Mukherjee, J. 2020. Blue Infrastructures: Natural History, Political Ecology and Urban Development in Kolkata. Springer. ISBN: 978-981153950-3. 263p. €60.
Affiliated Researcher, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University; email@example.com
To cite this Review: Gogate, M. 2021. Review of "Blue Infrastructures: Natural History, Political Ecology and Urban Development in Kolkata", Springer, 2020, by Jenia Mukherjee, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/240-Blue
Jenia Mukherjee’s Blue Infrastructure studies the troubled processes by which Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) was created as a city by separating land and water. The monograph, in essence, debates the larger project of urbanization within a dynamic deltaic landscape dominated by Kolkata’s “blue infrastructures” ─rivers, multiple streams, tributaries, lakes, ponds, wetlands and deltas. It documents and traces how a slew of grey infrastructures such as canal networks, drainage projects and sewage systems were implemented to achieve a ‘dry city’.
Mukherjee adopts what she calls a Historical Urban Political Ecology (HUPE) framework, to capture how Kolkata’s viability as an urban space also ended up being the basis for its vulnerability as a city. Further, by linking urban environmental history with urban political ecology, Blue Infrastructure helps to map the complex and many-sided interactions between Kolkata and its blue infrastructures.
This book begins with a brief introduction of the fluid features of the Bengal deltaic region and the construction of Kolkata on the Bhagirathi-Hooghly River by the initiatives of the East India Company in the late seventeenth century. In the first two chapters, Mukherjee recounts the various debates and discussions that proved critical in the choice of the Company officials to select the site for building the city of Kolkata. Notably, the colonial anxieties and fears about malaria and their need to reconcile the “English idea of a river” against what appeared to them to be “inhospitable and uninhabitable spaces” (p. 37).
Despite natural challenges, Mukherjee clarifies that the colonial administration decided to tilt in favour of founding Calcutta within the deltaic stretch as the marshes and the flowing rivers offered various “ecological advantages” in enabling riverine trade and profit too.
Chapter 3 expands upon the land and water binary by detailing how colonial concerns for instituting landed property, intended for revenue collection, compelled them to invest in various projects such as drainage, sewerage works, excavation of canals and reclamation in order to drain the surrounding swamps.
The story of the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) is discussed in chapter 4, which looks at the various interventions to deal with drainage and how these infrastructures impacted the salinity of marshlands. This chapter also helps the reader understand how the tidal river Bidyadhari gradually lost access to its upper catchment because of relentless interventions to dry it, which led the river to be declared ‘dead’.
Chapter 5 illustrates how, in the initial period of colonial rule, steamboats were able to take advantage of the network of rivers and canals and were even able to move deep into the interior part of Bengal to expand trade and commerce. Eventually, these canals and channels lost their prominence owing to the “railway bias” (p. 128). In later years, in fact, this very same dense network of canals ─ once choked with trading boats and crafts ─ were repurposed for sewage disposal. The canal system was also significantly disturbed by the enormous expansion of settlements and rapidly growing population. Mukherjee helpfully traces how the “saucer-shaped” geomorphological feature of Kolkata city located along “strong tidal rivers” causes it to become more vulnerable to tidal and flooding events. The author, in particular, describes the critical changes brought about by wastewater discharges and its implications on sewage-fed ponds and the ecology of the river. The chapter neatly sums up the myriad issues involved in the collapse of the city’s drainage system aggravated waterlogging and brought about numerous ecological and social impacts.
Chapter 6 explores the various urban development schemes triggered by the economy and market forces. The city witnessed a surge of flyovers and township projects often overriding the legal protection provided to conserve the wetlands. In the final two chapters of the book, the global and national trajectory of Kolkata is discussed by focussing on sustainability, urban environment and heritage conservation initiatives. Mukherjee reintroduces concerns about the railway bias but this time by discussing how the Railways Act of 1989 played an important role in getting a favourable verdict for the metro rail extension project in court. By focussing on the metro rail, canal restoration and road expansion, she aims to capture how protest and oppositions to these infrastructure projects played out at two levels: environmental activism by the middle-class over the need to preserve “heritage” on one hand and the larger debate over “ecological subsistence”, on the other hand, as an aspect of global south environmentalism.
In sum, Blue Infrastructures offers a comprehensive study of modern-day Kolkata as a delta city, in constant negotiation with its fluid deltaic ecological context notably through a range of technological interventions. This book is an important addition to the growing field of urban ecology and provides us an excellent insight into the many challenges confronting cities in the global south as they try to reconcile the many challenges of urbanisation with their ecological constraints.