ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

First Nature and the State

Non-emergence of Regional Capital in Mandya

The process of policymaking in India has largely ignored the nature of the interaction between nature and institutions. One aspect of this interaction, that is, the consequences of the efforts of the state to overcome the constraints posed by nature is discussed in this essay. It does so by taking William Cronon’s concept of first nature to the southern Karnataka district of Mandya to argue that, despite the success of the Krishnaraja Sagar dam, small peasant agriculture that was the consequence, at least in part, of first nature limited the growth of agrarian capital in the district, leaving it dependent on state capital.

Among the less debated aspects that influence the devel-opment of economic policy, in a country that is as regionally diverse as India, is the importance of thegeographical features of each region in determining the trajectory of a regional economy. In a milieu where a great deal of emphasis, in policy documents at least, is placed on the development of appropriate institutions, we do not find similar sensitivity to regional variations. Indeed, there are instances of development of national economic institutions being carried out in a way that deliberately glosses over the demands ofregional variation. Arguably, the most striking case of this trend has been the sacrifice of regional stock exchanges at the altar of the two stock exchanges in Mumbai. The implicit view in policy circles would appear to be not just that institutions are more important than the geographical and other specificities of a region, but also that in the development of national institutions, regional institutions must, if need be, give way.

This dominance of institutions over geographical considerations in economic policy is not entirely endorsed by academic discourse. There has been a continuing spirited debate over whether it is institutions or local geography that can be considered the dominant factor in economic growth (Acemoglu et al 2002; Easterly and Levine 2003; Sachs 2003). It is notentirely surprising that evidence has been found for both sides of this argument. It is only to be expected that if resourcesembedded in local geographies can be important players in the growth process, much would also depend on the effectiveness of the institutions that enable the use of these resources. Rather than looking at the relative importance of geography and institutions, the more relevant questions would be: How do institutions and geography interact with each other in the growth process? Can institutions overcome the challenges posed by geography that go beyond the availability of resources? In the context of policymaking, what are the consequences of the efforts of the state to overcome the constraints posed by nature?

This essay seeks to address the last question with the help of the experience of the district of Mandya in south Karnataka that was once a part of the erstwhile princely state of Mysore. It does so by first briefly revisiting William Cronon’s distinction between first and second nature to generate a sharper focus on the interaction between first nature and the state. It then explores specificinteractions of the state in old Mysore with first nature, tracing it back to the second half of the 18th century. Based on that experience, it identifies the specific influences of first nature on the effectiveness of even a proactive state.

First Nature, Region and the State

The wide acceptance of the concept of first nature in new economic geography has not been without its costs. It has typically resulted in first nature being reduced to the resources that the geography of a region provides for the overall growth process. The extent of this reduction is minimised when we take a broader view of resources to include everything that contributes directly or indirectly to the creation of primary goods. This is evident in Venables’ view that “First nature simply says that some regions are favoured by virtue of endowments or proximity to rivers, coasts, ports and borders” (2003: 2). This would presumably allow us to take into account less recognised resources, such as traditional knowledge or a salubrious climate. It would also bring on board negative resources, such as the constraints nature can impose on growth in terms of, say, the inadequacy of water.

Even as this broader view is useful, it still tends to treatnature as a collection of individual resources. Often implicit in this approach is a hierarchy of resources where much attention has to be paid to the obvious ones, thereby underestimating what can be considered minor parts of the overall picture of nature in the region. While it is only to be expected that this approach has little patience with a tranquil nature undisturbed by economic growth, its survey of the elements ofnature that can, in practice, influence economic intervention is far from comprehensive. Several potentially critical elements of nature are dismissed as minor details. And, whenmajor economic initiatives are successful, the role of nature isitself typically forgotten. As Cronon noted in the case of Chicago, “In appearing to be a triumph of human labour and will, it concealed long-standing debts to the natural systems that made it possible” (1992: 264).

Such a nature-as-resources view can be particularly limiting for policymaking. An apparently minor element of nature can be dismissed as an environmentalist’s preoccupation. It often takes large-scale protests for the criticality of that element to be taken into account. It is not entirely unknown for large projects to be stalled by protests around aspects of nature that the project report may well have treated as a minor detail, if that. The interaction between nature and those involved in altering it is a complex process with technological, economic, social, political, and other dimensions to it. A meaningful analysis of the relationship between nature and the state would thenrequire a concept of nature that treats it as an integrated whole rather than a mere sum of its resource-related parts.

We may be better served by returning to Cronon’s original formulation of first and second nature. First nature, in his formulation, was pristine nature in its totality. Over time, as humans intervened in it, they often came to see the changed form as nature. This was evident in the case of large transformations, as in the creation of a city. In Cronon’s words,

The emergence of the city required that a new human order be superimposed on nature until the two became completely entangled. The result was a hybrid system, at least as artificial as it was natural, that became second nature to those who lived within it. (1992: 264)

The multidimensional process of the emergence of second nature includes a role for the state. Even when the state takes a back seat, it remains responsible for creating the conditions for individuals and other private initiatives to intervene innature. In cases where the state takes a more interventionist stance, its role in the emergence of second nature is necessarily greater. In the milieu of modern policymaking, it is often convenient to believe that the state with the power of technology behind it can completely remove any hurdles first nature may place in its way. Major state-supported technological initiatives have demonstrated that this can be so in specific cases. But, if we take a long-term view of the relationship between the first nature of a region and the state’s policy for it, the picture can be more mixed. Together with the projects where the state has overcome nature, there could be those where theexercise has been less successful. And, more than just counting the successes and failures, the continuous interaction between the state and first nature can create a dynamic of its own that has long-term consequences for the region.

In exploring such a relationship, the historical experience of Mandya district in the southern part of the old Mysore region provides an interesting example of the interaction between the state and first nature. Old Mysore was one of the pioneers in India of an interventionist state. It created the Mysore Economic Conference in 1911 that formed the basis for state-supported development. Six years later, the Mysore Economic Conference was converted into a permanent institution of the government (Urs 1953: 314–15). In 1919, the conference altered its organisational structure to consist of a Central Economic Board; three boards, one for education, one for agriculture, and one for industries and commerce, and another board for “research and advice” (Urs 1953: 12).

In his inaugural address to the conference, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV made a strong case for his emphasis on education (he provided the land and other infrastructure for the setting up of the Indian Institute of Science the same year). He went on to broaden the scope of the conference by arguing that “In starting investigation into the economic condition of the State, we shall be practically enquiring into the causes of ignorance, poverty, ill-health and premature deaths” (Visvesvaraya 1951: 44). After Visvesvaraya became the dewan in 1912, there was a concerted effort to give this a specific shape. His strategy of state-supported development based on local capital was made evident in his first address to the Mysore Representative Assembly in October 1913:

Foreign capital can be obtained if we are able to guarantee a fairreturn on the outlay … But large enterprises carried out entirely with outside help will not increase the capacity of our people or raise the status of the country. And unless in the fiscal and geographical area known as Mysore, the intelligence of the people, the natural resources and the available capital act and react on one another, and that with cumulative effect, the country cannot be said to be making any permanent progress. (Visvesvaraya 1951: 56–57)

The geographical area that Visvesvaraya referred to was clearly demarcated into the hills and the plains, or the Malnad and the Maidan. The transition from one to another in the 19th century was quite marked. “Dense forests, which shut in the view on every hand, give place to wide-spreading plains: the solitary farm to clustering villages and populous towns” (Rice 1897: 3, Vol 1). The clustering villages of the Maidan were surrounded by large tracts of land. The transition from the hills to the plains also affected the nature of the river systems. The river Cauvery began in the hills of Kodagu, bordering old Mysore, and flowed through the region before going on to what was then Madras to reach the Bay of Bengal. When the river settled into the plains, it could be tapped for irrigation by low dams that diverted water, using ancient technology of anicuts. But, for much of its journey through old Mysore, the embankments of the river did not allow for large-scale diversion of its water to agricultural lands. Mandya district, in this part of theCauvery basin, showcases an experience that providesinteresting insights into the relationship between the state and first nature.

The Experience of Mandya

At the turn of the 19th century, it was quite evident to the keen observer that agriculture in Mandya was marked by surplus land. Francis Buchanan during his journey through the region in May 1800 noted: “I went to Mundium [Mandya], through a country free from hills, but of which not more than one half is arable. Much of it, however, might be rendered so without difficulty” (1870: 38, VolI). The existence of uncultivated land that could easily be made cultivable suggests there was more land than the farmers could cultivate. In such a situation, land could not be an effective form of control within the village, as those seeking to farm could, rather than be subjugated by a landowner, move over and cultivate an uncultivated piece of land. The agrarian relations that then emerged were dominated by small farmers. In these agrarian relations, control of one group by another was through means other than land such as indebtedness and the social practice of caste. Some farmers through the means of indebtedness and caste could gaincontrol over jita (bonded) labour and, hence, cultivate larger tracts of land. But, even with this labour, the entire lot ofuncultivated land could not be cultivated at the end of the 18th century.

This tendency towards small peasant agriculture was consolidated by the land revenue system in place under the rule of Tipu Sultan. During this rule, which ended with Tipu Sultan’s death, the land had belonged to the sovereign. The ruler leased out land directly to the cultivator. Each cultivator and his heirs then had the right to occupy a particular piece of land “so long as they continue to pay the customary rent of the district … and when the tenant ceases to cultivate, the rightsrevert to the government, which is free to confer it on another” (Wilks 1864: 10).

The enforcement of such a system generated diverse reactions based on the land systems existing in a region, which in turn could have been influenced by the first nature of theregion. In regions where land was traditionally the primary source of control, the enforcement faced considerable resistance. This was typically in regions where there was a shortage of land, so that those who earned a livelihood from agriculture, but did not own land, were dependent on the landowners. This control was usually enforced by the landowner leasing out land to the cultivator. In such tenancy-dominated agrarianrelations, there was considerable resistance to any ruler who sought to brush aside the landlords and directly lease land to the peasants. It is, thus, not entirely surprising that in most of the areas where Tipu Sultan faced the greatest resistance,including Malabar and Dakshina Kannada, agriculture was marked by extensive tenancy.

In sharp contrast, in areas where the first nature was such that allowed for surplus land that could be brought under cultivation, small peasant agriculture prevailed. In such agrarian relations, there was no powerful landlord class and the dominant local farmers were primarily those who had administrative duties on behalf of the ruler. It was, thus, in the interests of the local powerful farmers to align with the ruler rather than challenge him. And, since land was relatively moreequitably distributed among the peasant households, there was also more widespread support for the ruler. The agrarian system in Mandya was, thus, consistent with the revenue system of Tipu Sultan and allowed for Tipu to have his capital, Srirangapatna, in the district. The influences of both the state and first nature coincided in the Mandya of the second half of the 18th century to produce the peasant agriculture that still exists in the region.

While this agrarian system may have been marked by consistency between the state and first nature, it was not particularly suited to the accumulation of capital by individual agriculturists. The natural and statutory limits on the size of farms constrained the overall surplus generated by individual farmers. In theory, it was possible that, with some farmers being more productive than others, there would be a differentiation in the peasantry. As the more productive farmers took over the land of the less productive ones, a class of rich farmers would emerge, with the capacity to accumulate substantial amounts of capital. But, first nature in Mandya placed a limit on this tendency as well. The largely dry land agriculture faced productivity constraints, with Buchanan noting of Mandya that “The soil is in general poor” (1870: 38). In these conditions, the differentiation between the more productive farmers and the less productive ones could not have been substantial. There was, thus, no inherent tendency towards the differentiation of the peasantry.

It was more than a century later that there was a concerted effort to change the economics of agriculture in the district. Technology had made it possible to build large dams that could extend irrigation to areas that the anicuts could not feed. Based on this technology, Visvesvaraya designed a 124-foot-high reservoir at Kannambadi, which later came to be known as the Krishna Raja Sagara (KRS) Dam. This major irrigation-cum-power project was to transform agriculture in the Cauvery basin, particularly in Mandya district.

The Project in Mysore

The project faced serious challenges both within old Mysore and outside. Within the state, there was the question of raising resources. The Maharaja delayed sanctioning the project. As Visvesvaraya saw it, “Some of the officers of the State, perhaps, dissuaded His Highness from spending as much as ₹253 lakh, which was the estimated first cost of the project at the time. Such a large amount the State had never spent before on any single project” (1951: 48). The challenge from outside the state came from the Madras presidency.Under the old technology, where irrigation was only possible in the lower reaches of the river, it was the presidency areas that were the major beneficiaries of the Cauvery. The coming of KRS raised the possibility, even though it was remote at the time, of the areasirrigated for centuries finding their water being constrained. It took Mysore a while to convinceMadras presidency that their supply of water was not threatened. An agreement was finally reached in 1924 only after it was decided that Madras would build a larger dam at Mettur, soon after the Cauvery enters that presidency.

While the project did overcome these points of resistance as it came into being, the essence of these arguments continued to guide its progress. The differences between Karnataka andTamil Nadu on the sharing of Cauvery waters continues to this day. What is of greater interest here is that the financial constraints meant that policymakers had to be very conscious of the earnings from the project. There was no delay in increasing the revenues charged to areas that wereirrigated by the project. Well before the project reached its full height, Dewan Kantharaj Urs announced in 1920:

the return for extra water which will in future be supplied from the channels may take the form of an additional percentage of increase in assessment in the case of lands only entitled to monsoon supply but which in future obtain water during the hot weather also, and that in regard to lands entitled to hot weather supply the increase should be restricted to what may fairly be due on account of the guarantee of supply in place of the uncertainty that prevailed before. It has also been decided that a proportionate rebate should be granted whenever such supply cannot be given for any reason. (1953: 128)

It was recognised that if the revenue from irrigated agriculture was to pay even a portion of the costs of the dam, thereturns to irrigation had to be substantial. This meant not just relying on the higher yields irrigation would generate, but also ensuring a system where the additional output would be absorbed by the economy. It was soon realised that thisprocess would not happen through private initiative alone. It toorequired state support. The response of the state in old Mysore was perhaps best described by Dewan Mirza Ismail in 1934:

Those who were responsible for the new scheme of irrigation encountered a serious difficulty, almost before the water was ready to be put on to the land, in the rapid fall of prices of agricultural produce. Fortunately, they had already provided in their scheme for the introduction of a new crop that was more profitable than rice in the shape of sugarcane. But it was a long step from telling people to grow sugarcane to organising the production on a scale suitable for factory use. New varieties had to be produced, new methods of cultivation and irrigation tried out and put into practice, and a satisfactory rotation arrived at. Arrangements had to be made to advance money to raiyats on reasonable terms and to ensure that they secured reasonable payment for their crop, and it had further to be arranged that the crop came forward to the factory in such quantities on each day that the factory could handle it and was not choked with cane in one period and stopped for want of it at another.

Again, it is desirable that there should be no avoidable waste inrespect of the by-products, and, therefore, it has been decided to utilise the molasses produced in the factory for distillation of alcohol, both potable and industrial, and government have agreed to the shifting of the Central Distillery from Bangalore to Mandya and to entrust the contract for the manufacture of country spirits to the Mysore Sugar Company for a period of ten years, in the first instance. (1936: 300–01)

It was expected that this state-led initiative would show the way for private investment to step in. The success of the Mysore Sugar Company would have been expected to be seen as an example for private investors to follow. In the best case scenario, agriculturists themselves could move up from only growing sugar cane to producing sugar. And having done that, move on to larger industrial initiatives. This did not, however, happen on a scale that would have led to the emergence oflocal industrial groups, as it happened in, say, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. And, one reason for the absence of suchhome-grown industrial capital could be because of Mandya’s small peasant agriculture.

Even with the benefit of irrigation, the earnings of the largest farmers in Mandya could not be compared with that of very large farms in, say, the irrigated tracts of coastal Andhra Pradesh. The potential to generate large-scale agrarian capital was thus limited. Moreover, since irrigation benefited smaller farmers as well, it served to encourage them to remain in agriculture. Studies such as that of Scarlett Epstein have demonstrated that while those in dry villages tended to move out, the beneficiaries of irrigation stayed on in agriculture. With small farmers not inclined to move out of agriculture, the scope for a differentiation of the peasantry, where the rich farmers buy the land of the small farmers, did not exist on any considerable scale. Thus, while Mandya was positioned to benefit from agrarian development, it was not in a position to extend that success to a wider transformation of the district’s economy as a whole. Mandya benefited substantially from the green revolution. Yet, in terms of ranking of per capita income, it even trailed the plantation and industrialised districts of Karnataka soon after the green revolution in 1975–76 (Planning Department 1980: 7).


The experience of Mandya illustrates that the tendencyCronon (1992) noted for cities to forget the role played by firstnature extends to agricultural development as well. The success of the KRS dam in transforming agricultural productivity in Mandya, has typically overwhelmed an understanding of the role first nature played in this process. In the drive for agrarian growth, it is difficult to miss the fact that small peasant agriculture, which was the consequence, at least in part, of firstnature, limited the growth of agrarian capital in the district. At the same time, the aggressive technology drive of the state to overcome the constraints posed by first nature had itseffect on raising the earnings of farmers. Non-emergence of local capital, together with state-centred efforts to develop agriculture may have contributed to an agrarian system that is quite dependent on state support, despite being in one of the districts in Karnataka that have benefited from the green revolution.


Acemoglu, D, S Johnson and J Robinson (2002): “Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern WorldIncome Distibution,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol 117, No 4, pp 1231–94.

Buchanan, Francis (1870): A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar, Vols 1 and 2, Madras: Higginbotham and Co.

Cronon, William (1992): Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, New York: W W Norton and Company.

Easterly, W and R Levine (2003): “Tropics, Germs and Crop: How Endowments Influence Economic Development,” Journal of Monetary Economics, Vol 50, pp 3–40.

Ismail, Mirza M (1936): “Address to the Mysore Representative Assembly, 14 June 1934,” Speeches by Amin-ul-Mulk Sir Mirza M Ismail, Government Press, Bangalore, pp 294–312,

Planning Department (1980): Economic Survey, 1979–80, Bangalore: Government of Karnataka.

Rice, B Lewis (1897): Mysore: A Gazetteer Compiled for Government, Revised Edition, Vols 1 and 2, Westminister: Archibald Constable and Company.

Sachs, J D (2003): “Institutions Don’t Rule: Direct Effects of Geography on per Capita Income,” Working Paper No 9490, National Bureau of Economic Research.

Urs, M Kantharaj (1953): Speeches of Rajasevadhurina Sirdar Sir M Kantharaj Urs, Mysore: Government Press.

Venables, Anthony J (2003): “Spatial Disparities in Developing Countries: Cities, Regions andInternational Trade,” Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science, London.

Visvesvaraya, M (1951): Memoirs of My Working Life, Bangalore: M Visvesvaraya.

Wilks, Mark (1864): “Report on the Interior Administration of Resources and Expenditure of the Government of Mysore, 1805,” Selections from the Records of the Mysore Commissioner’s Office, Mysore Government Press, Bangalore.

Updated On : 17th Nov, 2017


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top