Iftekhar Iqbal*

This essay offers an ecological perspective in the study of colonial East Bengal (Bangladesh, broadly). An ecological understanding of historical development in Bangladesh is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, the field of environmental history has grown enormously over the past few decades in Europe and North America, and more recently in India. But there has not been significant contribution to this emerging field in Bangladesh or about Bangladesh. Secondly, an environmental perspective on Bangladesh is important not merely for asserting environmentalism in the context of its not being flourished, but also because Bangladesh ecological regime itself provides a general framework for studying its history. Thirdly, current debates in Bangladesh about environmental degradation and conservation as well as ‘sustainable development’ dwells on broad range of issues without adequate appreciation of many contemporary problems in its historical context. An environmental-historical perspective may substantially inform many of today’s efforts towards attaining sustainability and well-being. This essay, however, is not a policy-formulation, neither is it an attempt to provide a broader framework for understanding the intricate historical events for a longer period. It provides an outline of how ecology informed agrarian society and production relations in the colonial period in the hope that more wide-ranging research would be taken up by the historians of the region.

Historiographical context of environmental history of Bengal

Beginning with a modest search for a link between human society and nature,[1] historians have been able to establish environmental history as a solid academic field of enquiry. Within the general historiographical debates around environmental history, two broad trends might be identified. One is what we may term as American tradition and the other as French tradition. One of the basic thrusts in the former case has been to follow the dialectics of environmental destruction and conservation. Seen through an extensive capitalist development in a naturally endowed vast terrain of the US, it is not unusual that the debates on degradation and conservation would be particularly strong in that country.[2] The narrative of the destruction of nature and an urge for conservation, however, has not remained a simple discourse of capitalist intervention into nature. It has been qualified by an urge for an understanding of the ontological basis of the issues of conservation, which has led to the debates of ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ ecology. The discourse of ‘deep’ ecology sees nature as possessing intrinsic value in itself which alone entitles it to be preserved. This intrinsic value of nature seems to arise from the appreciation of non-human species, such as flora and fauna. The advocates of ‘shallow’ ecology, in an anthropocentric vein, mull over the preservation of nature because of its potential as a ‘resource’ for the use of humans.[3] Seen either way, the study of environmental history in the US appears to privilege a moralizing theme of conservation, while accommodating numerous subsidiary approaches.[4]

A different model is offered by the Annales School of France. In a fashion that somewhat contradicts the American tradition of constant tension about changes in the environment, the Annalists tended to explain social and economic changes in an environmental setting that was subject to very slow pace of change or no change at all. Marc Bloch’s French rural history, published in 1931, was an early work of this genre. However, it was Ferdnand Braudel, another member of the Annales school, who most conspicuously documented the role of physical environment in human history in his Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world. For Braudel, ‘the sea, itself unchanging, provides a permanently fixed and supremely powerful environmental context for the evolution of human economies and cultures’.[5] Braudel’s work has left an important legacy for the writing of environmental history not only in France but also in other parts of the world. However, the notion of the longue dureé, or a long term-continuity of the structural correspondences between environment and society, has been criticized because of its quasi-deterministic approach to environment. The criticism mostly comes from those scholars who think that nature represents disequilibria rather than ‘system’.[6] The recent intercontinental invasion of Tsunami also denotes that the sea itself, for instance, may not be an unchanging entity as previously perceived.

Placed between these two ‘grand traditions’, the environmental historians of South Asia have benefited from both ends. For instance, Richard Grove and John MacKenzie have seen India as one of the tropical regions of the colonial world where the efforts of conservation received initial impetus.[7] On the other hand, the influence of the notion of longue dureé can be gleaned from the work of Chetan Singh, for instance, who found the fixed, almost eternal Himalayas to be informing social and economic relations.[8] Yet, South Asia’s particular place in the field of environmental history perhaps rests on a set of unique and diverse ecological regimes with which American or French landscape may not be compared. The political developments and social dynamics have also been entirely different in the region. Therefore, the study of environmental history of South Asia has not been entirely confined within the boundary set by the French or American traditions. The distinction of the South Asian efforts can be found, for instance, in the shift of focus to themes which lay beyond the middle class concern for preservation of fauna or flora, giving way to issues such as subaltern and indigenous people’s resistance to outside intervention in their ecological domains.[9]

One is, however, surprised at the excess of focus on forests at the expense of rivers and larger agrarian societies in South Asia. It has been rightly observed that ‘if the old agrarian history neglected the forests and pastures, environmental history now has banished the peasant fields and farms from the realm of historical concern.’[10] One is also struck by the fact that in the current studies of ‘South Asian’ environmental history there is hardly any focus on areas other than contemporary India.[11] Eastern Bengal or Bangladesh, being a largely riverine agro-ecological zone and also being situated outside the boundary of India, therefore, appears to be an ideal subject to research on from an environmental perspective.

This is not to propose that an environmental perspective has not been taken up at all. Looking through the rich array of research on the history of Bengal, we could identify a number of substantial works that have engaged ecological factors to examine some forms of economic activities. In the 1930s, Radhakamal Mukerjee charted the changes in the river systems and their impact on different types of geophysical regions within the Bengal Delta. In doing so, Mukerjee also traced the demographic movement and performance of agricultural sectors. About the same time, Birendranath Ganguli threw significant light on our understanding of nature’s inherent capacity to influence the pattern of human fertility behaviour in a given ecological circumstance.[12] In the 1970s, Panandikar linked deltaic ecological properties with economic well-being or woes, while Binay Bhuhsan Chaudhuri identified the fertile deltaic region of Bengal with the successful commercialization of agriculture in the nineteenth century. Recently, Sugata Bose has updated the works of Radhakamal Mukherjee and Birandranath Ganguli by reminding us of the important link between the rivers of eastern Bengal and demographic pattern.[13] These works, often imbued with a Tagorian sense of appreciation of nature as a pristine provider, are remarkable attempts to document the role of nature, particularly the river, on economic activities. Some remarkable works have dealt with the chars and forest, with specific focus on the reclamation process, tenural pattern and environmental resource management.[14] Notwithstanding their importance in the history of the colonial revenue system and policy formulations, these works have not examined the questions of social, economic and political relations over a longer period of time, keeping broader ecological issues at the centre. These works are, however, important for our purpose and once placed in perspective their merit could be fully appreciated in the light of the new developments in the field of environmental history.

The patterns of environmental changes in Eastern Bengal

One major geographical feature of eastern Bengal is its frontier location. Situated between a settled inland and the sea, it possessed a vast area of fertile plains with natural irrigation facilities and a major portion of one of the largest mangrove forest systems. By 1840 a combination of internal and external factors led to the reclamation of the ‘waste’ wetlands which set the course for a successful commercialization of agriculture that met the demand of both domestic and international market. A peasant society emerged which remained relatively mobile and prosperous throughout at least next six decades or so. Particular mention may be made of the brisk trade and commerce carried out by individual agencies that emerged from the primary producers themselves, higher range of wages for labourers and relatively better index of health and nutrition. While famine was a regular feature of the nineteenth-century India, eastern Bengal was not only left largely unscathed, but it also became a source of supply of famine relief in different affected regions of India.[15]

The relationship between the reclamation of the fluid interior or frontier zones and socio-economic mobility, however, was not automatic. The formative phases in the nineteenth-century eastern Bengal have also to be seen in the context of the role of the ecological regime that partially sponsored the structural decadence of the colonial authority as codified in the Permanent Settlement. An examination of the relationship between the ecological regime of eastern Bengal and the weakening of the Permanent Settlement is important precisely because the latter has largely remained the golden gate to enter Bengal agrarian studies. Writing mainly during the colonial period, the supporters of the Permanent Settlement welcomed it as a systematic effort to bring order in the pre-colonial ‘chaos’ in agrarian revenue system hence economic stability. On the other hand, a number of researches in the post-colonial period viewed the Settlement as a revenue-generating mechanism that led to the emergence of rural elite who perpetuated semi-feudal structure of agrarian relations. Referring to the sea of literature informed by the Permanent Settlement, Sugata Bose has recently observed that the historiography of the region had been ‘hampered by a sterile engagement with formal, colonial land-revenue systems and a lopsided emphasis on landlords and rural elite.’[16]

While the critique of the Permanent Settlement as an ideology and practice of agrarian domination remains unquestionably valid[17], there are clear indications that in many parts of eastern Bengal, the rules of the Permanent Settlement were either weakened or never imposed at all.[18] The Sundarbans and most of the alluvial lands that were formed after 1793 were not brought under the jurisdiction of the Permanent Settlement. This was the result of a deliberate policy of the colonial government to come out of the limitations that were imposed on it by the Settlement. The lands that were not included in the Permanent Settlement were either held by government, acting as a ‘zamindar’, or were settled directly with the cultivators. The non-permanently-settled areas represented a new wave of social and economic change and witnessed the emergence of a relatively independent peasantry. In effect, these changes affected the peasantry of the Permanent Settlement areas in different parts of eastern Bengal, where the peasants uniformly asserted their social, economic and political identities against the landlords. It may, therefore, be argued that the ecological regime of eastern Bengal not only informed the emergence of a vibrant economy and society, but also somewhat curtailed the long arms of the colonial institution of the Permanent Settlement. Contrary to what Paul Greenough has suggested, the Sundarbans and the more active deltaic region proved to be the most prolific zones of economic and social mobility.[19]

As far as the nineteenth century is concerned, we could perhaps suggest that a study of historical ecology does not necessarily mean a study of unilateral environmental destruction. In the general body of debates on ecology we invariably find an ethical presumption in favour of conservation. However, ecological regimes have ranges of spaces that allow and sustain intervention into them, but the extent is determined by the perception of the community living in a particular ecological regime. The idea of ecology is alive only when the question of human involvement becomes prominent. Therefore, the conservation ethos as employed in the bulk of ecological study does not, other than appreciating the deterioration of the biosphere and biotic community, fully incorporate the element of social dynamics. Thus apologetic interpretations of colonial conservation practices and vehement criticism of ecological destruction during the colonial era equally fall into the prejudged format of pure conservation rhetoric, without social considerations.
The eastern Bengal ecological regime, however, was not as ‘unchanging’ as the Mediterranean Sea or the Himalayas. Social wellbeing itself led to enormous population growth and the collapse of old water regimes often resulted from them being overburdened, and practices that might previously have been ‘innocent’ became predatory or unsustainable in the course of time.[20] The Sundarbans had also a limited boundary and there was danger of reclaiming the forests upto the sea as it acted as a ‘belt’ between the more settled land and the occasional tidal waves and cyclones.[21] The process of deterioration in the environment, however, became remarkable by the turn of the century through the deterioration of the water regime as caused by the railway embankments and water hyacinth, among other factors.

The case of the railways and water hyacinth

The seeds of the problem of the railway appear to lie not in the erection of the railway itself in the first instance. The problem lay in the fact that the government and different railway companies, while encouraging the railways, failed to appreciate the relative importance of inland waterways. In Eastern Bengal, waterways were often seen as rivals to the railways as means of transport and there was a feeling that with the completion of the railway networks, the transport and communication systems would be faster and more reliable and this could have been done at the expense of the ‘slower’ mode of water transports. A report on the waterways of Bengal (1906), after describing the worldwide expenditure on the improvement of waterways, pointed out that India had done comparatively little in this context. It calculated that the total expenditure on the improvement of navigation facilities had not exceeded 5,000,000 pounds during the past 40 years whereas the expenditure on railways during the same period had exceeded 200,000,000 pounds.[22] The Government of India was even more enthusiastic about the railways in Eastern Bengal. By 1928 it was reported that the EBR had been treated rather more generously than some lines and had received about two-thirds for the total sum asked for in the year 1925-30, while other lines had received less than half their demands.[23]

The extension of railways in the Bengal Delta meant equal degree of extension of embankment amidst a highly fluid landscape. In this sense, the 3500 miles of railways that traversed the Ganges-Brahmaputra watersheds also represented almost similar length of embankments. But how easy was it to erect and manage these embankments on Bengal’s deltaic landscape with its unique fluid atmosphere, with rivers draining in a myriad of directions? To what extent, for instance, did the waterways and embankments co-exist and clash? How did engineers justify their claims that railway construction in the plains of the Delta was easier than other places as embankments appeared to solve many of the problems associated with railway constructions?

One of the issues that vexed the engineers was how many waterways or passages should be provided through embankments. Finney, one of the colonial engineers and instructor for engineering students at Shibpur Engineering College, thought that the number of waterways to be provided must depend on the importance of the traffic. If the line in question was of ‘first class importance’ and the traffic was large, then an interruption of communication was calamitous, and liberal waterways must be supplied, since the flood could breach the embankment and the loss from an interruption could be enormous. If, on the other hand, a branch line was being constructed where the traffic was small, ‘some risk of an occasional interruption’ was ‘justifiable’, according to Finney. Another related question of whether the waterways should provide for ordinary floods or for abnormal ones occurring at long intervals also depended on the importance of the traffic.[24] It, therefore, appears that colonial technological feat in the form of railway not only helped to maximize the collection of raw materials, but it also posed substantial threat to the water regime of the region. Given the circumstances, it was no wonder that as early as the 1920s C.A. Bentley, Director of Public Health, Bengal, pointed out that due to the ‘blind’ way of building roads and railway embankments without adequate culverts, the country became divided into ‘innumerable compartments’ and it was extremely difficult for rainwater to flow from one compartment to another. Every year, Dr Bentley added, the floods increased in severity and he warned that unless remedial measures were adopted, Eastern Bengal would cease to exist as the richest rice producing area in India.[25]

If the railway had played a prominent role in the decline of the water regime and the production process in the Delta, the water hyacinth enormously hastened this decline. While the career of the hyacinth was left unchallenged at the backdrop of the failure of colonial science to tackle the weed, the devastation it caused to crops and cultivation process was also left unchecked. It was the water hyacinth, along with a grass called uri, which appeared to be the ‘chief pests’ with which the paddy cultivation had to contend.[26] In the district of Mymensingh, it was reported that the cultivators gave up producing any crop over an area of a hundred square miles, owing to the extensive damage caused year by year by the water hyacinth. The mover of the Bengal Water Hyacinth Bill (1933) reported that some time ago the annual damage done by the water hyacinth in Bengal was estimated at about six crores (1 crore=10 millions) of rupees and at the time of his speaking it was ‘very much more’.[27] This was not an exaggeration since the water hyacinth was particularly damaging for beel paddy which grew in abundance in the Delta. It was reported that in Khulna beel areas paddy cultivation was rendered difficult, and low-lying paddy suffered damage from inroads of the plant.[28] The people of Konda and Gokrana Unions of Nasirnagar thana of Tippera petitioned the Government alleging that crops of a very large tract of their unions had been destroyed since 1915 by flood and the water hyacinth. A large number of petitions were also made asking the government to eradicate the water hyacinth from Tippera.[29] A large quantity of paddy grown in the Arial beel of Munshiganj of Dhaka district was reported to have been destroyed by the water hyacinth.[30] The hyacinth from the Kumar river entered through Balugram entrance and destroyed paddy and jute plants of more than 174 square miles every year.[31] It was also alleged that inland navigation and the cultivation of jali dhan of aman species and jute in the lower lands became difficult due to the pervasive presence of the water hyacinth. It was reported in 1926 that 15 to 20 per cent of the winter paddy (aman) in the low lying areas were being damaged ‘year after year’ by this weed.[32] In a region which mostly comprised deltaic low lands, being uniquely fitted for a range of rice species, the chronic challenge from the water hyacinth contributed to what has been termed ‘an economic depression’.[33] Along with the subsistence crops of paddy itself, the traditional means of agricultural operation such as cow appeared to be affected by eating the water hyacinth. J. Donovon, a subdivisional officer noted that he had never seen more miserable cattle than those of eastern Bengal. He learnt from the Veterinary officer of the District Board that due to little or no grazing, the cows were suffering ‘indigestion due to eating water hyacinth and other rank growths.’[34]

As far as the question of public health was concerned, the water hyacinth was accused of causing influenza and other diseases.[35] In response to the suggestion that the hyacinth contributed to cholera, CA Bentley thought that the hyacinth could not be regarded as the contributory cause of cholera unless it could be shown that its presence encouraged the pollution of water with human excrement, which he doubted. He thought that the only possible indirect way in which it could cause cholera would be in shading polluted water from the action of the sun and therefore interfering with the natural process of purification, which took place in a few days in the case of water exposed to sunlight and air. But Bentley thought it to be ‘purely hypothetical’ and though he admitted that the weed was a ‘great nuisance’ which needed to be dealt with, he failed to condemn it on sanitary grounds. However, recent researches have proved that V. cholerae are found to concentrate on the surface of the water packed with water hyacinth.[36] As far as relations between the water hyacinth and malaria were concerned, Bentley noted that water thickly covered with water hyacinth rarely showed anopheles larvae.[37] However, a report by S.N. Sur, a field-level Public Health official in the Malaria Research Unit in Bengal, contradicted Bentley’s assumptions. He observed that the prevailing malarial condition was mainly due to the stagnation of water and also to the presence of the water hyacinth which favoured the growth of mosquito larvae by ‘reducing the temperature of the water as well as giving shelter against their natural enemies.’[38] Along with its implications for public health, the water hyacinth also entered the territory of public nutrition that came from fish resources. As the weed thrived in the pukurs (tanks/ponds) of the countryside during the rainy seasons, it not only polluted drinking water but also posed a danger to the culture of fish. This was one of the reasons why the production of fish in Bengal rapidly diminished.[39] The following comment by a Chairman of Bakarganj Municipality amply illustrated the problem of water hyacinth:

The inroads of savage army, through the frontiers, the incursions of a Timurlane, carrying fire sand sword into the country, were nothing compared to the inroads of those tiny plants, floating down the East Bengal rivers…creeks, canals and small rivulets had been clogged and choking up…even costly careful clearance, twice a year, was not able to arrest its growth…during flood tides, these plants get into fields and within a few days, by first multiplication, cover them entirely to the destruction of rice and other crops rooted on the earth…Eastern Bengal, the granary of the Province and hitherto the healthiest portion of it, is being rendered desolate by the bringing of malaria by this plant…[40]

Agrarian Bengal: a political-ecological perspective

It is all too easy to fall prey to environmental determinism by connecting physical environment with all evil or good. Ecological factors are signified only through a set of power relations which seek to operate in a given ecological regime. This section introduces a key theme of this article: the dynamic and often confrontational relationship between social power and ecology. If the local agencies of the colonial state were restricted by certain environmental circumstances it did not mean that there were no attempts by them to find alternative ways to take a share of the benefits of the reclamation and settlement of the wastelands and commercialization of agriculture by the ordinary peasants. The zamindar had every intention to expand his boundary beyond the permanently settled estates or within his own estate where wastelands were reclaimed by the ordinary peasants. The capitalists who supplied capital to reclaim forests were also tempted to increase rent after cultivators settled in the reclaimed lands. All these ‘external’ challenges were responded to by the organized resistance of the peasants. This was clearly visible in the political mobilization of the ‘lower caste’ Namasudras, particularly since the 1870s and the Faraizi movement since the 1830s. The Faraizi movement, which was inspired by Islamic idea of social and economic justice, waged resistance against the landed elite, who often happened to be of both Hindu and Muslim background, desirous to coerce their way into the ecological endowment of the region. The Faraizi resistance, therefore, was waged mostly around the issues relating to the char and reclaimed lands in the forest and the resistance seemed most vibrant at a time when economy and society were at their best. In most cases the Faraizis were able to secure what they demanded, as exemplified by the introduction of Acts of 1859 and 1885 which consolidated the peasants’ proprietary rights on land.[41]

By the turn of the century, the site of anti-colonial resistance shifted from rural to urban areas, and from the peasant to western educated middle class, loosely termed as bhadralok.[42] The bhadralok became politically stronger during the Swadeshi movement that started against the partition of Bengal in 1905. The new wave of resistance was a welcome change in the power-play of colonial India, precisely because the brighter section of the bhadralok came to the forefront of a wave of patriotic zeal to mobilize popular support against the Raj. Contrary to what some historians have tried to depict, this anti-colonial upsurge was not merely to press the government for expanding urban economic spaces. The organized resistance was a genuine urge to confront what the nationalists termed as a ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British government that was perpetuated through dividing ‘mother Bengal’, by alienating the ecologically active deltaic region from the relatively moribund areas of Bengal. The byproduct of this political position was a retreat to rural roots of the Bengali society from which the bhadralok had long been alienated. A fervent craving for the countryside was apparent among this socially privileged group. In this context, one could reasonably hope that the already established tradition of peasant resistance and the new nationalist bhadralok struggle could form an urban-rural alliance and a radical transformation would take place in agrarian arena. This did not happen. The return of the bhadralok, in fact, coincided with remarkable deterioration in agrarian social relations, such as institutionalization of communal conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims and a number of problems relating to land.

As late as 1908, the lower caste Namasudras and ordinary Muslim peasants continued to hold on to the tradition of relative non-hostility, but soon afterwards things changed for the worse.[43] A sharp reorientation in the political arena of eastern Bengal took place in which the ordinary Muslim and Namasudra peasants generally aligned themselves with the middle class ashraf-rich peasant and the zamindar-bhadralok conglomeration respectively.[44] The communal tension and violence that ensued, particularly from the 1920s, have sometimes been held responsible for the partition of Bengal in 1947.[45] The problem of land, on the other hand, surfaced in a number of ways, including the sale of land of small-holders and rise of landless peasants and sharecroppers. These landless and land-poor people ultimately became the victims of the great Bengal famine of 1943.[46] Thus, during about four decades of anti-colonial resistance movement preceding the partition of India, Eastern Bengal represented a society and economy which were at their lowest ebb since the recovery in the early nineteenth century.

This paradox of decadence in an era of ‘national awakening’ prompts us to examine the role of the bhadralok in agrarian eastern Bengal. From the perspective of political ecology, which focuses on the relations of power, knowledge and politics with respect to control over ecological resources, we may examine the pattern of the bhadralok engagement in the eastern Bengal delta with particular focus on land.[47] The role of the rich peasant in these imbroglios has been stressed, but connecting it mostly with the great Depression of the 1930s. One may, in fact, argue that the problems of economic and social decadence started earlier, probably by the turn of the century when a section of the richer peasantry aspired for urban modernity and responded to ‘representational’ political mobilization of the elite and middle class ashrafs.[48] The bhadralok had a different position in this regard. In the wake of unemployment, war and depression-related problems, the rise in price of food-stuff in the towns and sometimes for the simple reason of love for the countryside, a number of bhadralok found themselves engaged in agricultural concerns. While the rich peasant’s stake was already established in the countryside, the bhadralok who was ‘outsider’ in agrarian relations had to employ his ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’ to attain the facilities that the ordinary peasants had acquired over the course of the nineteenth century. By now, if some of the rich peasant became eager to subscribe to the scripture of bhadraloki ‘modernity’ in an attempt to secure government jobs, political influence and respectability, a number of bhadralok took renewed interest in agriculture. Consequently, from an ecological perspective, a striking feature of the early twentieth century history of agrarian Bengal was a remarkable growth of the bhadralok in the most active deltaic districts of Eastern Bengal. As late as the 1870s, Henry Beveridge was surprised by the absence of upper class Hindus and Muslims in the littoral district of Bakarganj. Until about the turn of the century it was also seen that the West Bengal district of Burdwan and Calcutta city and the suburbs were still the popular home of the bhadralok. On the other hand, in Eastern Bengal, except in some pockets of Dhaka and to some extent Mymensingh, they were almost absent.[49] By the turn of the century, the situation changed considerably. Between about 1890 and 1930, the bhadralok grew in number in Eastern Bengal at a comparatively faster pace than in Western Bengal. While in the moribund Western deltaic divisions of Burdwan and Presidency, the members of the bhadralok grew by 17% and 42% (Calcutta included) respectively, in the active deltaic divisions of Eastern Bengal, eg. Rajshahi, Dhaka and Chittagong, their number grew by 53%, 34% and 93% respectively. It was reported in the Census of Bengal in 1931 that in Chittagong almost one-half and in Noakhali nearly one fifth of the total Hindu population were Kayasthas. In every other district of East Bengal, except in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, their numbers were at least 11 per cent of the total Hindu population, ‘a proportion not elsewhere reached except in Calcutta’.[50]

Amidst this demographic development, both the rich peasant and the bhadralok found it inevitable to work in concert or in constructed animosity against the ordinary peasantry.[51] Since eastern Bengal appeared to be relatively better than ‘moribund’ western or northern Bengal in terms of ecological endowment, eg. fertile double-crop lands, the issues of access to land and land rights became most intense in eastern Bengal. [52] Therefore, the pattern of engagement in agrarian relations by the bhadralok as well as the rich peasant might be fruitfully examined if we consider the centrality of the last viable agro-ecological zone in Bengal—though in reality the area started showing signs of ecological decline by the turn of the century. It is no wonder that the most serious communal conflicts erupted in the twentieth century and these took place in the relatively better zones of agricultural productivity and ecologically endowed regions of eastern Bengal.

In this essay, we have discussed three interrelated issues. The first is the examination of the role of the region’s ecological regime in informing social and economic changes and colonial agrarian policies. The second set of questions considers the patterns of changes within the ecological regime itself. The third focus is on the evolving patterns of engagement with ecological resources by different social agencies in a given relationship of power and difference. In wielding these three sets of queries, we may argue that colonial Bengal cannot be simply considered a ‘Sonar Bangla’, neither can it be termed a dismal dystopea. Particularly, the time between about 1830 and 1943 showed two distinct shifts in agrarian production and social relations. Most of the nineteenth century remained relatively prosperous, socially mobile and politically agile in the quest for social justice—and these were possible because of the ‘unspoiled’ ecological regime of the region that empowered the ordinary peasant labours in a number of ways. By the turn of the century, however, the ecological regime, particularly the water regime, started to decline for different reasons, of which we have only discussed railway embankment and water hyacinth. The decline was taking place in eastern Bengal at a time when urban-based nationalist politics and political prowess exercised coercion on the small-holders without much attention to the environmental predicaments through which the production process took place. Deterioration in the water system led to flooding, failure of crops, water logging and loss of navigation and marketing facilities. Whereas eastern Bengal exported rice throughout the nineteenth century, by the beginning of the twentieth century, it had to import it for subsistence, particularly from Burma. Historians have argued that one of the reasons for the Bengal Famine in 1943 was the stoppage of importation of rice from Burma during Japanese occupation. But historians have hardly enquired about why, in the first instance, rice production declined in eastern Bengal. In this context, it might be assumed that the decline in the ecological regime led to the decline in the output of both commercial and subsistence produce which, in combination with other factors, ultimately led to the Famine.

As we suggested earlier, an environmental perspective in the study of history may substantially inform us about broader shifts in the areas of agrarian production, human well-being as well as political movement and motif. In the case of eastern Bengal, ecology played important role not only in the colonial period but also in Pakistan period[53] as it is playing now in Bangladesh. In particular, the problems relating to the railways and water hyacinth continue to pose substantial threat to water system leading to flooding, agrarian production process and the life of ordinary peasantry across the country. Surprisingly, in the current discourse of ‘sustainable’ development, the problems created by the railways and highways and the water hyacinth remains largely unexplored, while the political ecology of alienating the best lands, such as newly formed chars, from the actual cultivators persists.

* Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences, East West University, Dhaka.

[1] For an instance of this kind from the fourteenth century, see Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: an introduction to history, trans. from Arabic by Franz Rosenthal (London, 1958).

[2] For example, see Donald Worster (ed.), The ends of the earth: perspectives on modern environmental history (Cambridge, 1988); Carolyn Merchant, The death of nature: women, ecology, and the scientific revolution (San Francisco, 1980).

[3] For a comparative analysis of ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ ecology, see George Sessions ed., Deep ecology for the 21st Century (Boston, 1995); particularly the first section of the book.

[4] Ramachandra Guha, ‘Writing environmental history in India’, Occasional papers on history and society, second series, no. LXX (New Delhi, 1993), pp. 1-7; For an example, see Juanita Mae Simpson, ‘The theoretical foundations for an environmental ethics (Intrinsic Value)’, (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Arizona, 1997).

[5] David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha (eds.), ‘Introduction: themes and issues in the environmental history of South Asia’ to Nature, culture, imperialism: essays on the environmental history of South Asia (Delhi, 1995), p. 6.

[6] For a general critique of the longue dureé, see David Arnold, The problem of nature (Oxford, 1996), pp. 39-45; for a discussion of the ‘system’ and ‘disequilibrium’ issues see I. Scoones, ‘New Ecology and the social sciences: what prospects for a fruitful engagement?’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 28, 1999, pp. 479-507.

[7] Richard Grove, Green imperialism: colonial expansion, tropical island Edens, and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860 (Cambridge, 1995). See also R. Grove’s Ecology, climate and empire: the Indian legacy in global environmental history 1400-1940 (Delhi, 1998); John MacKenzie, The empire of nature: hunting, conservation and British imperialism (Manchester, 1988); K. Sivaramakrishnan, ‘A limited forest conservancy in Southwest Bengal, 1864-1912’, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 56(1), 1997, pp. 75-112.

[8] Chetan Singh, Natural premises: ecology and peasant life in the western Himalaya, 1800-1950 (Delhi, 1998).

[9] Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier, Varieties of environmentalism: essays north and south (London, 1997); David Hardiman, ‘Power in the forest: the Dang 1820-1920’, in Subaltern Studies, Vol. VIII, New Delhi, 1994; For a collection of important essays, see Guha and Arnold (eds.), Nature, culture, imperialism; Ajay Skaria, Hybrid histories. Forests, frontiers and wilderness in Western India (New Delhi, 1999).

[10] N. Bhattacharya, ‘Introduction’, Studies in History, Vol. 14(2), 1998, pp. 1-2.

[11] For instance, of the eleven articles collected in Nature, culture, imperialism, none focuses on any territory outside the post-colonial state of India.

[12] Birendranath Ganguli, Trends of agriculture and population in the Ganges valley; a study in agricultural economics (London, 1938).

[13] Sugata Bose, Peasant labour and colonial capital: rural Bengal since 1770 (The New Cambridge History of India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 8-37.

[14] For important research on tenural land relations in eastern Bengal, see Sirajul Islam, Bengal land tenure: the origin and growth of intermediate interests in the 19th century (Calcutta, 1988), Rent and Raiyat: society and economy of Eastern Bengal, 1859-1928 (Dhaka, 1989); See also Agriculture and Human Values, (special volume: development pressures and ecological constraints—the deltaic forests of India and Bangladesh), Vol. 7(2), 1990.

[15] The social and economic development in eastern Bengal readily reminds one of the great American historians, Frederick JacksonTurner, who highlighted the formative role of the American West as a frontier zone. Yet, the Bengal frontier was not perpetually fixed as the American West. The active delta was constantly being expanded as land formation went on. The process of reclamation of the vast forests of the Sundarbans also meant that the frontier could be pushed to some extent. Thus, eastern Bengal, as a frontier zone, remains an important area of research in its own particular context. See F. J. Turner, The frontier in American history (New York, 1921). For a critique of the place of ‘frontier’ in environmental history, see David Arnold, The problem of nature, pp. 98-108.

[16] S. Bose, Peasant labour, p. 4.

[17] Some major post-colonial works include Sarvepalli Gopal, The permanent Settlement in Bengal and its results (London, 1949), Ranajit Guha, A rule of property for Bengal: an essay on the idea of Permanent Settlement (Paris, 1963); Sirajul Islam, Permanent Settlement in Bengal 1790-1819 (Dhaka, 1979); Badruddin Umar, The Bengal peasantry under the Permanent Settlement (in Bangla, Dacca, 1972); Muntassir Mamoon ed., Permanent settlement and Bengali society (Dhaka, 2002).

[18] See Safiuddin Joardar, ‘Tenancy and land revenue in the non-permanently settled areas of Rajshahi: some case studies’, The Journal of the Institute of the Bangladesh Studies, Vol. III, 1978, pp. 1-12; Also note Rangarajan’s remarks: ‘even decades after the Battle of Palashi in 1857 [sic], the Bengal government was unable to impose the Permanent Settlement in many areas. It had to make do with alternate arrangement that took account of sub-regional features of landscape and society’, See Mahesh Rangarajan, ‘Polity, ecology and landscape: new writings on South Asia’s past’, Studies in History, new series 18(1), 2002, p.142.

[19] Greenough suggested that the thinly populated Sundarbans ‘played only a peripheral role in Bengal’s social geography and market economy’, see Richard Grove (ed.), Nature and the Orient (Delhi, 1998), p. 263.

[20] The writer is indebted to Willem van Schendel for his comments on this point.

[21] G.E. Gastrell, Geographical and statistical report of the districts of Jessore, Fureedpore and Backergunge (Calcutta, 1868), p. 25.

[22] O.C. Lees, Waterways in Bengal: their economic value and the methods employed for their improvement (Calcutta, 1906), p. 9.

[23] NAB, Communication, Building & Irrigation (henceforth CBI) dept (Railway branch), bundle 1, Unrecorded Files, file no. 7: N. Pearce, Agent, Eastern Bengal Railway to G.G. Day, Chief Engineer to the GoB, 30 October 1928.

[24] Ibid., p. 10.

[25] The Times, 13 October 1922, p. 11.

[26] D. MacPherson, Final report on the survey and settlement operations in the districts of Pabna and Bogra, for the years 1920-1929 (Calcutta, 1930), p. 22.

[27] Benoyendranath Banerjee, ‘Some economic problems of Bengal-1: The water hyacinth’, The Bengal Co-operative Journal, Vol. XIX(1), 1933, pp. 32, 35.

[28] Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings (BLAP), Vol. LII(2), 1938, pp. 224-25.

[29] BLAP, 5th session 1939, Vol. LIV(4), p. 93; also see BLAP, Vol. LVI(1), session 7, 1940, pp. 273-74.

[30] BLAP, Vol. LIV(5), pp. 32-33

[31] Bengal Legislative Council Proceedings, Vol. XXXIV(3), pp. 609-610.

[32] ‘Lilac Devil in Bengal’, Ananda Bazar Patrika, 21 August 1928, p. 12.

[33] Mostopha Kamal Pasha, ‘Water Hyacinth’, Banglapedia.

[34] Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge, (J.T.) Donovan Papers, File I, Bengal 1927-1931: ‘Tour diaries of the Collector of Bakarganj’, p. 2.

[35] Babu Nibaran Chandra Das Gupta, BLCP, Vol. 1(3), pp. 76-77.

[36] W M Spira et al, ‘Uptake of V. cholerae biotype El Tor from contaminated water by water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes)’, Applied environmental microbiology, Vol. 42, 1981, pp. 550-53.

[37] NAB, Agriculture and Industries dept (Agriculture), bundle 34, list 14, file 10: C.A. Bentley’s note on 15 Feb 1921.

[38] NAB, A report by S.N. Sur, Assistant Director of Public Health, Malaria Research Unit, Bengal, 24 Sept. 1926; for the government’s concern about public health due to water hyacinth in the river Korotoya, see Comm. of Rajshahi Div to Secy of GoB, Local Self-Govt Dept., 6 Apr. 1926, NAB, Public Health dept., bundle 8, list 4, ‘B’ progs, file P.H. ID—6/27; The debate whether mosquitoes could thrive with the water hyacinth was alive also in the US about this time. In response to the suggestion by a biologist that the growth of the water hyacinth over the surface of a body of water was immediately followed by the destruction of mosquito larve in that water, another biologist, Alfred Weed, referring to the result of his research, noted that the growth of water hyacinth over the water ‘followed by a great increase in the mosquito population’. See, Alfred C. Weed, ‘Another factor in mosquito control’, Ecology, Vol. 5(1), January 1924, pp. 110-11.

[39] Benoyendranath Banerjee, ‘Some economic problems of Bengal-1’, The Bengal Co-operative Journal, Vol. XIX(1), 1933, p. 33.

[40] Babu Nibaran Chandra Das Gupta, in BLCP, Vol. 1(3), 1921, pp. 76-77; See also M. Azizul Huque, The man behind the plough, (Calcutta, 1939), p. 16; L.S.S. O’Malley, Bengal District Gazetteers: Faridpur (Calcutta, 1925), p. 8.

[41] A ‘rational’ approach is reflected in the activities of the Faraizis who saw the clear link between chars and diaras and forests reclamation and the commercialization of agriculture as well as the weakening of the Permanent Settlement-led modes of exploitation. For the ‘rational peasant’ thesis, see Samuel L. Popkin, The rational peasant: the political economy of rural society in Vietnam (Berkeley, 1979).

[42] The bhadralok was certainly not a monolithic social category. In the nineteenth century, they included petty clerks, print and railway workers, tenure holders, zamindars as well as formidable capitalists. What gave a stamp of homogeneity to their diverse social standing was the emerging nationalism in the early twentieth century that prompted the ‘ideological dissolution of class conflict’. For an elaborate argument in this regard, see, Tithi Bhattacharya, The Sentinels of Culture (New Delhi, 2005).

[43] Sumit Sarkar, ‘The conditions and nature of subaltern militancy’; Also noteworthy that during the nineteenth century, the lower order of the Muslims and the Namasudras were ‘economically and culturally on the same level’, See Nripendra Kumar Dutt, Origin and growth of caste in India (Vol. II, Calcutta, 1965), p. 154.

[44] For an elaborate discussion of the issue, see Taj ul-Islam Hashmi, Pakistan as a peasant utopia: the communalization of class politics in East Bengal, 1920-1947 (Boulder, 1992).

[45] The question of communalism has been subject to much debate. Remarkable researches include Joya Chatterji, Bengal divided. Hindu communalism and partition, 1932-1947 (Cambridge, 1994).

[46] Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines. An essay on entitlement and deprivation (reprinted, Oxford, 1988), pp. 70-75.

[47] On the idea of political ecology, see Dimitrios I. Roussopoulos, Political ecology: beyond environmentalism (Montréal; New York, 1993); Paul Robbins, Political ecology: a critical introduction (Malden, MA, 2004).

[48] Gramsci’s observation might be relevant here: ‘there was an almost constant interaction between the peasantry and the professional petty–bourgeoisie of the small towns. This reinforced the aspirations of the peasant towards achieving higher status for family members, not least for the easing of the economic life of the peasant which connection to higher status networks was expected to bring.’ See Philip Cooke, ‘Class practices as regional markers: a contribution to labour geography’, in Derek Gregory and John Urry editors, Social relations and spatial structures (London, 1985), p. 215.

[49] John McGuire, ‘Using geographical indexing system (GIS) in the social sciences: the bhadralok of Calcutta 1857-1885’,, pp. 1-3, last accessed, 20 April 2005.

[50] Report of the census of India, Vol. .5, 1931, Bengal, part 1, (Calcutta, 1933), p. 454.

[51] For a theoretical focus on such connection, see Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the prison notebooks, pp. 273-74; It may be noted here that whereas Gramsci gives equal weight to the agency of ‘rich peasant’ as well as urban middle class, the subalternist historians, who are said to be influenced by Gramsci, of Bengal attributed the sole agency of agrarian hegemony to the peasant.

[52] One consequence of the involvement of the bhadralok in agrarian eastern Bengal was that between 1905 and 1944, ‘private capital drained steadily from east to west, following bhadralok interests that moved wealth from eastern low lands to Calcutta; while in the east, peasants used capital for basic needs, including rental payments to bhadralok landlords and interest payment to moneylenders to secure peasant property and family survival’, see David Ludden, ‘preface’ to David Ludden (ed.), Agricultural production, South Asian history, and development studies (New Delhi, 2005).

[53] For an interesting and elaborate discussion of ecological issues in early Pakistan period, see Ahmed Kamal, ‘Pani, Jonogon and Purbo Banglar Rajniti 1947-54’, Notun Diganta, Vol. 3(3), 2005, pp. 11-31.

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