Introduction: The Politics of Nature and the Making of Environmental Subjects
To reflect upon history is also, inextricably, to reflect upon power. —Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
I first traveled to Kumaon in 1985 to learn more about how and under what conditions local residents protect their forests and the environment. At that time, I met a number of leaders of the Chipko movement—well known in India as a grassroots, collective effort to protect trees by means of direct social action. But the meeting that left the most lasting impression was to occur in a small village by the name of Kotuli. Hukam Singh, a young resident of the village, told me that it was futile to try to save forests. Too many villagers cut too many trees. Too many others did not care. He himself was no exception. "What does it matter if all these trees are cut? There is always more forest," he said. He judged that only a few villagers were interested in what I was calling the environment. "Women are the worst. With a small hatchet, they can chop so many branches, you will not believe." He qualified himself somewhat: "Not because they want to, but they have to feed animals, get firewood to cook."
Hukam Singh's judgment is probably less important for what it says about processes of environmental conservation in Kotuli than for what it reflects of his own position. Talking with other people, I realized that the long periods of time Hukam Singh spent in the town of Almora prevented him from appreciating fully the efforts afoot to protect trees and forested environments. He was trying to get a job in the Almora district court and had stopped cultivating his agricultural holdings. But the village's forest council held meetings every other month and enforced rules to regulate forest use. The 85 acres of village forest wasmore densely populated with trees and vegetation than several neighboring forests. The village forest guard often apprehended those cutting tree branches or grazing animals in the forest illegally. Most villagers did not think of the forest as a freely available public good.
The reasons my conversations with Hukam Singh had a more lasting effect than those with well-known Chipko leaders were to become apparent during my return visits to Kotuli in fall 1990 and summer 1993. In the intervening years, Hukam Singh had left Almora, settled in Kotuli, and married Sailadevi from Gunth (a nearby village). He had started growing two crops on his plots of irrigated land and had bought several cattle. He had also become a member of Kotuli's forest council after one of his uncles, a council member, retired.
More surprisingly, Hukam Singh had become a convert to environmental conservation. Sitting on a woven cot, one sturdy leg tapping the ground impatiently, he explained one afternoon: "We protect our forests better than government can. We have to. Government employees don't really have any interest in forests. It is a job for them. For us, it is life." He went on: "Just think of all the things we get from forests—fodder, wood, furniture, food, manure, soil, water, clean air. If we don't safeguard the forest, who else will? Some of the people in the village are ignorant and so they don't look after the forest. But sooner or later, they will realize this is very important work. It is important for the country, and for our village."
These different justifications of his transformation into someone who cares about protecting trees are too resonant with prevailing rhetorics around environmental conservation to sound original. But to dismiss them because they are being repeated by many others would be to miss completely the enormously interesting, complex, and crucial, but understudied, relationship between changes in government and related shifts in environmental practices and beliefs. This book seeks to track such changes by examining emerging technologies of environmental government and their relationship with changes in human subjectivities.
Hukam's story mirrors the experiences of many in Kumaon. But equally there are others whose senses of the environment, relationships with environmental government, and actions in forested environments have changed relatively little, or may even have become more extractive. Explaining why, when, how, and in what measure people come to develop an environmentally oriented subject position is the ultimate target of this book's arguments. These questions, provocative for both their practical import for conservation and their theoretical relevance to discussions of identity, require a historical examination of different technologies of government. New environmental subject positions emerge as a result of involvement in struggles over resources and in relation to new institutions and changing calculations of self-interest and notions of the self. These three conceptual elements—politics, institutions, and identities—are intimately linked. In exploring them together as constituent parts of a given technology of government, this book suggests that an exclusive focus on politics, institutions, or subjectivities likely leads to lopsided analyses of environmental politics and change.
The political, institutional, and identity-related struggles that I describe unfolded in the rich environmental history of Kumaon after the 1860s. Hukam's transformation in a sense constitutes a microcosmic window on changes in Kumaon. To explore and explain these changes, it will be useful to begin with two stories. One involves widespread protests against environmental policies in the early part of the twentieth century; the other, paradoxically, is about equally widespread involvement in environmental government that began around the 1930s and continues today. The shift that these stories represent can be understood by examining the emergence of new technologies of government that incorporated rural localities into a wider net of political relations, produced new forms of regulation in communities, and helped create new environmental subjectivities.
Massive forest fires, only some of them the usual summer fires, raged in Kumaon in the early part of the twentieth century. Between 1911 and 1916, the colonial state reclassified nearly 80 percent of Kumaon's forests into reserves. Villagers found that they had limited or no rights left in the reserves. In response, they set fires in the reserved forests in a vivid spectacle of challenge to new forms of government over nature. Fires were especially widespread in 1916. Nearly 200,000 acres were burned in hundreds of separate incidents. As one observer noted: "An exceptionally dry state of the forests ... and an outburst of incendiarism combined to create the worst record since fire protection was introduced" (Champion 1919: 353).
Villagers set fires again and again in some places. In Airadeo, for example, fires burned for three days and two nights, and "new fires were started time after time, directly a counter-firing line was successfully completed" (Champion 1919: 354). In 1921, villagers set fire to even larger areas of forests, collectively protesting against the new regulations. Forest and revenue department officials complained unremittingly about the difficulty of apprehending those who set fires. Burning beyond the power of the colonial state to control or extinguish, these fires would force a reconsideration of existing policy.
Official policy at the beginning of the twentieth century aimed to bring forests under centralized control. The colonial state in Kumaon Himalaya had insinuated itself deeply into processes of forest making. It had created and instituted entirely new procedures to control, manage, and exploit landscapes it deemed valuable. The forest department had carried out surveys; demarcated different categories of forests; made working plans for planting, management, and rotational harvesting of trees; limited grazing by domestic animals; restricted collection of fodder and firewood; and introduced fire protection. These measures were part of a new technology of government that had already greatly raised state revenues in many parts of South Asia, among them Bengal, Bombay, Burma, and Madras. In Kumaon, it also pushed villagers into violent protests that the colonial state had not anticipated (Agrawal 2001a).
The fires set by villagers are indicative of something remarkable if for a moment we suspend "our compulsive concerns with causes and consequences to empathize properly with the phenomenon under consideration" (Zolberg 1972: 186). They suggest that the appropriation of ever more land and ever stricter enforcement had overstepped tolerable bounds. In the initial years of its existence, after 1860, the forest department implemented new regulations but also tolerated a certain level of illegality. The department was unable to enforce its new regulations to the letter, and villagers stubbornly continued with their existing practices. Reclassification, further new regulations, and stricter implementation in the second decade of the twentieth century were an unprecedented intrusion into the villagers' daily lives that they could not endure.
Villagers did not just protest collectively and visibly. In collusion that was largely implicit, even those villagers who did not actively participate in protests would not reveal the identity of violators of the law. Collusion went beyond the common hill resident. Village headmen, appointed by colonial administrators, also refused to cooperate with foresters. What is more, the instances of planned incendiarism were just the proverbial tip of a vast iceberg of illegality. In direct violation of the new rules, villagers grazed their animals, chopped and collected firewood, felled timber, and harvested fodder. They had always done so. But the new restrictions and enforcement had criminalized everyday behavior by making illegal a range of what might be called customary uses of forests. By simply continuing to do what they had always done, villagers committed acts that had become illegal.
As the social, political, and economic costs of the new forest regulations mounted, the colonial state in Kumaon appointed a three-member committee to investigate villager protests. The Kumaon Forest Grievances Committee toured the entire region and interviewed nearly five thousand villagers. Afterward it recommended that the government of the United Provinces should permit villagers to take formal control over most of the forests that had been reclassified between 1911 and 1916. It also suggested that villagers should be permitted to govern their forests under a general set of framing guidelines. The colonial state accepted these recommendations. The consequences have endured.
Figure 1 graphically depicts the information on forest-related criminality for some of the early years of the twentieth century. It shows the conspicuous increase in forest-related convictions and then their dramatic and equally rapid fall. This decline in prosecutions and convictions signals the beginning of a profound transformation in the character of forest control in Kumaon, the institutionalization of regulation, and, relatedly, in environmental identities. The reduction in forest-related "criminality" was accomplished through a new technology of government. The transformation continues today, fueled (literally) by the transfer of thousands of square kilometers of forested land to villagers. Kumaonis have formed more than three thousand village-level forest councils (van panchayats) to govern their forests. Spread throughout the length and breadth of Kumaon, these organizations have now become the source of protection for nearly a quarter of its forests. The legal basis for their existence lies in the Forest Council Rules of 1931, which the colonial state created following the recommendations of the Kumaon Forest Grievances Committee.
This book about environmental politics describes and analyzes how the government of environment has changed over the past 150 years in Kumaon and the relationship between changing technologies of government and the production of environmental identities. It examines the strategies of knowledge and power that created forested environments as a domain fit for modern government, focusing especially on the role of statistics and numbers in characterizing and reconfiguring forests (chapters 2 and 3). But technologies of government are not just about the formation of a new sphere—forested environments—in which power can be exercised. They are also about three other sets of relationships.
They are about shifts in the relationship between states and localities. Such shifts produced what I call governmentalized localities. New centers of environmental decision making within localities emerged in Kumaon starting in the 1920s. Their interactions with the state have a considerably different tenor from the mainly antagonistic ones between the state and localities that existed earlier (chapter 4). A second part of new technologies of environmental government is the emergence of new regulatory spaces within localities where social interactions around the environment took form. I call these regulatory communities. Their birth meant new alliances and divisions among local residents and their representatives. Some local residents favor the institutionalized protection of forests that was being enacted in village communities. Others continue to be recalcitrant in the face of efforts to make the government of forests more efficient (chapter 5). Finally, new technologies to govern forests are also linked to the constitution of environmental subjects—people who have come to think and act in new ways in relation to the environmental domain being governed, forests. Of course, not all Kumaonis have become environmental subjects. I examine the reasons that account for the variable relationships between different Kumaonis and their environment as they see it (chapter 6). Over the period considered (1850-2000), the joint changes in these three sets of relationships constituted the new technologies of government that I seek to explore and explain.
The major concerns of this book are thus located on the shifting grounds of politics, institutions, and subjectivities that together characterize government in the sense of the "conduct of conduct" (Foucault  1991). Conduct of conduct can be inspired by many sources-agencies of the state, certainly, but also amorphous regulatory norms and institutions that affect the very thoughts and experiences of persons; authoritative figures, as within a community or family; or, as importantly, one's own self. To illustrate and elaborate how conduct might be shaped by some of these influences, I build on a number of writings in the field of environmental politics, especially by scholars writing about common property, political ecology, and feminist environmentalism (chapter 7).
My focus is on environmental government in Kumaon during the past century and a half. But the developments I analyze, especially those that occurred after the passage of the Forest Council Rules in 1931, presage processes that are now beginning to shape the politics of environmental policy in almost every developing country. New policies for the environment aim to decentralize government and secure the participation of local populations (Agrawal 2001b; FAO 1999). Policies aiming at greater decentralization and participation are about new technologies of government. To be successful, they must redefine political relations, reconfigure institutional arrangements, and transform environmental subjectivities. So, although the arguments in this book are advanced mainly as a way to understand developments in Kumaon, the discussion may usefully inform analysis of environmental government in other parts of the world as well. In this way, it is a useful lens to focus on swirling debates regarding public-private boundaries; the role of communities and states in environmental control; appropriate goals of environmental management; and discussions about resistance, domination, and subjectivity.
I propose environmentality as a useful name for the conceptual framework I use. A union of environment and Foucauldian governmentality, the term stands for an approach to studying environmental politics that takes seriously the conceptual building blocks of power/knowledges, institutions, and subjectivities. My analysis builds on existing writings by political ecologists, common property theorists, and environmental feminists. The arguments in this book illustrate the productive possibilities in the emergent interrelationships among these three concepts (see chapter 7).
The Forest Council Rules of 1931 have undergone several revisions as part of an effort to fine tune regulation. They continue to shape how forest councils protect forests. They are the formal ground on which different agencies of the state relate to village forest councils. They also guide Kumaon's villagers in creating organizations to protect forests, designing rules to regulate actions, policing compliance with rules, apprehending those who do not comply, and meting out punishments to rebellious breakers. In all these ways, the rules prompt the councils to do the work of the forest department. The records of the forest councils greatly expand the realm of visibility for officials in the revenue and forest departments. Today Kumaonis control themselves and their forests far more systematically and carefully than the forest department could.