The first assemblage

After a long summer of frustrating interactions with University finance, procurement, IT and hiring procedures and protocols, Monsoon Assemblages is finally up and running! Our first assemblage is taking shape, around grant funding, a spacious office furnished with long black working desk, a round meeting table, chairs, fans, a kettle, computers, telephones, books; an administrator and three researchers beginning to use post-it notes, coffee, conversations, Mendeley, Nvivo, office 365, google chrome and so on to give shape to the project.

First to arrive in July was Zahra Mohamed-Saleh, our Eritrean-British administrator, whose skills at negotiating the University’s finance systems, we soon discovered, are matched by photoshop and graphic design ones. Next, in August, came two research fellows, Michele Vianello, Italian urban designer and planner, who took on the task of creating our project filing system till joined by environmental anthropologist Beth Cullen. Michele comes most recently from a teaching position at the International Balkan University in Skopje and has research interests in urban social movements and collective data ownership. Beth specialises in participatory research approaches and worked for some years in Sub-Saharan Africa during and after her PhD.

After some initial scoping work, we decided to focus our work in Chennai on the Pallikaranai Marsh, a wetland formerly outside the city’s southern boundary and part of an extensive coastal wetland system of marshes, sand dunes and salt pans that stretches down the coast of Tamil Nadu. A vital conduit for rainwater into the city’s groundwater reserves and part of an excess water discharge system to the Bay of Bengal, the marsh been reduced by encroachments and the dumping of garbage from 6,000 hectares in 1960 to 593 by 2012 (see here). Its extent has been further truncated by a high end IT corridor, construction activity has encroached into it and its ecology has been altered by it being used as a sponge to soak up the city’s solid waste and sewage. This confluence is taking shape through a host of entangled legislation, deals, illegalities and bureaucratic loopholes,  and has gathered a cacophony of voices opposing it.

With no voice in the discourse and no space left, water had no choice but to rise during the monsoon rains of 2015, resulting in flooding across wide areas of south Chennai. It this confluence that we will investigate, using theoretical, spatial and anthropological tools, in order to realign the urban ecology with the logics of monsoon cycles, through the tools of design.

A view of the Pallikaranai marshland. Source: Photo: M. Karunakaran.