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Discipline and Drain: Settling the Moving Bengal Delta

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The codification of property laws in colonial India and the British encounter with the fluidity and 'capriciousness' of the tidal landscape took place simultaneously. While we know that the movement of the tidal rivers in the Bengal Delta followed by land subsidence and formation of new alluvion affected how revenue was extracted for the English East India Company, we know barely little about how the ecological specificity of the Gangetic plains affected the process of property law-making in British India. In this article, I look at the making of the Laws of Alluvion and Diluvion to show how the amphibious geography of the delta, instead of informing law, became a site for legal argumentation and experimentation around property dispute, land acquisition and compensation. Every movement of the river, including washing land away and silting either in the agrarian domain, or in urban spaces resulted in massive losses for the East India Company. Technological fixes while available routinely failed. By looking at a few exemplary legal cases this article shows how property laws became a stabilising element in this mobile landscape and helped fashion the East India Company as both a trading merchant and a public agent of land through the long nineteenth century.
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Keywords: Alluvion; Bengal Delta; colonial law; marshes; property

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2018

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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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