Ian Talbot, LMSAI Research Affiliate.
Ian Talbot, Emeritus Professor in History of Modern South Asia at the University of Southampton, UK, has been a Research Affiliate at the Mittal Institute since 2020, and this year is hosted as a Visiting Scholar. He is in Cambridge until mid-December, and we had a chance to speak to him about his new book—slated for pre-order on Friday, October 14—which explores the historical interactions between cities and the natural environment.
Mittal Institute: Ian, we are thrilled to have you as part of our community for these past years. Some people may have read your LMSAI profile, but can you give us a brief overview of your research as an environmental historian of South Asia?
Ian Talbot: My interest in environmental history in South Asia is to bring it into conversation with other fields of study especially to establish links with urban history and partition history, fields in which I have studied and published over the years.
Mittal Institute: Your new book, Urban Development and Environmental History in Modern South Asia, is slated for publication in mid-November (though pre-orders begin October 14). You are co-editor of the book, along with Amit Ranjan, Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Can you talk to us about why you both partnered together, and where this book idea evolved from?
Ian Talbot: We wanted to build linkages across disciplines, and regions of South Asia when addressing issues in environmental history. It was this common interest that drew us together. The value of this approach was confirmed in an online conference jointly hosted by the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and the University of Southampton on the theme of South Asian urban development and environmental history. The quality of the interactions and the potential for an edited volume became increasingly apparent in the discussions between a mix of experienced and early career scholars and those engaged with environmental NGOs. Two areas we were particularly interested in were firstly the extent to which parallels could be drawn between colonial urban planning and its legacies and the ‘hang-over’ with respect to imperial policies and ideologies in forestry and water management; secondly, whether there are similarities in attempts at ‘push-back’ by social movements with respect to forest clearing and dam construction and villagers’ loss of land resulting from urban encroachment.
Mittal Institute: Some say climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. You studied its effects from the colonial era to present. Can you describe some main takeaways, as we examine climate change’s impacts over the years?
Ian Talbot: Amongst the takeaways are the issues of differential social vulnerabilities to the effects of environmental degradation and the contemporary impact of climate change; the need not only to consider colonial institutional and intellectual legacies when discussing outmoded legal and policy frameworks in urban planning and governance which impact the environment, but also the distinctiveness of social settings and the interplay between historical inheritances and contemporary capacities; the distant as well as more close consequences of the South Asian city swallowing up its rural hinterland; the long term reasons for ribbon development and encroachments which impact issues of flooding and air quality.
Mittal Institute: Urban expansion, while important to economic growth, can also have detrimental effects. Can you talk about the relationship between urban sprawl and environmental degradation?
Ian Talbot: Taking up my last point in the absence of integrated transport planning, urban sprawl results in excessive motor vehicle usage with its impacts for air quality. Urban sprawl can be accompanied by the mixing of residential and industrial development with attendant environmental hazards and degradation. Moving the argument to another level, the encroachment of cities into agricultural peripheries can be seen as part of a process of “accumulation by dispossession.” This links to an earlier point I made that the examination of the urban frontier as a dynamic site of displacement and resistance parallels earlier studies of peripheral areas in South Asian environmental history such as rivers, deltas and forests.
Urban sprawl can be accompanied by the mixing of residential and industrial development with attendant environmental hazards and degradation. The encroachment of cities into agricultural peripheries can be seen as part of a process of “accumulation by dispossession.”
Ian Talbot’s new book explores the environmental, social and political impacts of urban sprawl, forest clearing and dam construction | Images from unsplash.
Mittal Institute: What is one fascinating thing you want people to know about the book?
Ian Talbot: Alongside all the major themes we have discussed, I found it fascinating to find out that small scale urban development was a significant contributing factor to Cherrapunji, in the southern Khasi Hills of Meghalaya losing its claim to fame as the wettest spot in the world.
Mittal Institute: You will be in residence in our Cambridge office until December – what are you currently working on, and what’s next on the horizon for you?
Ian Talbot: I have just begun research on a comparative history study of British and American public diplomacy in Pakistan. This is a follow up to the book I completed when I was in residence in 2018 which was a study of the History of British Diplomacy in Pakistan. I am looking forward to undertaking archival research both at Harvard and at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston.