Environmental Humanities and Monsoon Lives
University of Glasgow, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences &
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Ajmal S Rasaq is a PhD student in the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati. His project explores how the unseasonal rainfall and the discourse of climate change shape the socio-spatial relations in Chellanam, an eroding coastal village in Cochin, Kerala.
Ajmal was based at the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. His work in Glasgow explored how unseasonal rainfall and the corresponding discourse of climate change have weakened the fishing community’s right to the paddy field fisheries in Chellanam, a coastal village near Cochin in Kerala, India. During the visit, based on the ethnographic fieldwork done for the PhD, he has authored an article for future publication. He also presented a paper at the Development Studies Association Conference held in Reading with the title ‘Whose water, fish, and crabs: the story of monsoon induced changes in the right to fisheries in Chellanam’.
The PhD project and the article written with the help of Earth Scholarship look at how climate affects social and spatial relationships in Chellanam, an eroding Indian coastal panchayat near Cochin. I argue that climate is not just the background for human productive activities but is a significant actor shaping property relations, commoning rights, and the sustainability of marine fisheries. Methodologically, therefore, the ethnography of monsoon lives involved expanding the definition of ethnography to include non-human entities too.
In 2019, as I embarked on my PhD project in Kerala, India, the state had already faced an increased number of extreme weather events such as heavy precipitation, cloud bursts, droughts, cyclones, and floods. The devastating flood situation in August 2018 was characterised as one of the most severe floods in the region in a century. This was preceded by Cyclone Ockhi in December 2017, which tragically claimed the lives of over 60 fishermen in Kerala. These disasters have prompted me to question my understandings of the relationships between human beings and non-human actors like the climate. I began rethinking my understanding of our collective future, which I had once perceived as under human control through our ingenuity, technology, and increased productive capabilities. The socio-economic disparities in the manifestations of climate change were so evident, leading me to realise the significant and active role played by more than human actors like climate in shaping and constituting our lives. In light of these concerns, my ongoing PhD research, tentatively titled ‘Monsoon Lives: An Ethnography of an Eroding Coastal Panchayat in Chellanam’, explores the co-constitution of monsoonal weather and socio-spatial relations in the coastal village of Chellanam in Kerala.
The ongoing PhD project highlights the critical aspects of socio-spatial relations in Chellanam. First, climate must be recognised as a significant actor contributing to the production of property relations, along with other actors like maps, surveys, stories and narratives, laws and acts, and material objects. Second, unseasonal precipitation provided a discursive background to argue for furthering the enclosure of the paddy field fisheries, which resulted in weakening the commoning rights of the community. Third, using technologies such as GPS and sonar in fishing vessels for offshore fisheries to mitigate the precarious weather indeed re-arranges the idea of work and has unintended consequences for the sustainability of the marine fisheries. Finally, the project contends for a grounded understanding of the ‘climate changes’ in Chellanam, which is rooted in the demands for social and more than human justice.
During my time at Glasgow as a recipient of the Earth Scholarship and a visiting postgraduate researcher at the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, I actively engaged in disseminating my research findings. I presented my arguments on monsoonal lives and ethnographic data from Chellanam at a lunchtime meeting for PhD students in the geography department at the University of Glasgow. Additionally, I actively participated and presented at a roundtable workshop on “port cities and decolonising geographies and urban studies curricula’ within the same department. Moreover, I have also presented a paper titled Whose water, fish, and crabs? The story of monsoon-induced changes in the right to fisheries in Chellanam was presented at the Development Studies Association conference held at Reading in June 2023. Furthermore, with the help of Dr. David Featherstone, my mentor for the Earth Scholarship, I have been working on a paper for future publication in a leading journal in Human Geography, aiming to share my research with wider academic audiences. In the article, based on legal geographer Nicholas Blomley’s idea of property as performance, I argue that ownership claims of the paddy field are multifaceted and overlapping, and climate change is used by the legal owners of the land to prevent commoners from accessing it for fisheries.
In terms of methodology, my work embraces a broad notion of geography, encompassing not only human beings but also rivers, paddy fields, Vembanad Lake, the sea, fish, capital, and commodities. Understanding the mutual interdependency of all lives, the project treats geophysical forces and socio-economic processes as inseparable realities. My yearlong ethnographic fieldwork (2021–22) involved participant and non-participant observations and unstructured interviews with various stakeholders, including fishers, landowners, Pulaya agricultural workers, and scientists at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. The study mapped out the effects of uncertain monsoons on brackish water’s biochemical qualities, riverine and tidal flows, hydraulic engineering, tiger prawn production and export, paddy cultivation practises, infrastructure, and human inhabitation. Preliminary analysis reveals that erratic precipitation significantly impacts how different groups relate to one another and to tiger prawns, paddy fields, and brackish water.
In conclusion, the ethnographic data on monsoon lives in Chellanam underscores the complexities and nuances of the connections between climate, property relations, and socio-spatial dynamics. Therefore, I argue for a grounded understanding of climate change and emphasize the importance of considering climate as an active actor in shaping the geographies of human-environment interactions.