Social Scientist. v 25, no. 294-295 (Nov-Dec 1997) p. 75.

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Impact of Capitalism on the Forests of Central India

Mahesh Rangarajan: (Fencing the Forest: Conservation and Ecological Change in India's Central Provinces 1860-1914) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, pp. 245, Rs. 395.

This book examines the shaping of colonial forest policy in the Central Provinces. It examines the impact of capitalism—superimposed through colonialism—on the forests of Central India. It is particularly significant since it brings to light the diversities of a region which has .hardly any published material on the subject. While rejecting the notion of a 'golden' pre-colonial equilibrium-oriented past (between humans and forests), Rangarajan's framework steers clear of the approach that gives primacy to pre-colonial/ colonial continuity or disruptions'. In fact, the author correctly speaks of the insignificant research on the pre-colonial period which make such generalisations unhistorical. And, talking of the ideological determinants and variations within the colonial officials vis-a-vis conservation, he warns us against those who do not pay adequate attention to their actual implications.

The first chapter ('Early History and Background') traces the background history of the region exploring the ideas and beliefs that were inherited from England and their development in the specific context of this study. Here Rangarajan emphasises the starting point which located forests as 'wasteland' and the idea of progress/the success of policies which came to be measured in terms of 'the retreat of woods' (p. 19). The basic thrust of the new rulers was geared to financial considerations and utterly insensitive to the local inhabitants—who were either completely excluded or were incorporated through a structure of discipline/control. The author notes the changes and the shifts. As emphasised, the emerging context prevented any 'coherent... initiatives for conservation' (p. 29). However, by the timelthe Forest Act of 1878 came into being one witnesses some coherence with regard to forest interventions. In fact, specific political needs related to containing popular rebellions and the need to consolidate colonial presence through communication networks (viz. roads and railways) accounted for this 'development'.

The second chapter ('Production Agendas and Forestry: Managing the Wooded Estate') examines both the contradictions and the shifts in colonial forest policy—viz. from encouraging conversion of farmland to 'protecting'. The idea of 'protecting' forests developed from around the mid-19th century and was distinctly associated with the desire to retain the supply of wood for railway sleepers and charcoal to fuel the railway engines. The increased

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