Curating hope for Kolkata’s (waste)waterscapes: An ‘ethno-graphic’ project

Ethno-graphy integrates traditional ethnographic methods with artistic and visual techniques. Jenia Mukherjee and Shreyashi Bhattacharya tell how they used this methodology with students and practitioners to promote new understandings of and relations with the East Kolkata Wetlands in West Bengal, India.

Figure 1: A scene from the students play where a Coliform bacteria sensitizes other non-human actors (Source: PEIP Team)

The context

The wetlands bordering the city of Kolkata in West Bengal, India (Map 1), commonly known as the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW), is a natural wastewater receptacle from the municipal canals, ensuring livelihood provisions to marginalized communities practicing sewage-fed pisciculture and agriculture in the region along inter-generational transmission of knowledge. Considering the wise use resource recovery practices, the EKW has been recognized as a Wetland of International Importance in 2002 by the Ramsar Convention. The development of this complex wastewaterscape began in the early twentieth century. The 1939 municipal plan co-created by the British colonists, the native engineers and the local zamindars (landlords) to solve Kolkata’s sewage disposal problem, whose deltaic geomorphology led to constant silting and defunctness of the inland waters that were usually assigned as wastewater outfalls, was a crucial step in this venture. Through this design, the intricate canal networks that were once designed by the colonists as utilities, now brought in the city’s effluents to the River Kulti through the saline marshlands, where effluent would be treated naturally by local communities, also drawing their sustenance from wastewater-fed fisheries. The EKW is a complex assemblage of technological apparatuses, social arrangements, (non)human entanglements, evolving and transforming along colonial and contemporary trajectories. However, this rich history remains under-explored: the discussions and discourses on EKW primarily dot decline narratives of disruptive (real-estate) developments perpetuated by the state at the costs of wetlands conversion.

Map 1: Kolkata’s drainage-sewerage-wetlands system (Source: Mukherjee 2022: 42)

The emphasis on clashing aspirations among the state, the civil society, and the wetland dwellers, in both scholarly and media representations, has made citizens to perceive EKW as a contested space. Moving beyond this linear narrative, we argue that this socio-ecological space is in dire need of deeper probing that challenges these dichotomies and curates hope for the wetlands through inclusive pathways. Our Practical Empirical Implementation Project (PEIP) on the EKW, where we deployed the “ethno-graphic” lens to critically engage with city-nature intricacies across temporal scales, was an attempt towards this direction.

The project

The Global Center of Spatial Methods for Urban Sustainability and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)-funded PEIP was designed as a collaborative exchange between researchers and practitioners to advance Sustainable Development Goal 11.4 (i.e. safeguarding urban natural and cultural heritage) with the use of urban spatial and visual methods. Here, researchers from IIT Kharagpur, India and members of the civic society group Disappearing Dialogues, worked together with the students of two government schools, Bamanghata and Kheadaha, located in the heart of EKW. The modus operandi of this project was to deploy the transdisciplinary “ethno-graphy” method, combining conventional ethnographic techniques such as transect walks, participant observations, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews, and visualization tools such as photography, videography, cartography, sketches, illustrations, etc. The hyphen in “ethno-graphy” highlights the integration yet demarcation of the two separate methodologies, that are succinct in their own ways, yet, can be enhanced through collaboration to engage multidisciplinary stakeholders. This transdisciplinary approach, aimed to activate the agency of the school students in the wetlands, beyond the normative perceptions of their inhabited space, and bring forth the unknown or often ignored everyday realities of the region, making them confront preconceived notions of urban-nature dynamics. The application of ethno-graphy, not only unveiled the lesser-known history of co-evolution of the city and her wider ecological infrastructures in the form of the wetlands, but also emerged as the methodology of communication, dissemination, and mobilization of this historical knowledge to the wider audience.

Ethno-graphic application

“Kolkata harms the wetlands”: this was the general perception among the students at the beginning of the project, reasserting the mainstream notion of an unequal relationship between Kolkata and her wetlands – the latter used as a disposal bed, and the former not only exploiting her ecological ingenuity as a sink, but also converting her through speculative urbanism (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Urbana – One of Kolkata’s premiere luxury townships encroaching on the wetlands
(Source: Urbana.co.in)

However, through their exposure to the water archives of the British colonial period, the students could put in perspective the emergence of EKW as a wastewaterscape embedded within the socio-hydrological embodiments, constituting the construction of a robust canal system and reclamation of salt water marshes during the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. The young adults studying in Grade VIII were trained in diverse spatial methods by the research team through training sessions organized at the schools’ premises and field trips to the sewage-fed fisheries, run by government, cooperative, and private stakeholders. There were storytelling sessions, where the importance of interviews, case narratives, transect walks, participatory photography, videography, cartography, sketches were explained, with the aid of graphical elements, making the project exciting and enriching for the students. Smart mobile phones were distributed to them to perform photography, videography, GIS tagging, audio-recordings of interviews, etc., where the students judiciously selected and integrated sets of methods to capture and disseminate historicity of the site embedded in everyday (in)tangibilities. The students learned of the co-involvement of various government agencies, municipal departments, engineers, and local communities in chalking out the 1930s-40s technical plan of disposing Kolkata’s effluent in the eastern marshes, and simultaneous promotion of sewage-fed agrarian and fishing experimentations, making Kolkata an affordable and accommodative metropolis till date.

The students were immersed in historical case narratives through academic sessions on archival history, where they got an opportunity to learn from primary texts including municipal reports, gazetteers, proceedings, revenue records, etc., complemented with transect walks in the bheris during the evening. Classroom lessons were applied in the field; the enthused pupils capturing and documenting inner mechanisms of wastewater recovery practices, the challenges and opportunities of this (un)familiar ecology, using multi-modal techniques. Immersive-interactive exposures on the life cycle of (waste)water and its metamorphosis into purified water with EKW as the agent were eye opening!

Multiple snippets of the functioning of the EKW along “sustainable flows” between the city and her wider environments (Figure 3) could be explored at through series of interviews and informal sitting-chatting conversations conducted with fishers, municipal engineers, irrigation executives, members of the East Kolkata Wetland Management Authority, and womenfolk engaged in different activities such as collection of snails, preparation of duck feed, etc. making way to the operationalization of this keystone ecosystem.

Figure 3: Sustainable flows between Kolkata and the East Kolkata Wetlands
(Source: adapted from Mukherjee 2015 and 2020)

The students prepared 3D models (Figure 4) of the bheris (wastewater ponds in the local Bengali dialect) with discarded household items or waste materials, depicting their newly acquired knowledge on the wastewaterscape. They presented these knowledge products to the bheri practitioners in locally-organized academia-practitioner workshops, explaining their understanding of the space and the role of the ethno-graphic method in capturing and developing the outputs.

Figure 4: 3D images of the social-ecological system
(Source: students’ team)

The D Day: Curating hope by exhibiting ethno-graphic outputs

PEIP ended with a public exhibition, where the students staged a patachitra play (a traditional performative Eastern Indian art form) in a metropolitan ambience that assembled dignitaries, scientists, and water heritage enthusiasts to curate (waste)water stories of, for, and by Kolkata – an urban delta that owes its origin to its waters.

In the play, the students camouflaged themselves as non-human actors who are part of the city-wetland linkages, such as crow, tree, fox, fish, and coliform bacteria (Figure 5). The play, explored the city-nature dichotomy, through the non-human voices, who, just like the students in the beginning of the project, perceived the city as the enemy, until the coliform bacteria, the micro actor playing crucial role in waste processing, came forward and reminded others about the city’s contribution in keeping the wetland alive (Figure 1). Through this theatrical presentation, the greying undertones of urban-nature relationship and the need for continued collaborative arrangements as a necessity for future sustainability was projected. The play was supported with sub-titles and visuals.

Figure 5: Scenes from the play (Source: PEIP team)
Figure 6: The patachitra ­– the cover design for the exhibition poster
(Source: Students’ team, under the guidance of mentor and visual artist Swarnadeep Bhattacharya, IIT Kharagpur)

The project, the products (Figures 4 and 6 as some examples), and the performance, invited and ignited curiosity among the participants and the larger audience regarding the wetlands and her embedded connections with the city. The students and the practitioners could now envision Kolkata as an ally and not an enemy, which seems to have curated hope for Kolkata’s wastewaterscape. The knowledge outputs, developed and exhibited by the young adults initiated critical discussions on the shared history and heritage of the region as a collaborative space – to be safeguarded with collective-inclusive endeavours and actions.

References

Mukherjee, J. (2015). Sustainable flows between Kolkata and its peri-urban interface. In A. Allen, M. Swilling, & A. Lampis (Eds.), Untamed Urbanisms. London: Routledge.

Mukherjee, J. (2020). Blue Infrastructures: Natural History, Political Ecology and Urban Development in Kolkata. Singapore: Springer Nature.

Mukherjee, J. (2022). “Living systems infrastructure” of Kolkata: Exploring co-production of urban nature using historical urban political ecology (HUPE). Environment and Urbanization 34(1): 32-51.



Cite this blog post
Jenia Mukherjee & Shreyashi Bhattacharya (2024, March 10). Curating hope for Kolkata’s (waste)waterscapes: An ‘ethno-graphic’ project. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vzsb

Jenia Mukherjee & Shreyashi Bhattacharya

Jenia is a transdisiciplinary water researcher focusing on delta ecologies of the global South. She feels excited to integrate and cross-fertilize multi-modal methods in exploring "many waters," with larger and deeper agendas of and conviction in "just" and inclusive knowledge to action pathways. Shreyashi has submitted her PhD research recently on the Adi Ganga - a distributary of the Ganga that flows through Kolkata - applying socio-ecological and environmental humanities perspectives. She is now working on internationally-funded projects on urban deltas of South and South-East Asia with Jenia.

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