Kolkata: the beauty and the heartache

Notes on a photo essay: Kolkata, India

By James Arvanitakis

4 May 2012

Over the last two years I have been working with a group of researchers from Burdwan University, West Bengal; Prince of Songkla University, Thailand; and the University of NSW to investigate how communities are responding to various social, cultural, political and environmental challenges. Such challenges include the changing rural and urban settlement and land use patterns, climate change, pollution, global trade and financial changes. We are investigating a range of sights in India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Australia. While some of these challenges are general, others are specific such as the naturally occurring arsenic poisoning in the ground water of West Bengal.

The photos here are from a recent field trip in and around Kolkata, West Bengal. A glance around captures the many different social and cultural interactions. What we witness is both inspiring and heart breaking: an assemblage of life interacting, living, sharing, competing, cooperating, thriving, dealing with disasters and showing resilience. The new and the old culture of India come together, sometimes harmoniously, occasionally quite brutally.

It is the term 'resilience' that is the focus of our research: what is the ingredient that makes some communities resilient to change and others vulnerable to this? While most projects that look at resilience focus on systems and policies, we are researching what the ingredients to 'cultural resilience' are.

Communities living on waterways are at the front line of such changes - and it is this thread that brings the various communities together for this project. More specifically, we are looking at communities living and relying on waterways where fresh water and the ocean meet. This is because it is such communities that are most vulnerable to the above challenges.

In Kolkata we found this cross section of communities living with both despair and hope, showing signs of resilience as well as collapse. We spent time with communities that had rallied to assist those affected by pollution to ensure their voices are heard (such as the school principals bringing parents and communities to work together).

We also witnessed the despair of those without any sense of agency - displaced and voiceless, fighting for daily survival. Such communities are overwhelmed with the various challenges described above and have lacked the cultural and social capital to respond.

In contrasting the communities that have shown resilience and those that have been overwhelmed, there is no single 'magic' ingredient. What exists are a number of factors that involve a combination of community agency, government involvement, lines of accountability and social capital. A combination of such elements has the potential to lead a culture of resilience.

As we continue our research project, our understandings and insights will solidify. The sharing of this knowledge will be an invaluable element in confronting the changing climate. It is something that these communities are experiencing first hand, and if we can build an international network to share knowledge that assists people's in building resilience, then our research has an important purpose.

Australian researchers

  • Dr James Arvanitakis (ICS, UWS)
  • Associate Professor Paul Brown (UNSW)
  • Dr Crelis Rammelt (UNSW)
  • Associate Professor John Merson (UNSW and Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute)