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“The basic assumption underlying the formation of the Forest Department by the British was that Indians lacked the sense of conservation, and hence there was a need to introduce scientific conservation of forests,” says author Neena Ambre Rao in ‘Forest Ecology in India: Colonial Maharashtra 1850–1950,’ a book that takes a look at the human interactions that have shaped up the ecosystem specifically of Maharashtra. 

This work is a culmination of extensive analysis of secondary sources and numerous archival primary sources including vernacular material hitherto unexamined from the perspective of environmental history. It traces the evolution of political, socio-cultural and religious attitudes and administrative policies that had an impact on the forest ecology of Maharashtra.

The author says there was definite emphasis on the management of natural resources in the pre-British period. Despite the absence of a forest department, there were certain ways in which attempts were made by the Maratha rulers for the preservation of forests, although to a limited extent.

But she warns that it would be wrong to assume that there was perfect ecological equilibrium in pre-British India. State initiatives since the Mauryan era to extend arable land and establish settlements took a heavy toll on Indian forests. One of the possible reasons for the decay of the Indus civilization was attributed to environmental degradation.  Attempts to extend agriculture by revenue farming were not uncommon during the medieval and late medieval period in Maharashtra. But their scale and magnitude was much less compared to that of the British period.

The study goes beyond a chronological narrative of events and adopts a fresh approach where it examines the impact of the British forest policies and subsequent responses from the tribals, peasants and artisans. The early British management of forests could literally be called management of teak plantations – “…the more compelling factor was fulfillment of the timber requirements of their home country.” 

The study looks at landmark events and struggles that shaped the resistance to the new environmental and forest laws as well as the spillover of these developments into the anti-colonial struggles of the early twentieth century. The Congress used the forest issue as an important political tool, e.g. the Jungle Satyagraha, against the British.

But the process of alienation of forest peoples did not come to a halt after independence, as Indian rulers continued the British policies of urbanization and commercialization at the cost of the natural resources.

The alienation of the local people and the curbing of their traditional means of subsistence and production systems continue to this day. “The branding of the rural population as basically wasteful, destructive, short-sighted and inefficient combined with the assumption of their so-called technological and scientific backwardness gave the British administration moral justification to undertake this process of alienation successfully and rapidly,” the author says.

It holds true to this day, in Independent India, where the environmental crisis has become a matter of major concern during the past few decades. Studying the history of human interaction with nature can help us avoid the mistakes committed by the predecessors and move away from the western model that still governs us.

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