“Kans is king and the cultivator is his subject”: environmental history and agrarian development in modern India
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Citation (published version)B. Siegel. 2021. "“Kans Is King and the Cultivator Is His Subject”: Environmental History and Agrarian Development in Modern India." Environmental History, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp. 102 - 126. https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emaa060
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cultivators and administrators in India contended with the ravages of kans grass (Saccharum spontaneum), a deeply-rooted wild sugarcane that rendered productive land wholly barren. Difficult to eliminate and endemic throughout India, kans proved particularly destructive in north and central India, particularly in the regions of Jhansi, Bundelkhand, and the Himalayan Terai. Yet the fight against this ecological antagonist was bound up in broader political transformations. As India’s colonial agriculture grew increasingly tied to global markets in the late nineteenth century, and these dry regions offered new possible spaces for settled agriculture, imperial administrators grew increasingly certain that mechanical tractors held the solution to its eradication. And as postcolonial Indian nationalists cast the production of abundant food as central to their political legitimacy, they held out the eradication of kans as a national aim, enlisting the World Bank as a partner. Yet by the 1960s, kans grass “disappeared” as an environmental foe, as faith in the promises of large-scale postcolonial planning were eclipsed by alternate visions of agricultural productivity. Pushing beyond the forests and waterways that have overwhelmingly characterized environmental history in South Asia, this article demonstrates how the ostensibly natural world could confound plans for agricultural development and the notions of state power which underwrote them. By taking up the region’s agroecosystems, this essay underscores the inexorability of ecological concerns to settled agriculture, and offers a reminder that weeds open windows into the intertwined histories of political and environmental change.