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Public Lecture Notes | Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan on “Nature in Balance? State, Society, and Ecology in Independent India”

January 23, 2023

The first NLSIU Public Lecture of 2023, titled “Nature in Balance? State, Society, and Ecology in Independent India,” was delivered on campus on January 12 by renowned environmental historian Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan. The session focused on how the interplay between living organisms and material society in India has been affected by the Indian state’s trajectory of economic growth and development.

Here are some of the key points put forth by Dr. Rangarajan during his lecture:

“A legacy of empire”

When India emerged from colonial rule, the state’s environmental legacy was that of empire, which viewed natural resources as wealth to be consolidated, guarded and exploited. Dr. Rangarajan highlighted the patterns of evolution in the Indian state and administrators’ thinking about the natural environment, while pointing out the roles played by imperialism, war and the impetus to develop strong industrial infrastructure. As the push to “industrialise or perish” (M Visvesvaraya) became stronger, capital accumulation began to take precedence in the state’s policies, leading to profound upheavals as a result of attempts to transform an agrarian economy to an industrial one at the expense of mass displacement and a permanent transformation of the landscape.

“India’s Faustian bargain”: The costs of development

The late 1960s were a time of global political and social upheaval. Meanwhile in India, a situation of acute food shortage had forced the state to seek food aid from the US. The immediate focus of the state to achieve food self-sufficiency took the form of the Green Revolution, which was aimed at enhancing the productivity of crops—which it achieved, but at immense ecological costs. Other environmental interventions between the 1960s and 1980s often struggled to balance competing concerns like economic imperatives, ecological stability and public welfare. For instance, the conservation impulses behind Project Tiger ended up displacing populations and disrupting livelihoods and traditional ways of living.

The receding of the state

From the 1990s onwards, as enterprise shifted to the private sector and the state took a less active role as an economic entity, its environmental policies gained a little more coherence. However, they were still largely shaped by developmental goals, such as the development of urban agglomerations and the impetus of globalisation. Dr. Rangarajan identified three competing impulses in the Indian state’s environmental policy: development and capitalist accumulation, recognition of environmental impact, and the articulation of popular grievances and aspirations.

Dr. Rangarajan illustrated his lecture with a wide range of historical anecdotes and popular culture references—from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to songs by Mohammed Rafi.  He brought the Indian state’s development policies and ecological legacy to life through references to Shankar’s Weekly cartoons, fascinating accounts of legislators switching sides to join black flag demonstrations against the construction of the Hirakud Dam, and the first-ever spraying of liquid DDT in what is now known as Delhi’s Central Vista.

“We need multiple histories of the Anthropocene”

The lecture concluded on a cautionary note, as Dr Rangarajan emphasised the challenges arising from the interactions between the biological and material world, and how these challenges necessarily multiply with a growing population. These interactions reflect complex relationships that have existed to keep such habitats livable for millennia, and any decisive state actions do necessarily have consequences for everyone.

Reflecting on the role played by landmark legislations like the Forest Act and the Wildlife Protection Act, Dr Rangarajan asked the audience to contemplate the “question of questions”: Given the pace of transformation and prioritisation of capital accumulation, to what extent can law help us develop an ethical framework for state, society and ecology? Before we can even begin to answer this, however, we need to reframe our relationship with the environment. “The notion of a living landscape has to be articulated in a different way—and not only in English.”