Environmental History of South Asia

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Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation CoreSHE3ED1044

Semester and Year Offered: Monsoon/ Winter Semester, as required

Course Coordinator and Team: Dr Budhaditya Das

Email of course coordinator:

Pre-requisites: None

Course Description:

The course will build a comprehensive understanding of the discipline of environmental history, with a focus on South Asian and Global Environmental History. The course will encourage students to build a historical understanding of contemporary environmental concerns and acquaint them with intellectual genealogies of ideas like prudence, conservation and wilderness. It aims to critically examine the ways in which colonialism and capitalism transformed human-environment interactions in the Global South since the sixteenth century. The course will attempt to highlight linkages between the discipline of environmental history and the traditions of environmentalism in postcolonial India.

Course Objectives and Learning Outcomes

  1. To study the formative and significant works of scholarship in the discipline of environmental history.
  2. To study the key debates which have stimulated historical research on environmental issues.
  3. To study the ways in which colonialism and capitalism have influenced environmental and ecological change in South Asia.
  4. To critically examine debates about prudence, resource use and the role of state and communities in conservation in pre-colonial and colonial societies.
  5. To appreciate the role of ideas and ideologies in shaping human perceptions and action towards their environments in different historical periods.

Brief Description of Main Sections

Unit 1: Environment and South Asian Historiography

The unit introduces students to the diverse responses to the question, ‘What is History?’ It demonstrates the importance of theory in history and the different schools of South Asian historiography, including the nationalist, Marxist, subaltern and postcolonial historiography. The unit then goes on to consider the field of environmental history and the key questions and debates that inform research within it.

Key Readings

  • Carr, E.H. (1987). What is History?(Second Edition). London: Penguin Books.
  • Cronon, W. (1995). The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, excerpted from, Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. W.W. Norton & Co Inc.
  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. (2000). Provincialising Europe: Historical Thought and Postcolonial Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Cronon, William, ‘Modes of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Mar., 1990).
  • Jenkins, Keith. (1991/ 2003).Rethinking History. London: Routledge
  • Worster, D. (1988).The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Unit 2: Politics and Resource Use in Pre-Colonial India

The unit will begin with a discussion on human-environmental interactions in early South Asia and examine resource use and ideas of nature in the pre-Mauryan and Mauryan empires. The unit will focus on some of the early debates, theories and texts that established the study of environmental history in India. It will critically examine ideas of resource conservation, prudence and stewardship among agrarian communities and regional empires in pre-colonial India.

Key Readings

  • Gadgil, M. and Guha, R. (2013). This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Guha, S. (2002). Claims on the commons: Political Power and natural resources in pre-colonial India, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 39, 2&3, pp. 181—196.
  • Kapur, NandiniSinha (Edited). (2011). Environmental History of Early India: A Reader. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Kumar, M. (2008). Situating the Environment: Settlement, Irrigation and Agriculture in Pre-Colonial Rajasthan, Studies in History, 24, pp. 211—233.
  • Sen, A. P. (1998). Of Tribes, Hunters and Barbarians: Forest Dwellers in the Mauryan Period, Studies in History, 14, pp. 173—191.
  • Thapar, R. (2001). Perceiving the Forest: Early India, Studies in History, 17, pp. 1—16.

Unit 3: Colonialism: Ideology, Law and Empire

The unit will focus on the pre-modern and modern historical period since the sixteenth century, a transformational period in global environmental history. The unit will discuss ecological transformations wrought by traders, explorers, imperial armies and settlers in the early phase of mercantile capitalism that originated in Europe. Within South Asian environmental history, the colonial period has been debated as an ‘ecological watershed’— the unit will examine the merits of this argument as well as its limitations. Finally, the unit will discuss ideas, ideologies and institutions, in particular, the rule of law and property, that transformed the nature of state-society relations and human-environment interactions in South Asia.

Key Readings

  • Adas, Michael (1989).Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance, Ithaca.
  • Agrawal, Arun, (2005).Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Crosby, Alfred. (1989)Ecological Imperialism, 900-1900: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gilmartin, D. (1994). Scientific Empire and Imperial Science: Colonialism and Irrigation Technology in the Indus Basin, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 1127—1149.
  • Grove, R. (1993). Conserving Eden: The (European) East India Companies and their Environmental Policies on St. Helena, Mauritius and in Western India, 1660 to 1854, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 318—351.
  • Guha, R. (1989). The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Western Himalayas. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Unit 4: Forests, Frontiers and Waterscapes

The final unit of the course will turn the historical lens to the colonial demands for resources—timber, hunting, tax revenues, irrigation—that shaped agrarian environments and hydrological systems in South Asia. The unit will consider the changes within forest-based livelihoods, long-distance nomadism, alpine and semi-alpine pastoral ecosystems in the Indian subcontinent in the colonial period. The unit will introduce students to colonial hydrology and the political project of building dams, canals and irrigation networks in river basins in north and northwestern India. Through regional case studies, the unit will demonstrate the diversity as well as the commonalities in the colonial attempts to know, govern, conserve and profit from India’s natural landscapes.

Key Readings

  • Arnold, D. and R. Guha (Editors). (1995). Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • D’Souza, R. (2003). Canal Irrigation and the Conundrum of Flood Protection: The Failure of the Orissa Scheme of 1863 in Eastern India, Studies in History, 19, 1, pp. 41—68.
  • Guha, Sumit. (1999). Environment and Ethnicity in India, 1200-1991. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Guha, R. (1990). An Early Environmental Debate: The making of the 1878 forest act, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 27, 1, pp. 65—84.
  • Mackenzie, John. (1997).The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation and British Imperialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press
  • Mandala, VijayaRamadas. (2015). The Raj and the Paradoxes of Wildlife Conservation: British Attitudes and Expediencies, The Historical Journal, 58, pp. 75—110.
  • Menon, A. (2004). Colonial Constructions of ‘Agrarian Fields’ and ‘Forests’ in the Koli Hills, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 41, pp. 315—337.
  • Mosse, D. (2006). Rule and Representation: Transformations in the Governance of the Water Commons in British South India, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 65, No. 1, pp. 61—90.
  • Rangarajan, M. (1994). Imperial agendas and India’s forests: The early history of Indian forestry, 1800—1878. Indian Economic and Social History Review, 31, pp. 147—167.
  • Rangarajan, M. (2001).India’s Wildlife History. Delhi: Permanent Black.