Published by EH.NET (August 2006)

Laxman D. Satya, Ecology, Colonialism, and Cattle: Central India in the Nineteenth Century. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004. x + 204 pp. Rs. 545 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-566875-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Gilmartin, Department of History, North Carolina State University.

This is a book about the ecological impact of British colonialism in Berar, in central India. Laxman D. Satya, who is a professor of history at Lock Haven University, is forceful in presenting the book’s central thesis, namely that British rule brought ecological disaster to this region in the second half of the nineteenth century. Though the book’s central focus is on cattle, the book is a sweeping denunciation of colonial rule that is cast in terms far broader than the history of cattle. “The environmental degradation brought about by the colonial state led to the ecological crisis that spelled doom for cattle in Berar,” he writes. But this was not a fate peculiar to cattle.

The basic argument is straightforward. The beginning of Berar’s degradation began with the introduction of cotton cultivation on a large scale in the 1850s and 1860s, encouraged by Berar’s fertile black soil. As a commercial crop linked to British colonial networks of production, cotton cultivation soon pushed out food grains, and led to the rapid extension of agriculture over previously open access lands in the region. “Wastelands” were occupied and “large areas of prime grazing lands and pastures hitherto available to cattle and people were forcefully put to plough.” This produced numerous effects. Deforestation led to decreases in rainfall. Water scarcity became a perennial problem as commercialization undermined earlier communal forms of water management, even as the colonial state took no active role in new irrigation investment or development. Problems of shrinking pasturage were exacerbated by British revenue policies. “Every act of the government,” Satya writes, “was designed to derive maximum profits at minimum cost to the state.” The result was an ecological crisis that produced accelerating effects in the last decades of the century, culminating in the “devastating” famine of 1899-1900. However much the British (and others) have sought to blame this famine on “natural” causes, the root cause, for Satya, lay not in the vicissitudes of nature, but in the ongoing, ecologically destructive policies of the British themselves.

This is the framework that Satya uses for analyzing the history of cattle in Berar. Their decline in these conditions was relentless and inescapable. Though Berar had at one time been known for its distinctive breeds of cattle, and for cattle fairs that attracted cattle traders from far-flung regions, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the condition of its cattle, both in terms of numbers and well-being, was deplorable. Using numerous statistical tables, the author shows an ongoing decline in the available pasturage for cattle, a decline in their numbers, and a cattle population increasingly subject to disease. Though this situation was in large part due to the general environmental deterioration of the province, it was also a product of the particular “anti-cattle ideology” of the British, who wanted to restrict the importance of mobile cattle in Berar in the interest of focusing on the extension of agriculture and settlement. Even as signs of increasing cattle mortality and deterioration increased, the British thus did little to counter it. This was evident, for example, in the British veterinary establishment in Berar, which was, as Satya notes, tiny and wholly inadequate. And even when the British did act in the name of controlling cattle disease, they did so using methods of quarantine and segregation that only reflected, in Satya’s words, the “authoritarian, patriarchal, and patronizing nature of the officials and the state.”

Given the relatively limited scholarly attention that has been focused on the history of cattle under the Raj, Satya’s detailed attention to the history of cattle in one region of colonial India is an important contribution to the historical literature. The book is based on careful research in government documents and provides us with a window on the dynamics of cattle keeping in the province. The chief weakness of the book lies in the single-mindedness of Satya’s commitment to proving, at every turn, that the colonial state was wholly responsible for Berar’s ecological disaster. To say this is neither to attack nor defend this thesis. There is plenty of solid evidence adduced to support his conclusions, even as there are instances in which he seems to push the evidence into contradictory corners. Rather, it is to suggest that there are a range of questions about the history of cattle in Berar that are either ignored or marginalized in the interests of sustaining this narrative of events. The very structure of his argument tends to lead him into presenting the colonial state as a monolithic entity and the people (and cattle) of Berar as a largely undifferentiated collection of victims. We get little analysis, for example, of the roles of power relations among the people of Berar and of the ways that these relations may have shaped (or been shaped by) control over cattle. Nor do we get much of an analysis of the ways that different groups of people went about trying to adapt to the significant changes that were taking place. Though there are occasional references to “resistance,” we in fact get little sense of how such resistance among cattle owners may have developed or been expressed. None of this is to detract from the book’s accomplishments. Yet, for all its careful research, this book succeeds more as a moral critique of colonialism than as a history of the changing place of cattle in Berar society, no doubt reflecting the author’s intent.

David Gilmartin is Professor of History at North Carolina State University. He has written on Muslim politics in the Punjab and on cattle-lifting in north India, and is currently completing a history of irrigation in the Indus basin in the British colonial period.