Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta announces a shift in gears within the bourgeoning and bustling field of the environmental histories of South Asia. Instead of taking the familiar route that revisits themes in the existing canon—forests, irrigation, and carnivore control—Debjani Bhattacharyya cuts an altogether fresh path by exploring how radical ecological change was critical to the making of urban colonial Calcutta (today’s Kolkata). The core claims in the book pivot on the many arduous British efforts from the late eighteenth century onward to transform Calcutta’s soggy marshy origins into landed concrete spaces—the firmed-up surfaces upon which were built residential, commercial, and industrial infrastructure and the basis for widespread financial speculation in real estate.
Whereas much of the detail on the drying out of British India’s premier colonial city can be found in a fairly voluminous documentation on drainage works, reclamation projects, and hydraulic engineering schemes, these admittedly technical accounts, we are cautioned, fail to meaningfully grasp the actual “secrets-of-land-making” (p. 1). transformation of “floating watery soils” into firm land, Bhattacharyya argues, was principally an ideological project that was profoundly underwritten by the notion of landed property, which, as a “legal technology” to “demarcate land, marsh, accretion and water,” actively triggered the clotting of Calcutta into urban soil (p. 23). Colonial landed property, moreover, by being set on a treadmill of economic valuation inevitably transmuted into the archetypal capitalist commodity: subject to the logics of the market and the relentless pursuit of profit. Unsurprisingly, therefore, as Calcutta in the early decades of the twentieth century began to explode into a crowded city—short on space, cramped with people, and lacking affordable housing—a thriving and ferocious urban land market burst forward. While Bhattacharyya does provide a riveting account of the aggressive jostling for land among an increasingly vocal working class, sundry lobbies of builders, extortionate landlords, the oscillating fates of rent speculators, and various interventions by municipal authorities, the discussion, however, is more pointedly aimed at returning us to the “secret.”
What finally emerged from the protracted confrontations over land scarcity, we are told, was a less advertised, if not entirely unstated, consensus among the various contending urban interests: that the outlying marshes and untidy swamps were “lands-in-waiting” rather than distinct hydrological phenomena (p. 172). This unanimous and determined call for cutting off the city from its “watery hinterlands,” in Bhattacharyya’s estimate, actually sought to mask a radical ecological rupture by which land and water were meant to be split into distinct and separable entities, instead of being acknowledged as ecologically entwined domains and integral to Bengal’s deltaic environments.More at H-Water.