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date: 15 June 2019


Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability

India 1.2 billion est. pop. 2010  

India is a country whose environment is a study in contrasts. Environmental issues, especially those of forest access, air quality, and water use, are keenly contested in a deeply unequal society with a vibrant democracy. Questions of livelihood loom large, because more than 37 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are poor (Nanda 2010), 74 percent of adults are literate (Census of India 2011), and 47 percent of the children are malnourished (Gragnolati et al. 2005). Urban middle-class groups similar to those in developed countries at times sharply differ with the livelihood-based agendas of the poor. The latter include 6 million coastal fishers, 80 million Scheduled Tribals (indigenous groups who are eligible for positive discrimination under India’s constitution), and others who rely on forest resources. Displacement by development projects is a major public issue.

The legacies of British colonial rule until 1947 and the subsequent model of development are central forces in reshaping the environment. The voter turnout in state and federal elections averages more than 60 percent; more than 3 million representatives hold offices at local, state, and federal levels. But India’s people are divided by deep disparities of income, economic opportunity, and privilege. Livelihood in rural settlements, which account for 73 percent of the population, is still heavily reliant on the use of land, water, and biomass (the amount of living matter). Conversely, India has been a nuclear-capable country since 1974 and has the third-largest pool of scientific and technical labor power in the world. By 2009, the Indian life span had risen to sixty-four years (from twenty-seven in 1951) (World Bank 2011), but issues of quality of life and sustainability are more contentious than ever.

Climate and Geography

India has four times the population of the United States on one-third the land area. One-half the land of India is arable (suitable for irrigation). Major regions include the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the Himalaya Mountains, the peninsula, and the Northeast, which borders on Myanmar (Burma). The floodplains of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers make up one of Asia’s largest expanses of lowland river plains. To the north, the geologically young Himalaya stretch from west to east. They moderate the cold winds from the Tibetan Plateau, and they block the clouds brought in by the southwest monsoon from the Bay of Bengal in the east. The subcontinent is drier to the west, but the pattern does not always hold true. The Western Ghat Mountains, which run parallel to the western coast, form a barrier to the monsoon clouds coming in from the Arabian Sea.

There are significant contrasts between the north and the south. All regions have a well-defined rainy season, the monsoon (from the Arabic mausam, meaning “season”). Northern rivers are perennial, fed by the snows of the Himalaya (“the abode of snow”; him = snow, alaya = home). Southern rivers, including the Kaveri, Tambrapani, Mahanadi, Godavari, and Krishna, are seasonal, not perennial. The plains and river valleys in the south and peninsula are also less extensive, with no vast expanse that can compare to the Indo-Gangetic Plain. The peninsula, lying south of the Vindhya hills, is marked by undulating ground. There are several smaller ranges of mountains and hills—the Ashambu, the Cardamoms, and the Eastern Ghats; much of the peninsula, especially the Deccan Plateau, is composed of older basalt and granite outcrops.

The Thar Desert lies at the end of the range of the monsoon winds in the northwest. The Ladahk desert in the Ladakh Plateau has subzero temperatures. Nearly 40 percent of India is semiarid, with fluctuations in rainfall historically being a major factor in determining crop output. By contrast, in the Northeast the hill ranges receive heavy rains, with Cherrapunji recording more than 1,000 centimeters a year.

Ecological Diversity

The diversity of terrain and habitats explains why a country of 1 billion people is also one of the world’s twelve mega biodiversity regions (the World Conservation Union designates biological diversity by the numbers of species of animals and plants). India is that rare country where the three great zoogeographic (relating to the geographic distribution of animals) regions—the Ethiopian, the Oriental, and the Alpine—overlap (Rangarajan 2001). The Ethiopian is represented by lions in the Gir Forest (their only surviving habitat in Asia) and by gazelle, antelope, and acacia trees. The Oriental is represented by tigers, sloths, and a variety of deer species. The Alpine, or Himalaya, is represented by fauna and flora often more typical of Europe: brown bears, a subspecies of the red deer, mountain sheep and goats, pines, oaks, and rhododendrons. There are more than forty thousand species of plants and twelve hundred bird species, many of them native, especially in the Western Ghats.

Demographic Expansion and Economic Growth

The increase in the human population and its economy reshaped India’s landscape, especially in the twentieth century. According to the 2011 census of India, India’s population density of 382 people per square kilometer masks great variations between regions. The Hindi-speaking states of the north, which cover most of the Ganges River basin or are adjacent to it, make up 45 percent of the population. In the east, Arunachal Pradesh State records densities as low as 17 people per square kilometer.

Much of the population growth is relatively recent. Estimates place India’s population in 1596 at 114 million. Even in 1900, India had only 240 million people. The rate of population growth exceeded 0.5 percent a year only after 1921. In 1951, there were 360 million people, and the population growth rate was more than 2 percent a year until 1981 (Sinha and Zacharia 1986, 291). It has slowed since then, mainly due to better health care facilities, expansion of women’s literacy, better social services, and government-sponsored family planning. India’s population is now growing at 1.4 percent a year (World Bank 2011).

The transformation of the landscape owes much to major socioeconomic changes. The advance and retreat of forests due to ax and plow are not new, with the Indus River basin experiencing a first wave of urbanization around 3000 bce with the Harappan culture (Mughal 2011). A second wave of urban settlement in the Ganges River valley occurred around 600 bce . Even during the Mughal Empire (1526–1857), Asian elephants were captured in parts of central India where they are now extinct; the greater one-horned rhinoceros was hunted in the Indus River basin (Habib 1982). By the late eighteenth century, there were already significant and irreversible changes in certain regions. Economic and cultural changes under British rule unleashed new forces of change.

Precolonial Legacies

The advent of British colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries marked a major watershed for India. Historians are divided on what colonialism meant and why, and the division arises partly from radically varying views of precolonial society in India. The institution of caste—which entails a division of labor in a sharply unequal system, with closed marriage circles—is central to one view of India’s ecological history (Gadgil and Guha 1992, 91–111). Different castes had differential access to resources at the village level, and there was less intervention by the state in local affairs until the coming of colonial rule. Colonialism displaced marginal social groups who relied on fodder, game, wood, and other land- and water-based resources. Caste- and kin-based systems underpinned a more ecologically prudent social order.

A contrasting view of India’s ecological history shows much more fluidity before the colonial era (Arnold and Guha 1995). Ethnic groups were not fixed in particular sites, and the level of mobility was high because there was more land per laborer. Forests, far from being cut off from wider society, were resources in times of scarcity and a political base for rival claimants for political power. Archival and archaeological evidence does not support the notion of a long period of stability, as groups often combined activities, such as hunting, herding, and slash-and-burn cultivation, with settled agriculture. The late nineteenth century was indeed a break, but in this view, mainly because the British drew a cordon sanitaire (a protective barrier) around forests and hills, securing them for timber and for strategic reasons.

Imperial Impact: The Debate

The colonial era marked a break because of the new intensity of resource use and regulation (Grove 1995). Although the British first took control of Bengal Province in 1757 and expanded their power steadily, the impact unfolded only over time. Unlike previous Indian regimes, the British had a deep distrust of mobile herders and traders and a strong preference for those who had a fixed home. The British also had a deep prejudice that mobility signified lack of thrift and could damage forests and the land itself.

In one interpretation, strategic and commercial interests shaped British policy. Securing timber for the navy led to forest reservation—the annexation of forest land by the government—for teak in Malabar in 1807. Expanding the rail network led to a timber shortage and creation of the Forest Department in 1864. By 1900, one-fifth of British India was administered by foresters who imposed new regulations on customary uses. Commercial interests led to tensions between the British administrators and indigenous peoples who had had access to the forests. The expansion of canal networks proceeded on a parallel course. Although irrigation increased crop yields and expanded plowed acreage, salinity, waterlogging, and the spread of malaria caused new problems. The building of water-control systems on an unprecedented scale often caused unintended damage in the deltas of peninsular rivers such as the Mahanadi.

Another interpretation emphasizes the ideological and scientific currents among British decision makers, rather than British imperial political economy. Colonial regulations aimed to halt the negative impact of clearing vegetation on water supplies and agricultural prosperity. The East India Company, which governed India until 1858, had a small but influential cadre of botanists and other scientists who anticipated many twenty-first-century concerns about species extinction, climate change, and the links between vegetation and water runoff. Policy initiatives were often driven by such concerns. The Indian princes, who ruled over one-third of the land as junior partners of the British, also supported zoology and forestry, often creating the nuclei of modern scientific investigation.

The British had to try to devise methods of irrigation and forestry and game control strategies that suited South Asia’s specific ecological and social conditions. But the outcomes and responses were often radically different from what they expected (Whitcombe 1995). The canal networks in colonial India were among the world’s largest, but often they led to increased waterlogging and salinity and contributed to the spread of malaria. In the Himalaya, hill peasants protested levies of forced labor. They also resisted when foresters replaced mixed oak forests with pine monocultures. In central India, there were even sharper tensions. A tribal uprising in Bastar, for example, was sparked in part by curbs on shifting cultivation. In central and eastern India, denial of access to the forest for wood, hunting, fodder, and cultivation was at issue. In the foothills of the Himalaya, shepherds bore the brunt of exclusion.

Independence and Development

After independence in 1947, India drew much from the philosophy of nonviolent resistance developed by the nationalist Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948). India drew less from his critique of development and the ecological insights that led to alternative development paths. India followed the model of a mixed economy with an emphasis on capital-intensive technology in a quest for economic self-reliance. Many middle-class Indians hoped to modernize faster than their former imperial masters had let them.

Environmental concerns took a generation to emerge fully, although they had older historical roots. Initially dissent was muted, but since about 1970 the environment as an issue has become central to public debate. Not surprisingly, Gandhi’s ideas have often been drawn upon by critics of the dominant model of development. The courts, the media, citizens associations, political parties, and scientists have been prominent in a variety of debates, resulting in a series of reports on the environment by citizen groups.

Environmental Movements

The fate of the forests has been an issue marked by deep divisions. Two attempts to enact legislation on forests, in 1982 and 1994, failed due to protests by tribal and other forest-reliant peoples. Many of the protesters were marginal agriculturalists for whom forests were a critical supplementary resource. Underprivileged groups blame industry and urban demand and the commercial orientation of the Forest Department for the loss of forest cover. Gender concerns about access and equity have also come into sharp focus. Women have been active in voicing demands for more access to forests and fisheries for sustaining livelihoods (Shiva 1988). The expansion of cultivation and the growth of human and livestock populations are singled out by those who favor stringent measures to protect remaining forest cover, now less than 11 percent of the landscape. Since 1990, many states, especially West Bengal, have attempted more participatory arrangements, with resource sharing with villages. These plans appear to work best in regions with less-polarized land ownership. Known as joint forest management, these plans will either evolve into an alternative or merely complement the dominant model of forestry.

About 5 percent of the Indian landmass is set aside in protected areas, often with intact assemblages of flora and fauna. Many areas are former forest or hunting reserves of the British or of the Indian princes. India, despite its population, has more tigers and Asian elephants than any other Asian country (Seidensticker, Christie, and Jackson 1999). Here, too, legacies of exclusion clash with the call for more participation by local people. An estimated 3 million people rely on parks and sanctuaries for their livelihood. It is still unclear how increased resource sharing is to be accomplished while retaining biodiversity. Alternatives range from microreserves run by communities to resource sharing on the periphery of large parks. Who is to enforce what control regime and how remain contentious issues.

Dams also have been a major issue. After independence, they were seen as critical to achieving self-sufficiency in producing food and generating power for industry. The ecological and social costs were widely questioned (Singh 1997). In 1980, concern about the loss of rain forest stalled construction of a dam in Silent Valley, Kerala. More recently, controversy has centered on the displacement of more than 100,000 people by large dams on the Narmada River in central India (Dreze, Sampson, and Singh 1997). Most controversial of these is the Sardar Sarovar dam. Whether and under what conditions displacement was justified raise significant issues. Most of the displaced are from Madhya Pradesh State, whereas the benefits of irrigation will primarily flow to the richer state of Gujarat. Many of the displaced are tribal peoples whose social and political rights are prominent in Indian politics. Although the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam is proceeding after a favorable judicial verdict, the wider debate continues. In some parts of India, the tribal people are also in conflict with the government in order to assert their right to forest access (Aufschnaiter 2009).

The Challenge

The central challenge is simple but daunting: to achieve a better standard of living for 1 billion people and to do so in a sustainable manner via a democratic polity. A growing media and a range of citizens groups are often in conflict with each other in courts and in public spaces. The century ahead will be one of crises but also one of new opportunities.


University of Delhi

See also Activism, Judicial; Agriculture (South and East Asia); Chennai, India; Delhi, India; Education, Environmental (India); Five-Year Plans; Gandhism; Ganges River; The Himalaya; Indigenous Peoples; Mumbai, India; Parks and Preserves; Reforestation and Afforestation (Southeast Asia); Religions; Traditional Knowledge (India); Water Use and Rights (India); White Revolution of India

This article was adapted by the editors from Mahesh Rangarajan’s article “India” in Shepard Krech III, J. R. McNeill, and Carolyn Merchant (Eds.), Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, pp. 668–672. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing (2003).

Further Reading

Agarwal, Anil; Chopra, Ravi; & Sharma, Kalpana. (Eds.). (1982). The first citizen’s report on the environment in India. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.Find this resource:

Agarwal, Anil; Narain, Sunita; & Sen, Srabani. (Eds.). (1999). The citizen’s fifth report on the environment in India. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.Find this resource:

Agrawal, Arun, & Sivaramakrishnan, K. (Eds.). (2000). Agrarian environments: Resources, representations, and rule in India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Arnold, David, & Guha, Richard. (1995). Nature, culture, imperialism: Essays on the environmental history of south Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Aufschnaiter, Claudia. (2009). Adivasi land rights struggles in south India: Indigenous resistance strategies and the (inter)national law context. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Publishing House.Find this resource:

Bayly, Christopher. Alan. (1988). The new Cambridge history of India: Indian society and the making of the British Empire, 1780–1870 (Vol. 2.1). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Census of India. (2011). Literates and literacy rates by sex: 2011 (Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India). Retrieved January 5, 2012, from

D’Monte, Darryl. (1985). Temples or tombs? Industry versus environment: Three controversies. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.Find this resource:

Dreze, Jean; Sampson, Meera; & Singh, Satyajit. (1997). Dam and the nation: Displacement and resettlement in the Narmada Valley. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

D’Souza, Rohan. (2002). Colonialism, capitalism and nature: Debating the origins of the Mahanadi Delta’s hydraulic crisis. Economic and Political Weekly, 37(3), 1261–1272.Find this resource:

Gadgil, Madhav, & Guha, Richard. (1992). This fissured land: An ecological history of India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Gadgil, Madhav, & Guha, Richard. (1995). Ecology and equity: The use and abuse of nature in contemporary India. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Gilmartin, David. (1996). Scientific empire and imperial science: Colonialism and irrigation technology in the Indus basin. Journal of Asian Studies, 53(4), 1127–1154.Find this resource:

Gragnolati, Michele; Shekar, Meera; Das Gupta, Monica; Bredenkamp, Caryn; & Lee, Yi-Kyoung. (2005). India’s undernourished children: A call for reform and action (HNP Discussion Paper). Washington, DC: The World Bank.Find this resource:

Grove, Richard H. (1995). Green imperialism, colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1660–1860. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Grove, Richard H.; Damodaran, Vinita; & Sangwan, Satpal. (1998). Nature and the Orient: Essays on the environmental history of South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Guha, Ramachandra. (1989). The unquiet woods: Ecological change and peasant resistance in the western Himalaya. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Guha, Sumit. (1999). Environment and ethnicity in India, 1200–1991. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Guha, Sumit. (2001). Health and population in south Asia from earliest times to the present. London: Hurst.Find this resource:

Habib, Irfan. (1982). An atlas of the Mughal Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Hazarika, Sanjoy. (1999). Bhopal: The lessons of a tragedy. Delhi: Penguin.Find this resource:

Jeffery, Roger, & Sundar, Nandini. (1999). A new moral economy for India’s forests? Discourses of community and participation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Find this resource:

Kothari, Ashish; Anuradha, R. V.; Pathak, Neema; & Taneja, Bansuri. (Eds.). (1998). Communities and conservation in South and Central Asia. New Delhi: Sage.Find this resource:

Mughal, Muhammad Aurang Zeb. (2011). Mohenjo-daro’s sewers. In Alfred J. Andrea (Ed.), World History Encyclopedia (Vol. 3, pp. 121–122). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.Find this resource:

Nanda, Rupashree. (2010). It’s official: 37 pc live below poverty line. IBN Live India. Retrieved January 5, 2010, from

Rangarajan, Mahesh. (1996). Fencing the forest, conservation and ecological change in India’s central provinces, 1860–1914. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Rangarajan, Mahesh. (2001). India’s wildlife history: An introduction. New Delhi: Permanent Black.Find this resource:

Rangarajan, Mahesh. (2002). Polity, ecology and landscape: New writing on south Asia’s past. Studies in History, 18(1), 135–147.Find this resource:

Saberwal, Vasant. (1998). Pastoral politics, shepherds, bureaucrats and conservation in the western Himalaya. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Saberwal, Vasant, & Rangarajan, Mahesh. (Eds.). (2003). Battles over nature: Science and the politics of conservation. New Delhi: Permanent Black.Find this resource:

Seidensticker, John; Christie, Sarah; & Jackson, Peter. (Eds.). (1999). Riding the tiger: Tiger conservation in human-dominated landscapes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Shiva, Vandana. (1988). Staying alive: Women, ecology and survival in India. New Delhi: Zed Press.Find this resource:

Sinha, V. C., & Zacharia, E. (1986). Elements of demography. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Private Limited.Find this resource:

Singh, Satyajit. (1997). Taming the waters: The political economy of large dams in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Sivaramakrishnan, K. (1999). Modern forests, state making and environmental change in colonial eastern India. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Sundar, Nandini. (1997). Subalterns and sovereigns: An anthropological history of Bastar, 1854–1996. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Sundar, Nandini; Jeffery, Roger; & Thin, Neil. (2001). Branching out: Joint forest management in India. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Whitcombe, Elizabeth. (1995). The environmental costs of irrigation in British India. In David Arnold & Ramachandra Guha (Eds.), Nature, culture, imperialism: Essays on the environmental history of south Asia (pp. 237–259). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

World Bank. (2011). India at a glance. Retrieved January 5, 2011, from