forests on a more permanent basis. While the traditional resource base of theforest-dwellers was being rapidly eroded, the expansion of agriculture was not as rapidthanks to the limiting nature of water, whose availability, unlike land, could not beenhanced so easily. Vast tracts of forest land, therefore, got converted into intermediategrassland ecosystems, where pastorals gained control.The necessity of specialized occupational training for the management of complexagrarian systems, coupled with a predominantly oral tradition and an elitist formalsystem of education, ensured greater dependence on family as the dominant socialinstitution. The complex mosaic of castes and sub-castes are nothing but extendedpatrilineage families. While such hereditary occupational pattern ensured theperpetuation and enrichment of traditional knowledge and skills, it was also believed toprovide incentives for sustainable management of resources by creating monopoliesover a partitioned resource-base.Unfortunately, hereditary occupation also provided incentives to perpetuate conflicts bypromoting a culture that accepts fate and resists any active quest for change of livelihood. Forest-based occupations thus came in direct conflict with agriculture-basedoccupations. The politics involved in major irrigation schemes, particularly in the mannerin which forest lands are submerged, original inhabitants are rehabilitated and benefitsto farmers in the command area are distributed seem to suggest that little havechanged in the nature of these basic conflicts even today.Hereditary occupations also served to limit the horizons of human endeavours topredefined professions, reducing any active pursuit for excellence. A limit to individualgrowth inevitably leads towards growth by association. Economic growth is thenmeasured in terms of land area controlled by the cultivator or the number of cattle-heads controlled by the pastoral. It must be noted that the forest-dwellers had no suchcultural compulsions, but were increasingly being marginalised in the overall scheme of social structures dominated by the landed gentry.

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