Lalatendu Keshari Das, reflects on the POLLEN (Political Ecology Network) 2020 conference, which took place virtually earlier this year.
The organisation of the 2020 POLLEN conference on Contested Natures: Power, Possibility and Prefiguration came at a time of increased uncertainties and vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only forced all of us to adapt to a ‘new normal’, but has also posed important questions for researchers like us, who engage in long-term field-work-based community studies. Within the framework of the conference, in addition to the two panel discussions presented by the Transformation as Praxis: Exploring Socially Just and Transdisciplinary Pathways to Sustainability in Marginalised Environments (TAPESTRY) project, what interested me were the subtle discussions on ethics in research, particularly at a time of restricted mobility and physical distancing.
At the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, the term ‘social distancing’ came to prominence, when governments worldwide, notwithstanding their ideological differences, imposed restrictions on travel and get-togethers under the pretext of halting the forward march of the virus. ‘Social distancing’ became a way to describe this situation. However, in a country like India with its history of caste, class and religion based segregations, the term social distancing has always been used for pushing the marginalised groups to the margins. This became doubly troublesome during the pandemic, as our research participants at the Versova Koliwada, an urban fishing village, in Mumbai were not only restricted from visiting their fishing sites, but also barred from going to urban centres in the city for work. At a time when the immediate needs of the communities were at stake, convincing them about the importance of long-term sustainability goals seemed like a joke, in the first instance.
But it was no comedy. With the prolongation of the lockdowns, it dawned upon both the fishing communities and the researchers alike that COVID-19 was only one uncertainty in a number of uncertainties faced by people on the social, political, economic and ecological margins. These are also the groups who have been pushed further to the margins, both politically and economically, by the real estate, infrastructure development and financial capital-induced expansion of the city. As recent studies have shown, the city of Mumbai is one of the coastal cities in the world that’s most vulnerable to sea level rise, tropical cyclones, and consequent floods (MFF 2008: 48). It also ranks second in the world in terms of population exposure to natural hazards with low adaptive capacity.
The fear of the pandemic is real and here to stay. At the same time, the marginalisation of women fishers from the fishing economy, the increased pollution of the creeks and destruction of mangroves in Mumbai, the emerging class divisions within the fishing community (with households in salaried employment sufficiently well cushioned to withstand uncertainties over the medium term) is posing challenges to the TAPESTRY team to canvass carefully with the community in question. This is because both the community and the researchers have become well aware that COVID-19 pandemic and its fallouts are only a symptom of a bigger malice: The situation in which our development models have time and again failed to acknowledge the syncretic nature of the production of knowledge. The pandemic gives an opportunity to rethink sustainability as a political process, and to bring both the local communities and experts from outside together to articulate development and sustainability as two strands of one braid.
Lalatendu Keshari Das is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, located in the Himalayan province of Uttarakhand, India. Lalatendu’s work articulates three debates- Marxist debate on capitalist development, political subjectivity, and ecology. Through this, Lalatendu tries to understand issues pertaining to social movements, agrarian change, fisheries, and social and environmental justice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Heading photo: urbzoo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.