Graduate student Sahithya Venkatesan was selected from an extremely competitive field of proposals to receive a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to begin fieldwork in India for her dissertation project:
Dissertation Title: For a fistful of dignity: Dalit Place-making and the Politics of Climate Adaptation in Coastal South India
My research seeks to analyze how historically marginalized Dalit caste groups located on vulnerable coastal landscapes navigate the threats posed by climate change and related economic and infrastructural development. Nagapattinam, in the coastal plains of the Cauvery delta in South India, is extremely vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. This coastal wetland region, however, is also home to a high proportion of Dalit caste groups, a result of the historical pattern of spatial segregation of Dalits to “uninhabitable” places referred to in Tamil as the cheri. Drawing from a feminist, anti-caste epistemological framework, this project explores how casteist spatiality is reproduced through projects of development and how in turn marginalized Dalits resist, contest, and claim these spaces. Combining archival research and an extended ethnography of both the engineers seeking to better control land, water, and salt, as well as Dalit villagers’ assertions of alternative relations to these aqueous grounds, this project aims to rethink the historic geographies of caste and Dalit place-making in the context of climate change and to trace how flood control and climate mitigation rests on a Brahmanical vision of ecological integrity.