Himalayan Degradation — Colonial Forestry and Environmental Change in India
Dhirendra Datt Dangwal.
Published by Foundation Books (2009, Pages: 324 Price Rs 895)
Under The Weather
Review by Pankaj Sekhsaria
The Himalayan region is without doubt one of the most spectacular and enigmatic landscapes on the surface of the planet. For the people of the Indian subcontinent, in particular, it links up to almost every dimension of life be it myth, history and culture; water and agriculture or issues related to environmental protection and development.
Environmental movements in the region, be it Chipko that strived to protect the forests from timber extraction or the unsuccessful effort to prevent the construction of the Tehri dam in more recent times have pride of place in the modern environmental history of the country. One recent protest that has been in the news a bit is former Professor from IIT Kanpur, G.D. Agarwal’s effort to bring attention to and oppose the destruction of the Bhagirathi River for the generation of hydro-electricity. The river is being directed into a series of tunnels to such an extent that the main channel from Gaumukh to Dharasu downstream of Uttarkashi (almost 120 kms) will be devoid of water almost completely for most of the year. It’s not damming of the river, but it’s a death warrant in any case.
It was with this news in the background that I started reading Himalayan Degradation — Colonial Forestry and Environmental Change in India by Dhirendra Datt Dangwal. Though not about the rivers of the Himalayas, the book was about the same region where the Bhagirathi flows and it promised to provide interesting insights and understanding of the region.
There were two things in the first few pages of the book that seemed to make it an exciting prospect to read. First, of course, was the subject, particularly the link that the author was making between issues of agricultural and pastoral systems in the Himalayas and those of forests, forest management and colonial forestry. Lots of environmental research and work in the Himalayas has revolved primarily around the issues of forest and forest degradation and it is welcome that attention is now moving to these other sectors that are not only linked to forests but also very important in themselves.
The second aspect that promised to make the book a welcome read was the language itself, particularly when the general experience of reading historical research by academics ends up being a tedious exercise. “Forest degradation,” the author says in the preface, “significantly undercut the livelihood of the people of this Himalayan region and had an impact on a much larger area beyond it. Thus, though degradation primarily occurred in the Himalaya, it was Himalayan in scale as well. Hence, the title of the book, Himalayan Degradation.”
Having said that, the book ended up disappointing on both accounts. Part I in particular that dealt with the context and the agrarian system comes across as mainly a series of names (of people and places) and numbers of figures accessed from a wide set of British chroniclers. While setting the context is certainly important, a person who is not entirely familiar with the region is left reeling under what seems like an onslaught of this information and analysis and insights just do not keep pace. The writing too fails here though a good deal of the blame for that should go to the editing, that is outright sloppy in parts. There is a table, for instance, on page 198 where the entire the Year column has all the wrong years and figures in the table are wrongly mentioned in the accompanying text. Niggling errors and oversights like this appear through the manuscript.
The second part of the book that deals more with forests and their management is more convincing and the narrative too flows much better. Dangwal deals in extensive detail on the nature of the enterprise of ‘scientific forestry’ that the British introduced to their colony, the main reasons behind it and importantly the hugely negative impacts this had on the forests, on agriculture in the mountains, on pastoralism and ultimately on the economic well being of the residents.
The author also delves into the question of ‘sustainable nature of scientific forestry’ and challenges the notion of sustainability quite effectively. There are significant figures in the Chapter ‘Commercialisation of Forests, Timber Extraction and Deforestation’ that point to the huge scale of timber extraction here — the railways being one of the main consumers. The total length of tracks in 1910,” the author points out, “was 32,099 miles, for which the annual demand was 4 million sleepers. Only 1.5 million sleepers were for new lines, the rest were for renewal of the existing tracks.” There were other demands to; for fuel and timber for carriages and wagons also for the Navy and its ships and the pressure this put on the forests can well be imagined.
While local communities have been mainly blamed for environmental degradation in the mountains, Dangwal contends that, it was the extraction of timber for commercial reasons and the forest management system put in place by the British that lies at the root of the problem. It is, in fact, an idea he lays out in the very beginning of his book and then goes about providing proof for it.
Does he succeed? He does, but just about and not because the information is not there for it. Better linkages, better analysis, better writing and better editing could have made this book a much better and more convincing read.
Pankaj Sekhsaria is a freelance journalist and photographer and is associated with the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh