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Leaving Lohāchāra: On circuits of emplacement and displacement in the Ganges Delta

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In this paper I focus on the disappearance of the small island of Lohācharā. Once situated in the Indian part of the Ganges Delta, the island fell prey to drawn-out processes of coastal erosion. Later it rose to fame as being the sunken home to India’s – or the world’s – very first climate refugees. Based on fieldwork among displaced and resettled islanders, I engage with the past of the island and its inhabitants. In doing this I show that the displacements resulting from the island’s erosion do not mark a singular moment of victimisation or loss, but are better to be understood as instances in a broader pattern of repeated losses, enforced mobilities and arrivals. I call this a circuit of displacement and emplacement. Framing an overall sense of the past among islanders, it also helps to understand the experience of erosions itself. The latter translated into multiple displacements by islanders-turned-squatters who had to move repeatedly with the receding coastline.

While many islanders managed to secure resettlements on a nearby island, the sense of instability associated with repeated losses continued to permeate the present. I show that islanders’ fear of new rounds of erosion is great, as is the widespread mistrust. The newly emplaced lands emerge thus as endangered either by hazardous waters or by volatile party politics.

While the sinking of Lohācharā is certainly not reducible to climate change, it helps to critically engage with the role of islands within current debates surrounding it. I argue that the recent preoccupation of climate change debates with small island states overshadows the suffering entailed in the sinking of marginal islands elsewhere. Moving through a set of glimpses into pasts not forgotten, I conclude that the point is not whether the territory of a state is threatened, but rather how threatened the state of the citizenship is among islanders.
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Keywords: Ganges Delta; India; displacement; erosion; island; resettlement

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2015

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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