ILR School Associate Professor Sarah Besky has been awarded a senior research fellowship by the American Institute of Indian Studies to carry out her project, “Land, Labor, and the Work of Settlement in Kalimpong, West Bengal.”
The fellowship is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanitie.
In the context of climate change in the Indian Himalayas, Besky is exploring how practices of colonial settlement shaped the region’s ecology and economy. She also asks how farmers in contemporary Kalimpong, a district of the state of West Bengal, grapple with the continued impact of colonial settlement. To do so, she will review archival documents of the Bengal Agricultural Department, conduct participant observation and interviews with farmers and market traders in Kalimpong, and carry out ethnographic research focused on farm labor practices and foodways.
Life and labor in Kalimpong have been made even more challenging in the era of global climate crisis, Besky said. Increasingly, intense annual monsoons have made the farmland carved out in the colonial period particularly vulnerable to landslides. Besky’s research will analyze collective efforts to repair land and homes affected by landslides, linking climate-related disaster to histories of colonial governance and market-making.
In Kalimpong, a set of techniques that British colonial agents termed “settlement” turned forests into farms and Indigenous people into productive, rent-paying food producers. Settlement began with surveys that divided land into discrete plots and set land rental rates, but settlement was perpetuated by state-supported agricultural extension projects aimed at increasing farmers’ productivity. Agricultural extension, in turn, increased land revenue for the colonial government. Settlement entailed a series of experiments: with crops; on farmers’ dispositions to property and time; and on the market infrastructures within which farmers and their crops circulated.
“The legacy of colonial settlement can be read on Kalimpong’s landscape today,” Besky said. Her project will trace that legacy through ethnographic and archival research on agricultural extension, farming practices, and negotiations over rent and land rights in the Kalimpong district. Besky’s preliminary fieldwork suggests that settlement remains an animating force in India’s eastern Himalaya, where the security of both soils and land tenure has long been a subject of political and social anxiety. It is essential, then, to ask not only what settlement did in the past to shape the region’s ecology and economy, but also how settlement shapes contemporary everyday experience, especially as farmers in Kalimpong struggle to hold on to land and property, Besky said.