RESEARCH PROFILE: Proposal Excavates the Ecological Legacies of Colonial Territorial Expansionism

Deepa Ramaswamy awarded University of Houston New Faculty Research Grant

Professor Deepa Ramaswamy
Bombay Reclamation

Name:  Deepa Ramaswamy
Award:  UH New Faculty Research Award
Proposal: “Reclaimed Lands: The Ecological Legacies of Colonial Bombay’s Coasts"
Amount:  $5,010

Proposal Overview

Mumbai city's endangered coasts are the current sites of ongoing climate disasters. They are also the artifacts of prolonged land reclamations into the sea that began as part of the colonial project of landscape transformations in the seventeenth century on the west coast of India. The speculative and infrastructural act of creating measurable and exploitable land from the sea is embedded in the genealogy and origin myths of the island city. This book-length research excavates the ecological legacies of colonial territorial expansionism along Bombay's (now Mumbai's) coasts. By tracing the differentiated and local histories of the city's coasts, the research includes the forgotten micronarratives of displaced indigenous populations, fragile ecosystems, colonial flood management, and resource extraction processes. The project situates contemporary Mumbai's insatiable need for land along the sea into its longer historical arc that traverses across generations and centuries of reclamation activities. They resulted in disappearing mangroves, beaches, aquatic ecosystems, fishing communities, and increased flooding events. By studying the histories of Mumbai's coasts as discrete and vulnerable landforms, the research draws attention to the fraught relationships between land, landscape, infrastructure, and what scholar Rob Nixon calls the "long emergencies of the slow violence" of climate change.

What inspired your proposal?

I taught an urban design studio for undergraduate students at the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), India, called "Every / Any / All / Some.” The studio studied Mumbai's eastern waterfront, which has a history of port, dock, and industrial activities. The studio required students to work with coastal regulations, city laws and regulations, existing development proposals, and climate change coastal data to propose an alternative to the current proposal of office and residential towers along the water. Teaching the studio and the excellent work from the students shaped my research interests in Mumbai's coasts and environmental histories.

What do you hope to accomplish?

The project culminates in a book. It is a historical, theoretical, and visual excavation of the ecological histories of Mumbai's coasts. It includes essays, cartographic and diagrammatic visualizations of the coasts, and photographs from published and archival sources, interviews, and site visits. 

This research project studies the loss of coastal environments due to prolonged reclamation activities and the ensuing long histories of climate change. Climate change is not immediate or sudden but relatively slow, acting with mild and severe impacts traversing across generations and centuries. These impacts are often lost when the focus is exclusively on immediate effects. This research presents the ongoing erasure of Mumbai's coasts due to reclamation activities as a testament to these long histories. The project also examines the histories of colonial Bombay's coasts as distinct from the more dominant urban histories of the city. Reading the coasts as unique areas of research leaves space for the inclusion of lost and forgotten micronarratives of displaced indigenous populations, ecosystems, colonial flood management, and resource extraction processes. This research deliberately moves away from urban and city-driven research to engage with coastal territories as local and regional landforms.

Ultimately, I want this research to reorganize our understanding of the relationship between colonial perceptions of tropical nature, land, and reclamation infrastructure. As I argue, the complexity of these relationships has shaped how the city comprehends and engages with its coasts. The project will complicate these relationships by including cartographic, photographic, and diagrammatic visualizations of the changing coasts.

How will this research support your overall professional research goals?

This project is a book-length research that is one out of two ongoing book projects I am currently working on. It is part of my research interests centering on land, legal, and environmental histories in postwar India and the United States. Central to this research is studying the social, economic, and environmental inequities emerging from the regulatory systems, material infrastructures, organizational practices, and financial instruments shaping the built environment. Additionally, as a book-length project unpacking the ecological histories of colonial Bombay's coasts, this research participates in the ongoing recognition of coastal environments and coasts as important sites of climate change research with their unique histories of material histories transformation. Coasts and coastal environments demand space within urban, architectural, landscape, environmental, and climate change histories.

How may Hines College students benefit from your research?

As book-length research on land, legal, and environmental histories, this project intersects my teaching in many ways. It has shaped the direction of my current courses. Over the next year, I plan to develop an elective course at the Hines College discussing coasts, urban histories, environmentalism, and climate change.

Anything else you wish to share?

I am an architect and urban historian who grew up in Mumbai, India. I have seen increasingly erratic flooding events in Mumbai over the years. While rains were always heavy in the city, the slow erasure of the absorptive coasts and their unique ecosystems have devastated Mumbai. The city has seen a considerable loss of beaches, ecosystems, and mangroves. With this research, I hope to bring forth a deeper history going back to the very conception of the city that came out of colonial projects of landscape transformations.