Centre for World Environmental History

Sacred Landscapes

Mining, globalisation and the environmental history of Eastern India

Burning Ground: Mining, Adivasis and India's Civil War

Tropical landscapes are being transformed by globalising economic forces at an unprecedented rate, through forest clearance, mining, industrial development and urbanisation (Worldwatch Institute 2006, State of India's environment, Citizen's Report, 2008).  Rapid rises in world prices of metals in the last ten years, especially of aluminium and iron have resulted in a Klondyke-like rush to exploit bauxite and iron ore reserves, but especially those of the mountain forest region of Orissa and Jharkhand states in eastern India which are among the best and largest in the world. This region is inhabited by a large proportion of the 80 million population of indigenous tribal or adivasi people of South Asia. These people, the poorest and least educated in the sub-continent, possess a richly diverse linguistic and cultural tradition, quite distinct from mainstream Indian society but woefully under-researched. Our paper on the impact of globalisation on the landscapes and adivasi cultures of the region adds greatly both to debates on the effects of globalisation on the environment and to knowledge of the adivasi community. Adivasis currently find themselves confronting the world's most powerful multi-national mining companies in a nexus with global political and military interests that are initiating massive but to date unresearched landscape changes.

This project on the longue duree of landscape change caused by economic globalisation documents the empirical aspects of deforestation, state forest control, dam-building, mining and land tenure/ownership changes and conservation and its impact on tribal communities. The impact on climate is documented in official narratives of famine and drought in the region and is an important part of the paper. It looks at globalisation as it affects tribal communities in eastern India in three phases, 1800-1947, 1945-1991 and 1991 to date. The documentation on the environmental history of Eastern India for the earlier phases of globalisation has been achieved from archival sources as a basis for understanding the much more rapid changes which have taken place since 1945 and especially since Foreign Direct Investment  began in India in 1991. It is important to note that a detailed analysis of the environmental impact of unprecedented capital inflows into our research region in the contemporary period has a global relevance.

The history and dynamics of patterns of resistance and violence over the control and allocation of resources and the meaning of landscape form a critical part of a new kind of research, being directly linked to attempts to understand the predicament of ethnic identity and culture in the face of unrestrained globalising forces. In attempting to understand the nature of this resistance one needs to examine the resilience and vitality of tribal culture in the face of exploitation and repression, of crushing inequalities of access to their own resources. In his classic paper, the prose of counter insurgency Ranajit Guha writes about the ways in which colonial power silences the historical record of the Santhals by representing their popular resistance of the 1850s as pathologies, problems of order or symptoms of religious fanaticism. Similarly in bourgeois nationalist historiography such rebellions have been assimilated into the career of the nation and the history of Indian nationalism. Such an approach denies a will to the mass of the rebels themselves and results in a failure to comprehend the nature of tribal consciousness which Guha locates in the case of the Santhals to the realm of religion. An analysis of local landscape cosmologies is thus vital to understanding the nature of tribal resistance to land alienation though it must be noted that this is outside the scope of this paper.

In the contemporary period, understanding of the vital connections between violence, ethnicity, indigeneity and the environment and the concept of the 'resource curse' and 'environmental justice' has largely been two-dimensional despite its global importance. The violent and non-violent response of adivasi people to displacement and state violence as well as the extent to which corporations and the Indian state are creating the conditions for a 'landscape of violence', burgeoning autonomy or ethnicity movements and full-scale armed insurgency or 'terrorism' is an important and growing area of research; as is the extent of breakdown of governance with respect to law, human rights and the environment. While some of these processes have been researched outside South Asia, they remain poorly documented in India so that in this respect our paper will make a critical contribution in this respect. Thus the project will develop and give much greater depth to the themes developed in embryonic form by Martinez-Alier Watts and Peluso and Watts    In particular, we build on evidence in my earlier work and that of Vitebsky for the interconnections between adivasi religions and cosmology and the mountain and forested landscape, and research the way in which rapid transformation in these tropes is creating an existential as well as a livelihood crisis.

Vinita Damodaran
Felix Padel


Burning Ground: Mining, Adivasis and India's Civil War - Arundhati Roy