Towards an Anti-caste and Abolitionist Epistemology for Environmental Justice in Urban India
Keynote Talk at Urban Climates: Power, Development and Environments in South Asia
Dartmouth College, October 11, 2019
Caste and Brahmanical hegemony continue to influence, both subtly and explicitly, every aspect of the urban experience in India, from vegetarian-only rental stipulations and restaurants, to humiliating experiences in government offices for so-called Untouchable groups, to evictions and mass displacement of slum dwellers. In cities, the loss of land rights, unsafe sanitation and waste disposal, and flood and climate change risk—what I refer to as “environmental unfreedoms”—continue to be structured by caste, religion, and gender hierarchies in ways that critical scholarship has yet to take stock of. This talk puts forth an anti-caste epistemology for India’s urban environment. It draws on ethnographic and historical accounts of urban village commons, wetlands, and housing in Bengaluru from the colonial to contemporary period, as well as the production of environmental unfreedoms that beset Dalit and Muslim minorities. It argues that just as ecological dispossession is wrought by colonial and casteist property regimes, so too, do ecological justice frameworks arise from an articulation of Dalit spatial and land rights. Identifying productive tensions between postcolonial, anti-caste, and Black radical and feminist thought, at core, the talk seeks to build towards a politics of environmental justice, one rooted both in anti-caste praxis and a transnational ethics of freedom and abolition.
The Environment as Freedom: Racial Capitalism and Environmental Justice
Mellon Research Initiative on Racial Capitalism
University of California, Davis, April 29, 2019
In this Mellon Seminar, I discuss the ways in which I engage racial capitalism in my work on urban environmental justice. First, I start with major propositions in the critical race literature on liberalism, particularly relating to the making of property regimes. Second, I discuss the analytics of abolition and freedom and how what I’ve called “the environment as freedom” provides a subversion of liberalism’s entanglements with coloniality. I’ll talk about how this grounds my scholarly agenda empirically and theoretically in India and the US.
The Environment as Freedom: Decolonizing Property, Reimagining Justice
John Treacy Memorial Lecture, Yi-Fu Tuan Lecture Series
University of Wisconsin, Madison, March 15, 2019
In this talk I argue that the making of landed property is a vital yet neglected process driving urban environmental injustices. While critical urban scholars have typically studied property regimes and environmental inequality separately, the contribution of this research is to connect and mutually reinforce these two arenas and literatures. In so doing, I put forth a more intersectional and spatial framework for environmental justice. Drawing on over a decade of ethnographic and archival research on the political ecologies of water and land in Bangalore, India, I show that environmental injustices—too often framed as resulting from overpopulation, resource scarcity, or state incompetence—should be understood as rooted in projects of liberal empire, property, and difference. In colonial and postcolonial Bangalore, well-serviced residential property was carved up for the economic and cultural elite, leaving Dalits, Muslims, and other laboring classes to negotiate “unauthorized” or informal settlement. This has yielded poor water and sanitation, flooding, climate change risk, and eviction, as well as the further dehumanization and criminalization of minorities. Yet, the city’s privileged also manipulate law and use violence to assert their own property claims, much to the detriment of the city’s precarious ecologies and residents. Seizing on this contradiction, activists have reimagined justice in fundamentally rehumanizing terms, working both within and against the modern liberal state to demand “freedom” and ethical approaches to property and personhood. I conclude by reflecting on how and why the analytics of freedom, property, and decoloniality are theoretically significant for environmental justice scholarship in both postcolonial South Asia and North America.
Racial Liberalism and Environmental Racism in Flint, Michigan Cultural Racism and American Social Structure Speaker Series, RacismLab
University of Michigan, March 20, 2019
How do we understand Flint? How do we understand not just Flint, but the larger historical landscape of racial dispossession in which Flint is located, and in which certain bodies and spaces are enduring sites of “taking” and of violence—of robbed life years? How do we read such dispossession in ways that acknowledge—and disrupt—the very coloniality, the sanctioned illiberalism, of contemporary urban America? In this talk, I draw on my paper on Flint, MI to explain how “racial liberalism” undergirds its lead poisoning.
Unauthorized Urbanism: Empire and Property in the Ecological Present
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, November 9, 2018
Urban ecologies–from wetlands to coasts to vanishing pastures–are prime sites for capitalist accumulation. Such extraction is facilitated by the manipulation and blurring of licit and illicit practices of urban planning and demarcations of property. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research on land-water ecologies in Bangalore, India, this talk and book project argues that we understand the urban ecological present as rooted in projects of liberal property-making, empire, and difference. The talk discusses emergent solidarities that entangle anti-land grabbing and social justice narratives with environmental concerns. It concludes by discussing the openings posed by viewing these solidarities through the lens of a restorative and decolonial humanism.
The Infrastructural Turn in Urban Studies and Political Ecology
King’s College, London, October 10, 2018
Theorists from across the humanities and social sciences are increasingly engaged with the political question of infrastructure. These are the pipes, roads, ports, power lines, and rail lines that facilitate the circulation of goods and services, and the realization of their value and utility. Turning from traditional infrastructural questions of engineering and feasibility, scholars have asked what and how infrastructures reveal about socio-political, ecological, and spatial life. This panel is assembled to discuss the ‘infrastructural turn’ in general and in relation to the fields of political ecology, urban studies, and development studies.
Unauthorized Urbanism: Liberal Property-Making and the Coloniality of Rule
London School of Economics and Political Science, October 9, 2018
Drawing on ethnographic and archival research in Bangalore, India, this talk and book project in progress argues that Bangalore’s logic of unauthorized urbanism can be located in liberal and colonial projects of property-making and the cultivation of proper legal subjects. Well-serviced, formal residential property was carved up largely for the economic and cultural elite.
From Urban Resilience to Anti-Racist Climate Justice in Washington, DC
London School of Economics and Political Science, October 8, 2019
Across America’s cities, extreme weather events have had the most severe effects on those who are already affected by housing segregation, environmental racism, and the predations of real estate capital. Fostering “resilience” is proposed by experts as an overarching end-goal for vulnerable groups, placing the burden of “bouncing back” at local scales. This talk questions this framework, and argue that we move from resilience to a broader conceptualization of abolitionist climate justice. Drawing from black radical thought, feminist geography, and recent fieldwork in Washington, DC, antiracist climate justice would mean: (a) an historical appreciation of legacy racism and its afterlives, (b) an intersectional understanding of the drivers of precarity, particularly those related to hunger and housing, and (c) the centering of voices and everyday solidarities of those deemed most at risk to climate change, even if those voices do not articulate within a discourse of liberal environmentalism.
Unauthorized City: Entanglements of Water, Property, and Rule in Bangalore
Duke University, September 20, 2019
Drawing on over a decade of ethnographic and archival research, this talk argues that the logic of unauthorized urbanism is core, and not anomalous, to Bangalore’s postcolonial, liberal, and modernist trajectory. Through this logic, various state forms alternatingly produce and penalize “unauthorized” urban development in the interest of capitalist accumulation. Crucially, in a city known both for its wetlands and wetland reclamation, the material and political entanglements between land and water or what I call “land-water ecologies” are especially consequential for this logic. In turn, unauthorized development translates into unsustainable water extraction, unequal water access, and risky flood zones. In other words, multiple relationalities between land and water undergird the political logic of unauthorized urbanism.
From Urban Resilience to Anti-Racist Climate Justice in Washington, DC
Environmental Justice Speaker Series
University of California, Davis, June 4, 2018
Decolonial Ecologies: Climate Justice in the Anthropocene
Mellon-Sawyer Seminar on the Anthropocene Keynote Lecture
Georgetown University, April 5, 2018
Climate change catalyzes slow and fast violence in our cities. Yet it is the slow, everyday violence of urban evictions, segregation, flooding, thirst, and hunger—all of which disproportionately affect the life chances of racial, ethnic, and caste minorities—that we often fail to account for in our conceptualization of climate justice. Drawing on urban historiography and archival and ethnographic work in India and the US, this talk argues that we consider the long arc of urban ecological dispossession through the lens of liberalism, difference, and coloniality. It then reflects on how we can imbue climate justice with radical, decolonial meaning, especially given the limitations of the Anthropocene narrative.
Situated Ethics of the City: Narrating Corruption and Land in Contemporary India
National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, India, February 2, 2018
Since the publication of AT Ramaswamy’s Report exposing the magnitude of “land grabs” by powerful vested interests, activists have emerged to contest corrupt and irregular processes in Bangalore’s real estate, wetlands/lakes, and land via both direct action and the courts. Reflecting on over a decade of ethnographic engagement in peripheral Bangalore, and drawing from recent fieldwork, this talk analyzes the politics and ethics of land in contemporary urban India.
Racial Liberalism and the Coloniality of Urban Ecologies
Social Justice Institute Noted Scholars Series
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, November 2, 2017
How do we understand lead poisoning in water pipes, land dispossession and evictions, and real estate speculation on wetlands—all of which disproportionately affect the life chances of racial, ethnic, and caste minorities—as projects of empire and liberalism? Drawing on urban historiography and archival and ethnographic work in India and the US, this talk seeks to expose how race and other forms of difference subtly encoded within liberal urban policy and planning have had, and continue to have, a bearing on urban ecologies. Drawing on critical race and postcolonial theory, the talk considers if and how liberalism can be recovered and repurposed for emancipatory urban futures. Watch the recorded lecture at the link above.
Structural Racism in Planning, Pipes, and Policy
Environmental Justice Speaker Series
Boston University, February 22, 2017
The lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan is often framed as a case of environmental injustice given that the city’s population is majority black and poor. While I am sympathetic to environmental justice struggles and legislation, in this talk, I problematize liberal notions of racism based on malicious intent, and race as merely an explanatory variable for injustice. Instead, I trace the history of structural racism at the core of liberal urban planning and infrastructure governance in post-industrial America. I use the Flint case and the concepts of racial liberalism and racial capitalism to redefine (and return to) the notion of environmental racism that was abandoned in favor of “environmental justice” in the 1990s.