Nature’s Nation: Making spaces for mega fauna in late 20th century India

Mahesh Rangarajan, Professor of History and Environmental Studies,
Ashoka University, India

For a country with a population density of over 400 a square kilometre with over 350 million people in towns and cities India retains free-ranging populations of almost all the mega fauna of two or even four centuries ago. To the extent their presence in viable numbers represents the continued viability of the mosaic of life it calls for enquiry and careful reflection. All the more so as economic growth and changing human aspirations in a democracy opens up opportunities to keep spaces for nature.

How has this come about? Can it endure or is it in danger? A good starting point is to ask what it was in the rubric of state-society-nature relations over time that enabled co-habitation of humans, livestock and large fauna. The spaces and numbers shrank, especially since the mid-19th century. Lions that had a range across north and central India have since 1900 been confined to one forest in the western state of Gujarat. The tiger and rhino survive, if in reduced numbers. More than direct hunting, it is the transformation of habitats that has reduced living spaces for nature.

Both state action and popular initiative in imperial and, much more so, in independent India have kept hope alive. Cultures of acceptance more than of tolerance, and the iconic significance of key animals in modern state-making as much as cultures, has helped. The acceptance of such large animals as neighbours often goes beyond mere tolerance as the very same animals may be worshipped or deified, driven away or avoided.

But the pressures in habitats are real and growing. These are under immense pressures. To illustrate: over 400 humans and 100 elephants die every year in direct conflict, much of it due to the animals feeding on crops, or cultivators defending their crops. Rivers, both the snow-fed ones of the north and the seasonal ones of the Indian peninsula, find biota and marine systems under stress due to increased demand for water for agriculture and industry.

The search for equality and peace with nature is a key public issue in a democracy. 25000 species of flowering plants and over 530 mammals live in two percent of the world’s land area along with 18 percent of the planet’s humans. Can the mosaics endure and how?

History offers clues with grounds for concern but also for hope.

Mahesh Rangarajan recent work includes Nature and Nation: Essays on Environmental History (2015), At Nature’s Edge: The Global Present and Long-term History (co-edited with Gunnel Cederlöf 2018), Nature without Borders (co-edited with M.D. Madhusudan and Ghazala Shahabuddin 2014), and Shifting Ground: People, Mobility and Animals in India’s Environmental Histories (co-edited with K. Sivaramakrishnan 2014).

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