The South Asian Studies Council Brown Bag Series Fall 2019 presents:
Mathew Shutzer, Harvard University: “The City as Coal Mine: Labor and Environment in the Making of Dhanbad.”
This presentation is a first cut at reframing the urban history of Dhanbad, the “coal capital” of India’s eastern mining belt since the early twentieth century. At its face, Dhanbad’s urban history reflects the changing composition of political power in India’s coalfields. First emerging in the interwar period as an urban space dominated by European managing agencies, coal zamindars, Marwari shroffs, and British banks, the city would come to be a center of India’s burgeoning trade union movement and anti-colonial radicalism by the 1920s.
In the early postcolonial period, and especially following the nationalization of the coal sector in the 1970s, the city’s image appeared as a concentrated expression of the agonistic politics associated with “burning Bihar:” spectacular violence, criminality, and political corruption fed by the rents of coal values flowing from the countryside. Despite the significance of Dhanbad to the economic life of modern India, there are strikingly few historical studies of the city’s past.
In the social science literature, Dhanbad is most often depicted as a metropolitan “enclave,” spatially distinct from and yet parasitically attached to the coalfields that spill out from the city’s boundaries. My presentation will propose a different way of understanding Dhanbad by returning to the moment of its formal consolidation as an urban area in the aftermath of a coal commodity boom in 1908. Rather than approaching the question of urbanization through the circulation of coal, however, I will argue Dhanbad emerged through efforts by coal merchants to control flows of irrigation and drinking water into the region’s coalfields. Focusing on the municipal organization and land acquisition projects of the Jharia Water Board, my presentation will document how coal mining transformed the water table in Dhanbad, and the ways in which manufactured forms of water scarcity patterned urbanization and displacement in the coalfields. This alternative history of Dhanbad suggests a way of expanding the spatial scales by which we study both mining environments and cities, connecting them together through water infrastructures as sites of social power under colonial and postcolonial extractive regimes.
Matthew Shutzer is a historian of modern South Asia, with research and teaching interests in environmental history, science and technology studies, the history of economic life, and global and comparative methods. At present, he is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center. In 2020 - 2021, Matthew will be the Ciriacy-Wantrup Fellow in Natural Resource Economics and Political Economy at the University of California, Berkeley. His current book manuscript is a history of fossil fuels in twentieth century India.