Archiving Loss, Displacement, and Transformations along the Coromandel Coast

A Digital Project in Collaboration with the French Institute of Pondicherry, India

Vidhya Raveendranathan

Globally under this heading, there has been a proliferation of mega projects, such as roads, bridges, railways, airports, dams, ports, telecommunications, energy systems, special economic zones, and large-scale schemes for urban redevelopment. These stitch together far-flung financial institutions, public and private stakeholders, expertise and planning in the hopes of realizing the modernist dreams of greater connectivity, economic growth, and prosperity. Infrastructure becomes the site for nation states to enact projects of citizenship and aggressively push aspirations regarding employment generation, investment, and the better distribution of resources, while communities worldwide are forced to negotiate the catastrophic consequences of ecological imbalances, the monetization of the commons, the disruption of livelihoods, abandoned projects, and ruination.  

In 2015 the Government of India announced an investment of about 92,160 crores for the “integrated management and development of fisheries, aquaculture and marine fisheries,” as well as the construction of physical infrastructure in the form of ports, roads, railways, and rail links through a model of public-private partnership along the Orissa coast to the Cuddalore-Nagapattinam Petroleum Corridor in Tamil Nadu. Derived from an all-encompassing model of coastal infrastructure development proposed under the much touted framework of Sagarmala and the Blue Revolution, this project brought together financiers, transnational corporations, policy consultants, and conservationists to promote a plan for an accelerated export economy and the sustainable use of resources. What is striking about these projects is the vision they promote, their optimism about capital flows, their connectedness and technological modernity, and their contribution to food security, poverty alleviation, and the expansion of trade, investment, and maritime connectivity.   

Our collaborative project, part of the Center’s Henry Luce Foundation initiative, entails reversing the historical gaze from the hubris of capitalist modernity associated with these fixed littoral and infrastructural projects to the quotidian social worlds, political economies, and ecologies of coastal communities. In order to help visualize the contingent and amphibious histories of the coast, the changes to ecological landscapes, and the deep sutures in people’s relationships with the land and sea, we propose to build a digital community archive to track the transformations in both the past and present days.  Through a collaboration with a group of historians, geographers, and anthropologists based at the French Institute of Pondicherry, we focus on a few fishing settlements in Cuddalore District, Tamil Nadu, a region that used to be an East India trading port and is now an industrial corridor for energy investments and a large part of the larger petrochemical investment region (PCPIR). Through ethnographic work in this region, our collaborators will undertake three key projects. First, we assess the impact of technological and infrastructural interventions on small-scale fishers who are forced to undertake large-scale mechanized fishing and the effects of new marketing institutions on women fishers. Second, using oral histories and maps, we document how the establishment of a thermal power plant exacerbated coastal erosion, land erosion, and other environmental issues. Third, we collect and curate oral histories of fishermen and their responses to the post-tsunami infusion of capital investments aimed at harnessing profits out of disasters. By recording the myriad ways in which ordinary men and women responded to the crisis and the multiple and often contested frameworks they employed to understand state-led rehabilitation projects, the disasters memories project is an attempt to write against bureaucratic and reductive definitions of calamitous events and to recover voices that have otherwise been silenced by state and institutional discourses.  The proposed archive will curate the histories, maps, vernacular newspapers, case histories, stories and poems to capture the effects of all three on these fishing communities.

Besides tracing the erasure of the social, economic, and ecological coastal landscapes, and of the laboring lives in an assemblage of state- and corporate-led projects, the archival project also attempts to trace its own links to the colonial past. Colonialism left its imprint on coastal lives by freezing them in a temporal and spatial stasis. As it sought to territorialize and domesticate the coastline through mapping, censuses, and infrastructural building, the colonial state created artificial boundaries between land and sea, designed the coast, and locked coastal populations into neat compartments. Through an extensive study of colonial photographs, travelogues, and legal texts, the archive will curate representations of coastal and fishing communities and the false genealogies and knowledge created about them treating them as primitive, self-contained, peasant-like, and antiquarian across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  By putting the past and present into a dialogue, the digital archival project aims to document the ongoing ruination of coastal livelihoods and the continuous reworking of the social and natural space of the coast. Vidhya Raveendranathan and Duane Corpis have taken the lead in developing this collaborative project with the French Institute of Pondicherry.

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