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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Ecological Change in North India: Deforestation and Agrarian Distress in the Ganga-Jamna Doab 1800-1850

Michael Mann

Environment and History 1(1995): 201-220

The British were not the only foreign rulers to bring ecological catastrophe to India. Large areas of forest had been destroyed under the Moguls in the 17th century. The Moguls' former hunting grounds west and south west of Agra had disappeared by 1800. That the residency in Fatehpur Sikri was deserted after the wells had silted up was a further clear indication of this deterioration. Yet the reasons for this overexploitation differed greatly from those of the British rulers.

It can be assumed that it was demographic pressures which led to forest clearances in the 17th century. Timber was needed to build new houses and even towns, whose citizens in turn needed firewood, and land to cultivate. In the context of the transformation of Indian agrarian structures by the colonial rulers, totally different mechanisms were in operation.

* Until 1835 the revenue rate in the Ceded and Conquered Provinces was over three quarters, only being reduced to 'half the net rental assets' after 1855. Only then did the revenue rate again match that in force under the Moguls, although its flexibility was still not as great.

* The market for land created by the British laid a value upon the soil making it a tradeable commodity. Whilst there had been some limited private property in pre-British times, land had not been a marketable asset.

These two prerequisites put in place by the colonial rulers set the ecological catastrophe in motion. For the peasants, a vicious circle of revenue and debt payment, cash crop plantation and permanent acquisition of new land was created just to meet the new demands. Forests were cleared to gain new land for cash crops, whilst cultivation of food was increasingly marginalised. Ever greater demands were put upon the soil, hardly leaving time for its regeneration and in many parts of the Doab, but particularly in the Agra Division in the second half of the 19th century, it was totally exhausted. This change was completed within more or less 25 years (1805-1830). The devastation of the ecology of the Doab, which manifested itself so appallingly in 1837-38 led to the impoverishment both of large sections of the population and of the region.

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