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Faces of FRIAS: Debjani Bhattacharyya

Meet the people behind the research projects! In our Faces of FRIAS series, we introduce you to current and former Fellows of our institute. For this article, Kristiana Filipov, undergraduate student at Princeton University and staff writer at the Daily Princetonian and the Nassau Weekly, interviewed FRIAS Fellow Debjani Bhattacharyya, one of the researchers of the Balzan-FRIAS Project in Global History.


A different look at the history of climate science 

Battacharyya-Portrait Faces-of-FRIAS

I meet Debjani Bhattacharyya via ZOOM for the interview. The Associate Professor of History currently works on a  research project called “Climate Futures Past: Law, and Climate Science in the Indian Ocean World.” Starting out initially as a student of English literature, how did she come to focus on this particular field of historical research?


Interviewing the homeless in Calcutta

Debjani Bhattacharyya grew up in Calcutta, India, and spent her early career working with The Calcutta Samaritans and the School for Women's Studies at Jadavpur University to interview the homeless of her native city. As she developed connections with the working poor, she began to investigate the history of homelessness in Calcutta. She started her research in the archives of the city, looking for eviction notices and land confiscations that could provide some indication of when and how homelessness became such a problem.


A different story in the archives: the importance of water for understanding the history of the land-market

As she dug through the archival material, she found that multiple of the legal documents reflected property disputes surrounding the ownership of different bodies of water, marshes, and deltas. At first, she ignored these conflicts over water and sent the documents back.

Bhattacharyya describes the moment she changed her mind about these archival materials and the importance of water for understanding property: “I remember it was August, in monsoon, and I came out of the archives, and I was knee-deep in water. So much of Calcutta’s history is all about ‘from marsh to metropolis’—which is also the title of two books about Calcutta’s history”, she says. “The history as we know it states that Calcutta was a swamp, and it was drained. And I’m standing there, thinking ‘it is actually still a swamp!’”

She soon realized that maybe there was a different story in the archives. Perhaps she should study the history of water drainage and development in Calcutta, which might also shed light on the history of other cities that were once swamps—such as Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Berlin. “At that point, I realized that there is a particular relationship between law and ecology that we need to understand in order to see what’s going on,” she says.

 Post Office Calcutta

Photo: General Post Office and Reserve Bank of India, Calcutta, India © Vyacheslav Argenberg


Economic vs. ecological philosophy of urban planning

Bhattacharyya discovered how the making of cities like Calcutta helped to develop a method of urban planning that focused more on profitable uses of marshland and swamp areas than it did on understanding the ecological realities of how water behaves. This economic rather than ecological philosophy of urban planning has caused the high prevalence of flood risks in these kinds of cities, as water levels rise and natural disasters increase in frequency.

Professor Bhattacharyya explains how this shift took place and why it causes problems in modern cities, saying that “Amitav Ghosh, in his book The Great Derangement argued that most of the 19th century cities were not built by understanding land-water relations, but built on the energy economy. Once we reached the industrial revolution and the coal-based economy began, our city-building patterns changed. He argues that because it saved money to build the ports close to the river to limit the cost of fuel, 18th and 19th century cities were all built too close to the rivers, while the older cities (like Amsterdam and London) are not. So, he argues that those 18th and 19th century cities should not have been built so close to the shore in the first place. The problem is that we were thinking too much in terms of cost efficiencies rather than in terms of how long a city might last.”

Professor Bhattacharyya’s research reveals that poor communities–who live in the plains and former marshes of cities like Calcutta–suffer because of how humans have constructed those cities, vulnerable to natural disasters, rather than only because of the weather. This research culminated in her first book: Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta.


The political dimension of generating scientific knowledge

Professor Bhattacharyya’s current research project focuses on the study of legal records from the 18th and 19th centuries to illuminate how ecological knowledge production actually served an economic purpose. In the 19th century, the need for insurance in trade hubs in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean Sea served as a major incentive for the development of scientific research about cyclones, monsoons, and hurricanes.

Monsoons and cyclones as defined in terms of property preservation

old title page

Bhattacharyya explains how the generation of scientific knowledge depended on trade and empire: “Specifically, meteorology and climate sciences really emerged in the financial bodies of the empire,” she tells me. “If you think about it, during the 19th century the intense trading networks developed in the Caribbean, which had the slave plantations, and in India, where there was opium, tea, cotton, and indentured laborers after the end of slavery. So, the global GDP of the world was coming out of these two places, which constituted the major hubs of shipping routes. But these are also extraordinarily turbulent spaces: you have hurricanes on one side in the Caribbean, and you have cyclones and typhoons on the other side in the Indian Ocean, and from the late 18th century onwards there was an enormous effort put in by marine insurance companies to generate knowledge about these things and to adjudicate on damage claims.”


The field of climate sciences, especially as it relates to monsoons and cyclones, is therefore still framed and defined in terms of colonial trade endeavors and the preservation of private property. Bhattacharyya points to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, the most widely used 1-5 scale to measure the intensity and danger of hurricanes to this day: Herbert Saffir, one of the developers of the scale, was a civil engineer who created the scale to measure the potential damage that a hurricane could incur on densely populated areas. But this has the effect of disregarding the damage done on areas not populated by humans, as well as rural areas that are less densely populated, therefore valuing certain human lives over others.


A new type of history

Given the challenges the world faces today because of the looming threats of climate change, Professor Bhattacharyya’s historical research helps us to better see the human causes behind natural phenomena. The stories we tell about urban and scientific development can often be shortsighted and narrow in focus. By using legal records as an entry point, Debjani Bhattacharyya has uncovered the threads of a new type of history that takes into account the impacts of both science and politics on our everyday lives.


Learn more about Debjani Bhattacharyya and her research project and the Balzan-FRIAS Project in Global History on the FRIAS website.

Article by Kristiana Filipov


Associate Professor Debjani Bhattacharyya © Debjani Bhattacharyya

General Post Office and Reserve Bank of India, Calcutta, India © Vyacheslav Argenberg

Title page for A system of the law of marine insurances, ca. 1800. Source: Fondazione Mansutti