Histories and Ecologies in Western India

Chandana Anusha

The Gulf of Kutch, on the Western Indian coastline of Gujarat has long witnessed the rise and fall of ports and associated human settlements. The ongoing development of Asia’s largest container terminal in the region extends this legacy as it materializes the drive to transform an old walled town into a thriving hub of commerce and trade. However, the region’s legal status as an environmentally fragile zone and the existence of built structures that stand as monuments of transoceanic exchange subject the Gulf to multiple, often contesting imaginations. Territorial expansions entailed in the constructions and the spread of port-induced risky sediments into neighboring lands and waters have galvanized diverse claims to the coast.

In this paper, I explore the salience of history and ecology in shaping how coastal inhabitants encounter the transformations in which they are enmeshed. Treating the coast as an ecological entity – as a meshwork of human and non-human elements without a center or an edge – enables us to consider material and representational engagements both terrestrial and marine. It helps deconstruct how the dense network of biophysical and social relations comprising the Kutchi coast inform its depictions as a frontier outside space and time. 

Scholars have shown how seafarers, pilgrims and merchants have given life and form to the Indian Ocean rim. Environmental anthropologies have illuminated how marginal terrestrial farmers and oceanic fishers negotiate institutions of power that shape their access to the coast. A confluence of environmental and maritime histories will reveal the varied material investments that influence how people live amidst the threat of dispossession and intensified environmental degradation that accompanies the changes to the terrain. 

Taking an ethnographic approach to built and biophysical materials, I suggest that the substance and form of connections between the past and present inform the connections between land and sea, or what the coast means, for those who live and work there. Drawing upon my preliminary research, I look at oral histories on settled villages and a legal case that brings together fishers, traders, date-palm cultivators, farmers and activists. Through these, I explore how perceptions of the past and the future might be selectively deployed to legitimize people’s assertions over the history and legacy of the coast. I attempt to situate dramatic visions of global connection and environmental risk in present-day experiences wherein the past is relived in flashes of memory, desires for the future and practice grounded in everyday life. To the scholarship on the Indian Ocean World, I hope to make a case for taking seriously the amphibious nature of the littoral – “that distinct zone where land and sea merge” (Pearson 2006: 355) – in understanding how the coast is remembered and reimagined as both land and waterscape.