Harvest of nature
Rumina Sethi

Democratizing Nature: Politics, Conservation, and Development in India
by Ashwini Chhatre and Vasant K. Saberwal.
Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Pages 267. Rs 575.

As Vandana Shiva has memorably said, the world’s resources are at the hands of a small number of multinational companies who "want to sell our water, our genes, our cells, our organs, our knowledge, our cultures and our future." Few realise that the Green Revolution has been an ecological disaster resulting in the erosion of topsoil and leading to the shortage of water, contamination of soil, the neglect of small farmers and a greater susceptibility to pests. Its consequences have, paradoxically, benefited the agrochemical industry, the factories producing agricultural equipment and machinery, the builders of dams and the petrochemical companies.

New forms of genetic engineering, nano-technologies and intellectual property rights have vitiated the environment to an extent that it is soon going to be beyond our control to avoid the pitfalls of liberalisation. Such are the themes discussed by Chhatre and Saberwal in their timely book, Democratizing Nature. Most importantly, the two authors discuss the role of electoral politics in affecting the relationship between conservation and policy. In doing so, their focus primarily has been on the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP).

Although agriculture and the beginning of settled life announced the beginning of civilisation, it was also the beginning of ecological imbalance. As agricultural surpluses were traded, markets grew. This led to permanent settlements and urbanity. The increasing demand for timber and food led to the abuse of Nature, and thus appeared the earliest signs of conflict with it. The book focuses on two issues: first, how government policies and the propagation of enormous projects, coupled with local politics, affect nature conservation; and second, the way in which policies relating to the state clash with the needs of conservation. Eco-development in the GHNP in 1994, spurred by a large loan from the World Bank, led to the development of hydel projects, roads through restricted forest areas, mining and deforestation to meet the fuel needs of the thousands of people who were involved in the construction process. Most significantly, the development process was also associated with the eviction of the local villages from the national park. Rival political parties stepped in and used this situation to play down the ruling party for its anti-people activities.

Unfortunately, practices of conservation are prone to interference from corrupt officials who wield political clout. The public, to use Naomi Klein’s expression, should go through a "steep learning curve", so that ecological degradation, the spread of food insecurities and the contamination of water among other disasters can be avoided.

Among the central concerns of this book are perspectives on social movements, grassroots agitations and academic discussions on political movements and the inherent contradictions within them. But the book, arguably, lacks a little drama in being dry as dust. Perhaps the authors ought to sound the note of alarm as does Stephen Croall in his book on environmental politics by saying that the preservation of this fragile universe and its ecosystem is the responsibility of the human species that arrived late but caused enormous upheavals on earth where all species had, thus far, integrated themselves with nature. The authors may, perhaps, be aware of the case of Ladakh (though it is not mentioned) as one place largely untouched by science, technology and globalisation where nature is treated with respect and women are given high status.

The Californian town of Davis is another eco-village where 25 per cent of local needs are met through local cultivation, where every tree and bush bears edible fruits and berries. More than dismantling technologies, an "ecological perspective" must be in place where people are judged less in terms of "efficiency" or "productivity" and measured more in terms of "health, harmony, beauty, justice and equality". Otherwise Ernst Mayr, the eminent biologist will not be far from the truth that man is a "biological error" that has cast its destructive spell on much of nature and himself. As Chomsky reiterates, "The species has surely developed the capacity to do just that`85with an assault on the environment that sustains life, on the diversity of more complex organisms, and with cold and calculated savagery, on each other as well."