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.