Land Use and Environmental Change in the Gangetic Plain:
Nineteenth-Century Human Activity in the Banaras Region
Robert G. Varady
Kashi is not of this earth, they say, no part of the terrestrial globe, for that rests on the thousand headed serpent Ananta; whereas Benares is fixed on the point of Shiva's trident. While it is in the world and at the very center of the world, it is not attached to the earth. No earthquake is ever felt within its holy limits, and in consequence of its peculiar position it escaped destruction during a partial overwhelming of the world.
According to Brahmin tradition, as illustrated above, Banaras transcends its earthly locale. But in a more temporal sense, this ancient city has been an integral part of its Gangetic environment.
Other chapters in this volume have placed Banaras within a social context and discussed its cultural identity. Preceding chapters have illustrated that the character of modern Banaras has been shaped by its unique institutions, its inhabitants, and their activities. But without an adequate resource base to sustain and nourish urban vitality, the city could not have prospered. Here I shall examine the nature of the relationship and dependence between Banaras and its physical surrounding. During the mid to late nineteenth century these surroundings were subjected to pressures that altered the landscape and affected the ecological balance. The following will identify major agents of change and describe and assess their effects.
Current historical writing on South Asia is richly diverse and broad in scope. But until recently the topics treated often lay within narrow confines. Historical study of environmental change usually remained outside the realm of traditional inquiry. A brief discussion of its antecedents, therefore, can serve as a contextual marker.
Historians of South Asia, inheriting the legacy of colonial writers, tended to focus on political might and associated personalities. For some this interest led to studies of the roots of such power. In India with its vast arable terrain and agrarian society, influence required control over land tenure and revenue. Accordingly, during the 1960s numerous historians explored Indian agriculture and reconstructed the dynamics of administration, settlement, and rural economy. The resulting studies, while innovative, still converged on powerful individuals, elites, and institutions and the influence they wielded. Residents, rajas, zamindars, talukdars, jagirdar s, and moneylenders; prominent clans, Hindu temples and math s, Islamic orders, and British government filled the pages of these works.
More recently, beginning in the early 1970s, some scholars have turned their attention from land revenue to land use . This new approach has resulted in two noteworthy shifts of emphasis: (1) from affluent elites to peasants and workers, and (2) from wealth and productivity of land to alteration of land and the attendant consequences. These shifts have yielded new historical studies of forest administration; change in the vegetation; development of roads, railways, and irrigation; sanitation and public health; and urbanization. The topics can be categorized as ecological, since in each case a primary concern is the relationship of the environment to social, economic, and political affairs.
During the past dozen years scholars such as Bayly, Clark, Hagen, Haynes, Klein, Ludden, McAlpin, Oldenburg, Richards, Tucker, Whitcombe, and Yang have addressed various aspects of this relationship. In the process, they have created an abundant and fascinating literature, which contributes significantly to our understanding of colonial India. A notable feature of this historical work is that it is rendered from exceptionally scanty resources. Ecology and environmental degradation interested early observers, chroniclers, or administrators only insofar as these processes affected productivity, revenue, and public health. Historians investigating environmental change and its impact, therefore, have needed to examine sources particularly closely and employ them creatively.
In nearly all ways the Banaras region has been a prototypical central-Gangetic-plain tract dominated by a large urban center. For centuries Banaras shared many of the characteristics of such relatively nearby locales as Patna, Ghazipur, Allahabad, Faizabad, Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra, and Mathura. In common with these towns, Banaras originated in ancient times, lay on a Gangetic river, exploited a fertile hinterland, developed into a commercial hub, grew to formidable size, and served as an administrative capital during Mughal and British times. And in withstanding the innumerable political changes that followed its establishment, Banaras shared with its neighboring communities a strong sense of survival. For all of northern India, as C. A. Bayly has observed, lay in a zone precariously exposed to variable and volatile climate (Bayly 1983:74).
To facilitate survival in the face of political and environmental uncertainty, Banaras relied on a strong sense of identity. Like Hindu Ayodhya (Faizabad), Prayaga (Allahabad), and Mathura, and Buddhist Pataliputra (Patna), Banaras remained a major center of religious pilgrimage. Accordingly, the city has been associated with Hindu religious sympathies throughout its existence (Calcutta Review 1864:256).
But at least two factors distinguished Banaras from its sister pilgrimage sites. First, Banaras was centrally situated astride the Ganges and at the hub of an ancient subcontinental road network, within reach of western, central, and eastern India. More important, Banaras was perceived as the center of the world, the place of creation, the holiest spot on earth, the ultimate destination for all Hindus (Eck 1982:5–6; Havell 1905). Endowed with such authoritative religious sanction, it easily surpassed other centers in importance. And benefiting from ecclesiastical supremacy, Banaras achieved secular prominence. From its alleged founding in the sixth century B.C ., the city grew to be one of northern India's largest by the early nineteenth century. The Banaras region, moreover, was one of the most densely populated on the subcontinent, more than twice as dense as any European country.
It is Banaras's religious uniqueness, its resultant preeminence, and its magnetic appeal which set it apart from otherwise similar regions. These features have shaped the development of the city and its envi-
rons. Dense population and continuous pilgrimage have spawned persistent environmental consequences.
Environment and Resource Base
Banaras is situated approximately halfway between Delhi and Calcutta, in the heart of Gangetic India. Since Mughal times the city has been within a district (zillah) of the same name. During the nineteenth century the district was the size of Rhode Island (2,600 square kilometers). The district came under British domination by 1781, administered first within the Bengal Presidency, then the North-Western Provinces, and finally, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh.
The Banaras region lies within the Middle Ganges Plain; more specifically, at the southwestern corner of the lower Ganges-Ghaghara doab (interfluve). The terrain throughout this portion of the Ganges drainage basin is flat and slightly elevated (eighty meters). Banaras city is situated fifteen meters above the Ganges, on its northern bank. The river constitutes the southern border of the district, until just before the city. At that point the Ganges turns northward, bisecting the district before reaching Ghazipur. Within this portion of its course the Ganges has flowed stably for centuries, but seasonal flooding leaves small lakes (jhil s[*] ), used for irrigating crops. At the eastern extreme of the district the Ganges is joined by the Gomati and then the Karamnasa River.
Thus drained by these three rivers and a number of smaller streams, the district has possessed abundant surface-water resources. One consequence is the region's rich alluvial soils, deposited by the Ganges and its Himalayan tributaries. Textures vary from sandy to loamy to clayey, but virtually all the soils of the region have been fertile and nonsaline. Additionally, alluvial soils tend to be porous and are able to store groundwater. Aquifers exist, and the water table is generally high, permitting exploitation for drinking and irrigation. Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century groundwater surveys did not exist for the region, and tube-well irrigation was infrequent.
In addition to possessing fertile soils, the area lies within a zone of adequate average rainfall. Nevill, writing in the 1909 district gazetteer, listed the mean annual precipitation for 1864 to 1906 as 1,000 millime-
ters. But as Bayly has noted, variation was extreme, ranging from a minimum of 540 milimeters to a maximum of 1,620 (Nevill 1909a:22; Bayly 1983:74). There is little evidence to suggest that the region's climate has changed significantly over the past several centuries. Impressed by the soils and water resources of the area, early Europeans traveling through the district and nineteenth-century administrators were uniformly sanguine about the region's agricultural potential.
It is likely that this agricultural potential was in fact intensely exploited. Already by 1820, according to the region's first gazetteer, nearly all arable land was being cropped. Tens of centuries of human occupation and agriculture had stripped most of the original vegetative cover (Hamilton 1820:306–8; R. L. Singh 1971:204–5). According to Nevill, by the turn of the century no forest remained, only jungles. In the remaining jungles, wildlife population and diversity has been reduced appreciably. Banaras, Nevill wrote, had become one of the province's poorest districts in regard to fauna. Once abounding in predators, deer, and antelope, the area retained only a rich bird population (Nevill 1909a:14, 17–18).
As for nonrenewable natural resources, the Banaras region has been poorly endowed. The alluvial plain is devoid of all rock but limestone (kankar ) and contains no minerals. Kankar , gravel, sand, and clay were the only useful products. These were employed in road building, construction, brick making, and the manufacture of lime. The nearest commercial stone quarries were in nearby Ghazipur, Chunar, and Mirzapur (Hamilton 1820:303; Purser 1859:563; Nevill 1909a:15–16).
As was indicated above, Banaras is situated in a zone that Bayly has termed agriculturally "stable." During Akbar's time the region was known to be productive, and records indicated that urbanization induced substantial increases in cultivated area during the seventeenth century. In the 1820s Hamilton and Heber noted continued extension of cultivation, increased demand and high prices of cropland, and shortage of grazing land. By 1848 Shakespear reported in his statistical survey that 71 percent of the district's area (181,000 hectare) was culti-
vated (Shakespear 1848: 154; Heber 1828:255; Bayly 1983:76; Sinha 1974). Although Hamilton's and Shakespear's figures can hardly be considered accurate, it is probable that cultivation did increase throughout the region during this period.
Given the high proportion of sown acreage, further extension was limited. A survey in 1878–1882 showed a mere 2.4 percent increase in sown area. In the district gazetteer Nevill considered even this small gain illusory, attributing it to previous underreporting of terrains in the Ganges floodplain. The reported total remained essentially stable through the rest of the century, prompting speculation that the limits of cultivation had been attained. As late as 1931 cultivated area stood officially at 74.7 percent of total area (Nevill 1909a:31–32; Ganguli 1938:6).
From the beginning of British rule, then, agriculture seemingly occupied most of the arable terrain. Cultivation, as was shown, was being extended to its limits. Two additional developments may be noted; irrigated area was increasing, and more and more land was being double-cropped. Heber, on his approach to Banaras, observed that the country was "imperfectly" irrigated. Certainly he saw no canals, for there were none. The topography of this portion of the Gangetic plain has not been conducive to canal irrigation. First, the large rivers lay too far below their adjoining banks. And in some places outlying water-deficient areas were at higher elevations than the rivers. In the absence of canals, growers employed floodwater, jhil s[*] , tanks, and wells to irrigate their crops. The earliest semireliable estimates of irrigated area are from the late 1880s. From then to the end of the century, one-quarter to two-fifths of cultivated land (40,000 to 64,000 hectares) reportedly was irrigated, depending on annual rainfall—the less rain, the more irrigation (Nevill 1909a:42–43; Administration Report 1896–97:6).
In contrast to the early extension of cultivation and irrigation, double-cropping remained uncommon until the latter part of the century. Shakespear fails to mention this mode of farming. Nevill, without indicating the source for his estimates, lists the 1840 double-cropped area as a mere 2,700 hectares (1.7 percent of cultivated area). By 1886, according to his data, the acreage had risen twelvefold, to 34,000 hectares (21.3 percent of cultivated area). If subsequent figures are indicative of general trends, this area fluctuated widely each year. In the four growing years beginning in 1896–97, 31,000, 24,000, 37,000 and 35,000 hectares were reported to be double-cropped. Like irrigated areas,
these areas varied in proportion to annual rainfall, and observers have noted a close correspondence between irrigation and double-cropping (Nevill 1909a:32–33; Administration Reports 1896–1900:6; Ganguli 1938:45). Since both practices were associated with improved yields, exaggerated reported increases may have served to illustrate progress under British rule.
The crops grown in Banaras were typical for the region. Fertile soil, good drainage, and adequate rainfall enabled rice cultivation. Rice remained the leading crop throughout the century, covering as much as two-fifths of the terrain sown in the autumn (kharif[*] ). Barley was the next most common superior grain, followed by inferior grains and pulses (jowar[*], bajra[*] , peas, gram , and arhar ). In addition to grains and pulses, major crops were sugarcane, which decreased in importance, opium, fodder, fruits, and vegetables (Nevill 1909a:34–41; Administration Reports 1896–1900:6).
Livestock, an important component of the agricultural system, were not generally bred locally, but were imported and purchased at fairs. Although pastureland was limited, the numbers were nevertheless great. Cattle were not enumerated until the end of the century; by then the census listed some quarter million bulls, bullocks, cows, buffalos, and calves. Another 100,000 sheep, goats, mules, donkeys, and horses made up the remaining livestock population. Changes in this population are difficult to estimate, but Nevill believed that the number of goats and sheep had declined, mostly because of extended cultivation (Nevill 1909a: 19–21; Administration Report 1896–1900:6).
Human population size in the various districts greatly interested British administrators. Yet for most of the nineteenth century census figures remained quite unreliable, often suggesting puzzling or contradictory trends. Recently developed techniques have permitted historians to adjust these figures in order to estimate more accurately some characteristic features of population. Alice Clark employs some of these methods to analyze fertility and mortality trends in Banaras (Clark 1986).
Of interest here are the effects of population pressure on environmental resources. As was noted above, the population of Banaras city was one of northern India's largest throughout the nineteenth century. As a result, the district's population density was listed as the highest in the province. In 1872 it was estimated at more than 300 persons per square kilometer, a representative figure for most of the century. As in much of north India, the measured population of Banaras remained
stable, having attained a relative maximum by mid-century. In fact the low variation in this measure (300 to 350 per square kilometer) seems to mirror the stability of cultivated acreage, which was also reported to have achieved a relative maximum at that time (Shakespear 1848: 12–13, 154; Plowden 1873:xxv, 2–3; Hunter 1881:532; Nevill 1909a: 83–85).
It would be deceptive, however, to suppose that stability in population size and cultivated acreage precluded pressure on land. On the contrary, population increase may have been limited by poverty-induced high mortality, rather than by prosperity. Crowding, land scarcity, and low productivity likely exerted continuous pressure on available resources (Klein 1974:194–99).
Physical environment is subject to continuous modification from natural causes, such as tectonic forces, temperature extremes, fire, wind and river erosion, vegetation processes, and animal action. No less than natural agents, human actions can result in widespread and irreversible environmental change. Many of these processes occur insidiously over prolonged periods. In such instances, the effects often are cumulative. Other human actions may be more sudden and concentrated, resulting in immediate and noticeable change.
Whether continuous or precipitous, these human actions frequently have degraded the affected environment. The nineteenth century, a time of British consolidation in Gangetic India, witnessed both types of phenomena. Traditional environmental alterations continued, while imported technologies introduced new, more threatening agents of change.
Agents of Continuous Change
The Banaras region, like most of the Gangetic plain, has been continuously populated for some twenty-five hundred years. In the process local residents established an important urban center, maintained its streets and buildings, connected it to other communities, supplied its industrial needs, and fed its population. Throughout this time human occupation affected the surroundings in a variety of ways.
Land Use and Resource Depletion . Over the centuries while Banaras city grew, its inhabitants exploited the adjoining terrain and its resources.
They cultivated the land to near capacity; hunted wildlife; raised livestock; and extracted timber, fuel, stone, sand, clay, and groundwater. Those materials and supplies which were unavailable locally were imported and brought in by road or stream.
As Banaras continued to grow and prosper, surrounding lands strained to supply the rising needs of the city and its visitors. By 1800 the region's resource base was becoming strained. The town itself was built on the site of the legendary Forest of Bliss. But by the nineteenth century, according to Diana Eck, townspeople retained only memories of the once luxuriant woods. One central neighborhood came to be known as the "Cut-Down Forest" (Eck 1982:29).
In the countryside, too, large tracts had been cleared for farming, leaving only isolated trees and planted groves. The extensive fields in place by 1800 blanketed what was once a natural habitat of dense forest. The original cover included stands of valuable trees, such as sal (Shorea robusta ) shisham (Dalbergia sissoo ), jaman (Eugenia jambolana ), mahua (Bassia latifolia ), ber (Ziziphus jujuba ), pipal (Ficus religiosa ), neem (Azadirachta indica ), pagun[*] (Bombax ceiba ), banyan (Ficus bengalensis ), tamarind (Tamarindus indica ), and babul (Acacia arabica ). Apart from isolated stands near villages, few of these trees remained in the nineteenth century. Grasses and shrubs, too were continuously grazed and harvested for manufacturing bricks (Troup 1921, 2:8; 3:4, 147, 231; Stebbing 1922–26: glossary; R. L. Singh 1971:204).
This large-scale devegetation of the countryside put an enormous strain on the soil resources. No longer compacted by broad root systems, topsoils were swept away by floods and blown off by winds. And depletion of leguminous trees and shrubs deprived the earth of the nitrogen-fixing action of roots, leaving soils deficient in bacterial content. The stresses of repeated cropping and traditional shallow tillage minimized soil rotation, accelerated nutrient depletion, and reduced fertility. Finally, with firewood growing scarcer owing to devegetation, manure was employed as fuel, reducing the input of fertilizer (Crooke 1897:322–34).
The familiar cycle of deforestation, reduction of biotic diversity, soil erosion, reduction of fertility, and decline in productivity certainly was manifest in the Banaras region. The responses to this process were equally common: extension of cultivation to terrains previously considered "wastelands" or "barren" lands; increased irrigation; or multiple cropping.
As was noted above, British observers asserted that Banarsi cultivators increasingly adopted irrigation and multiple cropping techniques. Reclamation of barren land also occurred but was severely limited by availability. Already by the end of the eighteenth century most such land had been plowed and sown. Although varying perceptions of what constitutes wasteland render that term ambiguous, figures confirm that little such terrain was available by the 1840s. It appears that the amount may have decreased somewhat between 1848 and 1872 (from 19 to 15 percent), but stabilized at the latter level through the rest of the century. There is some evidence, meanwhile, that farmers were simultaneously abandoning previously productive lands. In 1788 Jonathan Duncan had already noted the desertion of formerly productive fields. Nearly a hundred years later the provincial land-settlement report of 1872 estimated that 5 percent of cultivated land had been recently abandoned (Shakespear 1848: 169–70; Colvin 1872, Appendix:16; K. P. Mishra 1975:85).
In sum, despite an ostensibly stable population, pressure on farmland was demonstrably heightening. The measures taken to compensate for erosion and soil depletion aggravated the situation. Each of the three alternatives employed—reclamation, irrigation, and multiple cropping—was intensive, adding further stresses on finite resources.
Religious Activity and Environmental Pollution . The processes described above were principally rural and resulted from land use intensification. Their effects were to degrade a limited resource base. Such phenomena have been common to many societies and typical for much of agrarian north India.
Considerably less typical and far more controversial have been the alleged ecological consequences of religious activity in Banaras. As the principal focal point of Hindu pilgrimage and the leading center of Brahmin ritual observance, Banaras has drawn enormous numbers of visitors throughout the year and on special occasions. It is principally the Ganges that affords this distinction, and it is on its banks that most activity occurs.
Primarily as a result of the vast number of participants, the riparian environment has been affected. Crowding, sewage generation, and the influx of ill visitors have caused serious public health concern since the beginning of the colonial period. Other actions may have contributed in small ways to riverine pollution, but their effects have been consistently overstated. Throughout British rule, Hindu religious practices were termed responsible for the pollution of the river and the adjoining areas.
For centuries throngs of pilgrims have converged on Banaras. In addition to the daily arrival of Hindus seeking personal salvation, sea-
sonal fairs or eclipses drew occasional crowds of a hundred thousand or more. These congregants required food, drink, and other substantive needs, adding further pressure on overtaxed resources (Hamilton 1820:301; Nevill 1909a:66–67; 1909b:85; Oude and Rohilkund Railway 1875:1169; 1878:1057; K. P. Mishra 1975:67). Their contribution to local degradation has been notable, but environmental pollution due to their presence has been a lingering concern. This is particularly ironic given the religious function of Banaras: to purify and cleanse ritual pollution. Diana Eck notes the importance of running water in general, and of Ganges water in particular, in purification. But this notion, as she recognizes, is unrelated to microbial purity (Eck 1982:216–17).
To colonial observers, eager to introduce Western hygienic principles, Hindu practices appeared unclean. Perceiving a real threat to their own health and well-being, Europeans eagerly condemned certain ritual acts. With the advent of the germ theory, objections that had been merely moral were accorded scientific sanction. By the 1850s a burgeoning body of literature joined religious criticism with social outrage and fear (Calcutta Review 1848:404–36; 1851:156–230; 1864: 253–94).
Foreign observers repeatedly cited the infectious nature of practices they found deplorable. Of these, perhaps the most shocking to British sensibilities was the Hindu custom of cremating the deceased and casting the remains into the Ganges. In theory cremation itself was not objectionable. In practice, however, it was noted that scarcity of fuel often resulted in incomplete cremation. The consequences of partial consumption aroused an outpouring of righteous anger among British residents and administrators. They were appalled by "scorched trunks" thrown into the Ganges to float toward the sea "in a state of horrible decomposition, poisoning the water of narrow streams, or sickening the eye, whilst tumbled in the torrents of the Ganges" (Calcutta Review 1848:416; 1851:222). Additional concern was aroused by other aspects of cremation: decomposing corpses awaiting cremation, and burial of incompletely burned bones and dead animals.
On several occasions colonial officials attempted to intervene, citing public health considerations. In one such action in 1868 the Banaras Municipal Board asserted its right to close burning ghats or cemeteries deemed problematic. Within days, after reassessing the effective threat posed by the ghats and gauging popular feeling, the Magistrate repealed the proclamation (Bharat Jiwan [23 September] in SVN for 1912:898).
Disposal of human and animal bodies in the Ganges was another source of English consternation. Although these acts occurred, it is unlikely that their volume could have appreciably affected the quality of the water. Modern residents of Banaras, including the present Maharaja, insist that the above allegations are inaccurate and overstated (N. Kumar communication, March 1986).
But if the burning ghats were unlikely sources of pollution, other long-term human actions measurably affected the quality of the Ganges and its banks. The dumping of waste, sewage, and industrial effluent into the river; the bathing of persons and cattle; the washing of clothes and vessels; and emissions of noxious smoke represented real hazards. In addition, poor drainage allowed accumulation of stagnant waters in ponds (Bharat Jiwan [1 May] in SVN for 1893:191; Gopalkrishnan 1985:3–4). As early as 1864 the Calcutta Review noted that the "water is of deadly influence, and the vapour from which fills the air with fever-breeding and cholera-breeding miasma." The journal called for immediate steps to improve drainage in the vicinity of the ghats (Calcutta Review 1864:293).
Sensitized by the press, authorities and local residents feared the percolation of toxins and pollutants into the groundwater. In response, in 1886 concerned citizens formed a local pollution-prevention society, the Kashi Ganga Prasadini Sabha. The Sabha's primary objective was to eliminate river contamination, undertake a drainage scheme, and purify drinking water. Nevill reported that the project was completed in 1892. But in February 1893 the Bharat Jiwan of Banaras complained that drains had yet to be constructed and that wastewater continued to flow through city streets. And K. S. Muthiah, writing in 1911, confirmed the failure to implement its scheme (Nevill 1909a:262–63; Administration Report 1896–97: 167; Bharat Jiwan [6 February] in SVN for 1893:69; Muthiah 1911:164).
Perhaps the greatest immediate threat to public health was posed by the streams of crowds from throughout India, whose mere presence acted as a universal disseminator of infection. Since Banaras has been a magnet for persons wishing to die in the holy city, many visitors have been aged and generally in poor health. Accordingly, the city has been subjected to epidemics of cholera, typhus, and plague, and to chronic outbreaks of malaria and dysentery. The mortality rate from disease remained one of the province's highest through most of the century (Shola-i-Tur in SVN for 1871:704; Administration Report 1896–97: 6–7; Klein 1974:210).
One supposed factor contributing to epidemics was cited in an 1848 issue of the Calcutta Review . According to the author, sick and infirm individuals, "anxious for their rewards in the next life," were being en-
couraged to set up residence in crowded, damp, unsanitary huts by the river. The article decried this practice, which it termed "ghat murders." Certain that the custom hastened death, the author warned against the "unsalutary" effects of the vicinity (Calcutta Review 1848:404–36).
While similar issues surfaced in other cities, the status of Banaras as the country's leading pilgrimage center heightened British sensitivity to the polluting aspects of religious activity. Sentiments shared by Europeans elsewhere in India found clear expression in Banaras. Certainly, fears of contamination and deadly disease were not baseless. But many observers were unable to distinguish between the real dangers to public health resulting from unsanitary practices and assumed threats posed by certain ritual acts. The resulting mix of missionary righteousness and scientific theory directed unexpected attention to the environment, but the attendant rhetoric often obscured the nature of the problem.
Modern Agents of Change
The processes described in the preceding section resulted from ongoing practices, not from any sudden changes. Ninteenth-century improvements in transportation facilitated travel and thus increased pilgrimage to Banaras. The greater traffic placed additional stress on local resources and accelerated riverfront pollution. The modern transportation network and other newly established public works also had a more direct impact on regional environment. Roads and railways were superimposed on the rural landscape. First their construction, then their operation and maintenance, resulted in pronounced and usually permanent modifications of the terrain (Varady 1981, 1985a, 1985b).
Public Works Construction . From the 1830s to the end of the century northern India underwent a period of intense public-works construction. Cognizant of the benefits of improved communications, the ruling East India Company initiated a vigorous program for road improvement. Even earlier, in the first years of British administration, Collector Jonathan Duncan had authorized road improvements near the city. The first major project was a complete renovation of the old imperial highway connecting Bengal to the Punjab. Renamed the Grand Trunk Road, this throughfare was graded, then metaled (paved) with crushed limestone. Other provincial roads to Ghazipur, Jaunpur, Allahabad, Mirzapur, and Sasaram soon received similar attention. During the decade 1840–1850 alone the British constructed some fifty thousand kilometers of roads throughout their Indian territories (Abbott 1846:56–74; Sanyal 1930:3).
Even before the provincial road network was completed, the government turned its attention to railways. By the mid-1840s entrepreneurs
and administrators had discussed the idea in England, and soon they took the first steps to actuate their decisions. By 1854 the first train of the East Indian Railway Company (EIR) left Howrah to initiate the line that would parallel the Grand Trunk Road to Delhi and the Punjab.
For the next eight years the tracks crept toward Banaras. Construction continued northward through Bengal up to the Ganges, and then via Bhagalpur and Patna along the southern bank to Mughal Sarai, across the river from Banaras. After the completion in 1862 of the 860-kilometer route from Calcutta, construction continued on to Mirzapur, eventually to join the branch descending from Kanpur (East Indian Railways 1853–63; Bengal Past and Present 1908:55–61; Varady 1981:51).
Building roads and railway lines was both labor intensive and resource intensive. In each case, after rights of ways were secured the surface needed preparation. Gangs of thousands of beldar s[*] (laborers) from the nearby countryside were hired. Housed in meager shacks, underfed, and overworked, these laborers commonly were ill. Epidemics among road and rail gangs were frequent and destructive. There are records of camps of ten thousand losing up to a third of the workers to cholera and other diseases. Worse, the contagion often spread to nearby towns (Varady 1981:188–89; United Provinces Public Health Dept. 1903).
The work teams were employed to clear jungles of vegetation, excavate tree roots, flatten roadbeds, lay gravel or limestone, dig drainage ditches, construct embankments and berms, and bridge streams and nalla s. Additionally, railways required placement of creosoted sleepers (ties) every seventy-five centimeters (Bingham 1858:3–21; Muir 1858: 277–79).
The quantities of materials required were prodigious. To complete eighty kilometers of railway tracks in Banaras district, the contractor executed 1.2 million cubic meters of earthwork and 6,000 cubic meters of brickwork; in addition, 210,000 cubic meters of ballast were used. Limestone, gravel, and sand were obtained from neighboring floodplains and carted to the sites. The effects of such large-scale removal have not been studied, but elsewhere quarrying of stream beds has seriously affected flow and drainage patterns (Purser 1859:563; Davis 1985:1–5).
In the case of rail lines, vast amounts of timber were used for sleepers. Based on figures used by Tucker for the Rajputana Railway, tracks in Banaras district alone would have required a hundred thousand sleepers. Although some hardwood sal remained available in the region, stands were too depleted to furnish the railways's needs. Instead, the wood was imported, either from England or from the upper
Gangetic tracts northeast of Delhi, forested with deodar (Cedrus deodara ). The demand on Himalayan timber resources was thus considerable, especially since sleepers needed replacement every five years (Tucker 1983:160–61; East Indian Railways 1856:505; 1859a:531).
Although timber was not available in Banaras, local firewood and charcoal supplies were employed to make burnt-clay ballast and to bake the bricks used for bridges, stations, and culverts. In any case, as a Calcutta correspondent wrote to the Times in 1862, "the want of India is daily becoming more and more a want of wood." In the Banaras region, as in the rest of northern India, the railways clearly were agents of deforestation (East Indian Railways 1859a:531; 1862:555).
Road and Railway Operation and Maintenance . Devegetation and resource depletion were two important results of road and rail construction. Once in place, the networks continued to affect the surrounding environment. First, roads and railways, by their very presence, interrupted natural landscape. In the interest of efficiency and directness, they both sought linearity. Rather than skirting streams, it was cheaper to cross them. In nearby Son district the EIR alone constructed 240 bridges and culverts in 1860. Primary and secondary roadways also crossed rivers and streams whenever they were encountered. These interruptions interfered with drainage and flow patterns. Runoff characteristics, already altered by devegetation, were further disturbed. Instead of being stored in soils, water was lost to agriculture. Puddles and ponds were formed alongside thoroughfares, providing breeding habitats for disease vectors. Similarly, culverts silted up with lost topsoil. After heavy monsoon rains rushing waters created gullies and arroyos, further hastening soil erosion (East Indian Railways 1859b:1189–90; Colvin Gazette [15 April] in SVN for 1890:251; Hindostan [15 August] in SVN for 1902:527; Varady 1985b:2–3: Whitcombe 1972:12).
Partly from weather extremes, and partly from the relentless action of hoofed, wheeled, or rail traffic, surfaces needed constant repair and maintenance. Like the original construction, this activity required extensive labor and supplies. Metaled roads were paved smooth with ten centimeters of pounded limestone. Before long the road rutted and became impassable, demanding full resurfacing. Railbeds were similarly affected by rain, flooding, and heavy wear. Patrolling work crews added ballast and replaced broken and rotten sleepers. Upkeep of the nineteenth-century transportation network placed a continual drain on stone, sand, and timber resources.
Locomotives, moreover, required fuel. For much of the century engines burned wood, procured wherever it was sold, preferably in the vicinity of the route. So serious was the problem of supply that in the early 1860s, the Calcutta Review reported, "a great cry arose that
the Railway must soon stop for want of fuel." Though perhaps exaggerated, the concern was valid, as Indian railway operation consumed enormous amounts of firewood (50,000 kilograms per kilometer per year, according to one estimate). In some areas roots were burned as fuel. And by the mid-1860s some railway firms were calling for private fuel-wood plantations to meet growing demand. Only the advent of cheap coal enabled the EIR and other lines to continue operating (Calcutta Review 1867:262–327).
During the nineteenth century the area surrounding Banaras was rich in renewable natural resources and remained one of northern India's relatively prosperous areas. In most ways it typified the Gangetic plain. The region's one outstanding feature, its appeal to pilgrims, magnified similar conditions manifest elsewhere. A look at human-induced environmental change in Banaras, therefore, offers some insight into the processes of resource degradation and environmental pollution throughout the Gangetic belt.
Like other urban centers, Banaras relied heavily on local production of food, fuel, and building materials. The perpetual requirements of the resident population, coupled with the need to provide for millions of visitors, strained the capacity of the countryside to respond to the demand. Colonial agricultural officers, seeking to modernize farming and increase yields, introduced techniques that intensified cultivation. Production rose, but by the end of the century fertility was being depleted, and available cropland was diminishing. In the process, vegetation was being cleared to permit sowing, and soil erosion accelerated, threatening to reverse recent gains in productivity.
Other modern innovations brought further degradation of the rural environment. Road and rail construction scarred the watersheds and altered drainage patterns. And once in place, the new transportation systems continued to exact a toll from the surrounding terrain. Maintenance materials and fuel wood were constantly required, and the action of traffic hastened erosion.
Nearer the city, the presence of festival-goers, pilgrims, and residents affected the riparian environment. The quality of the river and of groundwater deteriorated, and epidemic disease vectors found hospitable habitats. Environmental health became a widely discussed issue among Europeans. Fear of disease prompted concerted attacks on religious practices seen as morally and hygienically unacceptable.
In sum, the effects of human activity in the Banaras region underlined the city's dependence on local resources and ecological stability. The prosperity and physical well-being of Banarsis required abundant agricultural production, a steady supply of construction materials, and a relatively disease-free environment. As this chapter has suggested, these conditions generally deteriorated during the nineteenth century.