Society for Economic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In March 2016, an overpass under construction in Kolkata, India, caved in, mangling innumerable on-site workers under the rubble. This gruesome disaster was, however, hardly an exceptional incident in Kolkata's recent urban history. Indeed, infrastructural accidents and disasters in the city have taken on a chronic character as old buildings are regularly gutted by raging fires and bridges or overpasses have collapsed frequently in the recent past. Popular narratives about these disasters mourn Kolkata's persistent failures to recompose itself into an efficient metropolis, attractive to transnational capital. Each instance of infrastructural failure only seem to high-light the painful distance between Kolkata's reality as a crumbling, post-colonial city and its elusive 'world-city' ideals. The lamentations about Kolkata, however, remain silent about the precarious exposure of the urban poor in the city to infrastructure related accidents - even when homeless populations, migrant workers, and slum residents compose the largest proportion of casualties in them. Moreover, middle-class discourses about Kolkata's development invariably hold such populations as responsible for the infrastructural failures where unregulated squatter colonies, slums and informal markets are supposed to be choking the city's strained infrastructures. Through ethnographic readings of urban infrastructural disasters, this paper explores how decaying infrastructures and urban poor populations are co-constituted as obstacles to Kolkata's future development and eventual transformation into a global-city. In doing so, the paper questions how sites of urban disasters ultimately reveal middle-class anxieties about the presence of socio-economically marginalized subjects under conditions of intense neoliberal change in Kolkata.