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An Ecological Pioneer, The Telegraph

In 1922, a professor at Lucknow University named Radhakamal Mukherjee published a book called Principles of Comparative Economics. Reading the book one hundred years later, I was struck by the attention it paid to the impact of the natural environment on the social and economic life of Indian villages. Mukherjee was perhaps the first Indian scholar to recognize the vital importance of common property resources to the sustenance of peasant agriculture. While cultivated land was owned by individuals or families, canals were traditionally held and managed by the village, as were woods and grasslands. Thus, as Mukherjee wrote, ‘where private ownership might confer a privilege against the rest of the community, their use has never been allowed to be exclusive’.

In the precolonial Indian village, it was the collective ownership and use of irrigation channels that was most significant. The management of irrigation, observed Mukerjee, ‘compels men to give up an anti-social individualism, or suffer in consequence; … it forces men to enter into closer economic relations with other men…’. Thus, ‘in the Indian village communities there are minute communal relations of the supply of water to prevent the mutual rights of the cultivators. To prevent a tyrannical use of property, India has sought to establish a kind of communal ownership of tanks and the distributory channels of irrigation—the most important instruments of agricultural production’.

Mukerjee argued that these indigenous systems of common property management had been undermined by British colonial rule. A state Forest Department had taken over the wooded areas, working them for commercial purposes and criminalizing villagers who sought to use them for subsistence. The tanks and canals had also been placed under a government department, with officials appointed by the state put in charge of their upkeep. This change, wrote Mukherjee, ‘has brought about a complete loss of initiative of the people as regards … public works, which were formerly maintained by the indigenous machinery, but which have fallen into desuetude and disrepair in the absence of all responsibility and all authority, customary or positive’.

Radhakamal Mukherjee is a largely forgotten figure today. Yet his writings speak directly to the environmental crisis that India and the world now confront. Consider an essay of 1930, published in the Sociological Review, and entitled ‘An Ecological Approach to Sociology’. This argued that conventional social science ‘has been concerned almost entirely with…the effects of man upon man, disregarding often enough the trees and animals, land and water.’ An ‘undue prominence has been given in history and economics’, remarked Mukerjee, ‘to these purely human influences’. On the other hand, the works of geographers and ecologists ‘clearly emphasize the importance of the physical environment in its relation to society, and especially in its effects upon occupation and family life.’

Thus, as Mukerjee now told his fellow social scientists, ‘an important section of plant and animal ecology deals with the disturbances which human and animal populations bring about in the natural ordering of the array of different plants and animals formed in a given region at a particular time.’ Speaking of his native country, Mukerjee wrote of how ‘overgrazing and trampling by man’s domestic stocks result in the complete destruction of the vegetable cover and the appearance of perennial or seasonal weeds in the river-plains of India.’

Humans had an unprecedented ability to modify and reshape the order of nature. Their methods of forest clearance, farming, stock-raising, and the import of exotics had, in India and elsewhere, set up ‘a train of primary or secondary sequences in which an entire series of plant species and communities are implicated’. These disturbances, if not unchecked, could lead to the disappearance of important, even vital, plant and animal species, to a decline in soil fertility, to deforestation, desertification and drought, thereby imperiling the possibilities of human life flourishing in the region.

The ideas that animate Mukerjee’s essay, of the interdependence of humans and the natural world, of the web of life and how dangerous it can be to wantonly tamper with it, are now commonplace among environmental scholars and activists. But back in the 1930s they were precocious and even pioneering. Radhakamal Mukerjee was advocating an ethic of restraint and responsibility, that ran counter to the ethos of a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing society which recognized no natural constraints to its growth and expansion.

In 1934, Radhakamal Mukerjee published an article the Indian Journal of Economics, seeking to alert his fellow scholars to the constraints that ecology placed on forms of livelihood. Here he argued that trifling with nature’s laws could have dangerous consequences for economic activity. This article carried the telling title ‘The Broken Balance of Population, Land and Water’. It focused on the denudation of forests and grasslands in the Indo-Gangetic Plains, which had led to the formation of extensive areas of ravine, unfit for cultivation or habitation, and also made rainfall scarce as well as more erratic. The resultant shortages of water and fodder had told particularly severely on the cattle, which were now smaller and weaker, yielding less milk and less willing to work in the fields. ‘It is not improbable’, wrote Mukerjee, ‘that in some distant future the Ganges valley may share the fate of the Indus valley, where once there was smiling plenty. The traces of ancient river beds and sand-buried cities extended over a vast space in the desert country east of the Indus testify to the gradual dessication of a once fertile region’.

Unlike the academics of today, Radhakamal Mukerjee was not a narrow specialist. He was unbound by disciplinary constraints, his writings ranging widely over history and philosophy as well as economics and sociology. Unlike other Indian economists, he also had a keen interest in the natural sciences, in particular the then emerging field of ecology. A list of publications compiled after Mukerjee’s death lists forty-seven books written by him, on an extraordinarily wide range of subjects, from his first book The Foundations of Indian Economics (1916) through Regional Sociology (1926) on to The Changing Face of Bengal (1938) and Social Ecology (1940), and then further to The Indian Working Class (1945), The Social Function of Art (1948), The Social Structure of Values (1949) and The Dynamics of Morals (1951), and still further to The History of Indian Civilization (two volumes, 1956), The Philosophy of Social Science (1960), and The Flowering of Indian Art (1964).

A lot of what Mukerjee wrote was superficial and ephemeral. No one now remembers his contributions to Indian art history, for example. He is scarcely read any more by professional economists, or by professional sociologists either. However, in the field of human ecology he was a true pioneer, and much of what he wrote on or around this subject is of enduring worth.

Radhakamal Mukerjee’s studies had inculcated in him a deep knowledge of, as well as a profound respect for, the intricacies of the web of life. He was an environmentalist before the birth of environmentalism, an ‘environmental sociologist’ and ‘ecological economist’ long before those branches of scholarly enquiry had been thought of or invented. Mukerjee once remarked that ‘the laws of economics or sociology have to subserve the more comprehensive laws of the balance of life.’ Scholars needed to pay more attention to nature, for intellectual reasons; while citizens needed to pay more attention to natural limits, for reasons of sheer survival. The times he lived in emphasized rapid economic growth with no regard for ecological constraints; yet, going against the grain, Mukerjee argued that humans would be better advised to ‘some extent imitate Nature’s extraordinarily slow methods’. As he wrote, ‘though man often tears asunder the fabric through ignorance or selfishness, social progress no doubt consists in consciously weaving the forces of nature and society into finer and finer patterns of correlation and solidarity. It is the knowledge of and respect for the intricacy of the web of life which will guide man to its highest destiny.’

In a book of 1938, Mukerjee remarked that ‘applied human ecology is the only guarantee of a permanent civilisation’. The scholar himself looked forward to the day when ‘ecological adjustment [would] be raised from an instinctive to an ethical plane’. He urged his fellow humans to forge an ‘alliance with the entire range of ecological ‘forces’, to curb their ‘quick and [far] reaching exploitative activities by importing new values—the thought for tomorrow, the sacrifice for inhabitants of the region yet unborn’. Offered more than eighty years ago, these warnings bear recalling and heeding today.

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 22nd October 2022)