During my final semester in Virginia Tech’s Online MNR program, I joined a group of students and faculty from the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability on the Spring 2019 Global Study. Our transformative, eye-opening journey to the eastern Indian state of West Bengal began in Kolkata.

Local impacts of global environmental change  The effects of planetary environmental crises are already being felt in India. Heat waves, such as the one currently impacting India, have only been increasing in frequency and intensity, leading to summer high temperatures that are growing unbearable. Global upticks in temperatures and sea levels are swallowing islands and threatening coastal cities, from Mumbai in the west to Kolkata in the east. In fact, Kolkata has been called a “climate casualty.”

Environmental and demographic trends in India  India faces an aggregate ecological deficit and poor terrestrial ecosystem productivity across much of the country. On a national scale, India’s overall ecological footprint already exceeds its total biocapacity. Regionally, in many of the most heavily farmed areas across northern and central India, water and organic nutrients are being consumed far more rapidly than they are being replenished.

Such factors further contribute to existing trends of long-term rural-urban migration and seasonal migration to cities, as rural residents can no longer subsist off the land. While the speed of urbanization (PDF) in India has not been as rapid as in some other parts of the globe, between above-noted trends and the expected surge of climate refugees into its cities, India must address growing challenges in its already densely populated megalopolises.

Urban development and wetland ecosystems  One of our first forays was to the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW), a unique geographical area included on the Ramsar Convention’s List of Wetlands of International Importance. Situated on the peri-urban periphery immediately adjacent to Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the wetlands are comprised of salt marshes, salt meadows, sewage farms, and settling ponds.

Notably, EKW serve as “the kidneys” of Kolkata, providing low-cost treatment for the three-quarters of municipal wastewater that enters the wetlands untreated. A third of that sewage feeds several thousand tons of fish and vegetables farmed in the wetlands, providing livelihoods for tens of thousands of cultivators and traders as well as affordable, fresh, nourishing food for Kolkata’s middle and working classes. For advocates of the wetlands and those who live and make their livings among the wetlands, such ecosystem services (i.e., the benefits derived from the wetland ecosystem) reflect and contribute to the “positive ecological footprint” of the city’s poor.

rooftop ponds
Looking out onto fishponds from a local resident’s rooftop. Photo Credit: Sourav Guha.

The uneven topography of political power and processes  The East Kolkata Wetlands are the site of a number of tensions and challenges, some visible and others less so. The most obvious conflict pits preservation of the wetlands and those whose livelihoods are directly dependent upon them versus encroaching development (e.g., real estate, roads). Given that the wetlands also provide critical ecosystem services and food for the inhabitants of the city, the underlying struggle is one that pits the ecological and agricultural dependence of the city’s residents on its diminishing natural capital versus the structural dependence of politicians on prospective funds from real estate and speculative finance.

As elsewhere, real estate development often renders many existing residents silenced and unseen, with thousands displaced every time a “slum has been bulldozed to make way for a high-rise residential building.” More broadly, such battles over rights to land and livelihood are evident and prevalent across the Global South. In the words of Shela Sheikh, a British scholar of globalization and postcolonial studies, human rights violations “have been and often continue to be carried out through the natural environment, using scorched-earth tactics, environmental remodeling, industrial-scale agriculture, the creation of enclosures, dispossession through land-grabbing, and so on.”

Notwithstanding the specter of new luxury residential and office buildings and transportation infrastructure creeping ever further into the western and northern reaches of the wetlands, these visible battles are often ones about which the residents and local activists feel pressured into silence. They fear that the developers, and the politicians they financially support, may respond to any vocal criticism and objections with violence.

Considering benefits, costs, and competing claims  There are obvious benefits to continued fishing and farming in the wetlands, as noted above; but we should also resist the urge to romanticize these residents, as the benefits of their engagement with the wetlands also reflect their own profit motives and earnings opportunities. The fisherfolk with whom we spoke articulated a sense of possessing rightful and longstanding claim to earn sizable profits from their ongoing pisciculture. Such earnings are effectively premised on profits gained from their own privatization of the wetlands.

Both their arguments and silences alike illustrate how perspectives and priorities are shaped by relative positions in economic and social-ecological systems. For example, for the most part, their arguments did not speak to economic and ecological benefits for residents of the broader urban area. Likewise, their consumption and waste practices, such as plastic use and disposal, did not indicate an appreciation of how their own behaviors may be contributing to the deterioration of the wetlands.

To the extent that the traditional economic activities of EKW fisherfolk result in enormous positive externalities (i.e., beneficial spillover effects) for Kolkata residents, public policy should protect such livelihoods. These positive externalities certainly stand in stark contrast to the negative externalities that would arise from the loss of wetlands and increase in impermeable surfaces that accompany real estate development. Yet, to the extent that the behaviors of the wetlands residents themselves contribute to the degradation of the wetlands, public education and outreach efforts, paired with policies to restrict or ban plastics, could very well contribute to improving the state of the wetlands.

Our engagement with residents and advocates of EKW foregrounded the obligation we have, as students of global sustainability, to consider thoughtfully and critically the distributional effects of development efforts: Who and what are being sustained, and who and what are being developed? Who will benefit from current trends and proposed policies? What is being left out or left unsaid?


Sourav Guha

Photo credit: Sourav Guha