Humanities at Large

Water and the City of Chennai, India

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on October 18 2019.

Bhavani Raman (Associate Professor, UTSC Historical & Cultural Studies) led a recent Fellows’ Lunch discussion centering on two readings and a slideshow of maps.

Power plant and fishing boats
Power plant and fishing boats in Chennai. Photo by Bhavani Raman.

Bhavani’s research interest lies in the water infrastructure history of the city of Chennai, India and in the commons—areas used by fisherfolk who are now trying to protect the coast and their livelihood, which is being destroyed by new port infrastructure development.

She asked us to read the following:

  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. The Climate of History: Four Theses. Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2, 2009, pp. 197-222. doi:10.1086/596640.
  • Amrith, Sunil S. The Aqueous Atmosphere. In Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History. Basic Books, 2018. p. 91-112.

In his 2009 article, The Climate of History: Four Theses, Chakrabarty examines the Anthropocene—a new geological period dominated by human activities and influence on climate and environment—in the context of philosophy and history and asks us to question how we think historically in an era when human and geological timescales overlap.

In the article, Chakrabarty articulates a real sense of crisis with climate change. He also wants us to think about the different racialized ways in which climate change can be experienced. Should the third world have a different point of entering climate change discussion? A different paradigm? How do you incorporate the perspective of those who were always “in the waiting room of history”?

Amrith’s Unruly Waters examines water’s essential yet risky position in Asia and how, over the past 200 years, colonialism, culture, politics and science have impacted water, such as governments focusing on engineering projects like dams regardless of the impact on the environment or people. The chapter on meteorology tries to illustrate how the language of the monsoon permeates the political language around the sharing of waters, damming of rivers, questions of political development, irrigation infrastructure and agrarian well-being.

The Fellows’ discussion centred mainly around Chakrabarty’s article and the terms crisis and Anthropocene. Some Fellows questioned Chakrabarty’s assertion that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th century and suggested that humanities scholars would place the beginning in the early 17th century. Others thought that the Anthropocene is less a geological term and more a politically useful term to help us understand our social relations and our power, simply because human action on the environment has occurred since humans settled, since humans started agriculture, since humans moved to cities and developed urbanism.

One Fellow was struck by Chakrabarty’s prolific use of the term crisis. Why think about a new geological era and the idea of writing species history in terms of crisis? Chakrabarty suggests that we now need to look at crisis—something typically thought of as instantaneous—on a global, geological and planetary scale. Some suggested we need to question more deeply who or what is the subject of the crisis?

1911 map of Madras (Chennai)
1911 map of Madras (Chennai), Tamil Nadu. Image from A Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon. 1911, p. 612. Internet Archive Book Images [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]


Bhavani also presented a slideshow of a few historical maps of Chennai’s water infrastructure.

1854 map detail of Chennai
Inset from Plan of Madras and Its Environs (1854). Map was engraved by J. and C. Walker and issued as plate no. 47 by Pharoah and Company in their 1854 Atlas of Southern India.

Present-day Chennai experiences a more precarious and devastating cycle of flooding and drought, unlike the seasonality of the historical water bodies. Interestingly, she noticed during public hearings about commons use and campaigners’ efforts to limit port expansion into these lands, people were well acquainted with Google Maps and Google Earth that referenced disappeared water bodies, but there were no historical maps in the public domain.

Bhavani's research unearthed several historical maps that showed various degrees of land accretion and depletion; seasonal lakes that appeared during monsoon season and then disappeared in the summer; swamps, marshes and forests connected by water.

Finally, Bhavani shared a few other maps: an early pre-colonial map acknowledging the seasonality of the water bodies and use based on local knowledge; a 1960s NASA map showing the port infrastructure used to be in the 1960s; a map from 1929 illustrating where sewage lines emptied directly into the rivers of Chennai and how the rivers became sewers; a colour-coded counter-map used by the coastal commons campaigners; and a final diagram made by a member of the fishing community illustrating the seasonal winds that flow across Chennai’s beaches. All the names of the breezes and the way the map is laid out are related to different smells.