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River Islands: Redefining the Anthropocene

Mitul Baruah, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University organised an International Conference on River Islands in collaboration with IIT Kharagpur and the Australian National University

On October 16-17, 2023, Ashoka University hosted the International Conference on River Islands Redefining the Anthropocene. It was a collaborative conference jointly supported by Ashoka University, IIT Kharagpur, and the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). As the first-ever international conference on river islands, this event remains historic, and Ashoka University is proud to have organised such an important event.

River islands are relatively small, often transient pieces of land that exist between the banks of rivers. They are found in most large river systems in the world and abound in the Himalayan Rivers in South Asia. Here they are known variously as char, chapori, baet, and diara among others. These are hybrid geographies, neither fully land nor entirely water, constantly shifting and disappearing, thus defying and blurring the conventional notions of borders and territorialities. In South Asia, the chars are home to millions of people who are often both economically and socially on the margins.

A sizeable section of this population also consists of migrants and refugees, people who are constantly on the move, much like the islands themselves. Although people in river islands have always lived with—and adjusted to—environmental changes and disasters, today they are encountering the unknown and unpredictable changes that the Anthropocene poses. Even so, neither the island studies scholarship nor the global climate change research community have paid due attention to these fragile, volatile ecologies. This conference, therefore, was of critical significance for future research as well as policy directions on river islands.

The two-day conference brought together young researchers, established scholars, and practitioners from across disciplines and geographies, covering a wide range of river systems from South Asia and beyond. Prof. Somak Raychaudhury, Vice-Chancellor, Ashoka University, formally inaugurated the event followed by an extremely thought-provoking inaugural speech by Prof. Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt from The Australian National University. Her talk was titled, “Why and How are River Islands Redefining the Anthropocene.” There were two keynote lectures, one on each day. On Day 1, Jonathan Pugh, Professor of Island Studies, Newcastle University, delivered a keynote titled, “Negating Islands: Non-Relational Geographies.” The keynote on Day 2 was delivered by eminent historian Arupjyoti Saikia, Professor, IIT Guwahati. The title of his talk was: “Profits, Distress and Speculation: Assam’s River Islands in the Age of Colonialism.”

Godfrey Baldacchino, Professor of Sociology, the University of Malta, and the ex-president of the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA) as well as the founding executive editor of the Island Studies Journal, also joined online to share a few words of wisdom on the scope of research on river islands within island studies.

Over two days, 25 papers were presented in six sessions, which were as follows:

  • Islands, Anthropocene and decoloniality
  • Islands in relations: Rethinking “islandness” in a globalised world
  • Islands as spaces of disaster and vulnerability
  • Island imaginaries in cultural representations
  • Island (id)entities along shifting times, and
  • ‘Development’, (dis)possession, and sustainability of river islands

In addition, the conference also had an exciting audio-visual component. A photo exhibition titled “The Saga of the Unsettled” showcased the work of Eklavya Prasad, Managing Trustee, Megh Pyne Abhiyan, on the “diarascapes” of North Bihar. The exhibition was well-attended by members of the Ashoka community as well as visitors from Delhi-NCR. A short documentary film titled “Seeing Like ‘Hajira’ Workers,” directed by Prof. Jenia Mukherjee, IIT Kharagpur, and the trailer of a documentary (currently under completion) by Prof. Mitul Baruah, Ashoka University, were also screened, followed by a discussion. The documentary film by Prof. Baruah is part of a project supported by the Center for Climate Change and Sustainability (3CS), Ashoka University.

The conference ended with a plenary session – River Island Studies: Possibilities and Pathways. The speakers at the plenary were Professors Jonathan Pugh, Arupjyoti Saikia, Mitul Baruah, Jenia Mukherjee, Annu Jalais (Krea University), Giacomo Parrinello (SciencesPo University), and Mr Eklavya Prasad. The panel engaged with a set of questions regarding river island research and island studies more broadly, thus envisioning new directions in river island studies and praxis that can also benefit the lifeworlds of river island communities.

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