Debjani Bhattacharyya's picture
Affiliated Fellow
Debjani Bhattacharyya

By rethinking the process of urbanization and the production of hinterlands in a marshy deltaic space, my first book project Hydrologics: Property, Law and the Urban Environment in the Bengal Delta documents an environmental history of colonial Calcutta and empire building in the Delta. As a fellow of IIAS from September 2016 to March 2017, I will finalize my book as well as lay the groundwork for a second project. My second project links the financial port towns of Asia with the maritime world of the Bay of Bengal in order to investigate how climactic and environmental changes from the eighteenth century shaped ideas about risk and the instruments of insurance in the expansion of imperial trade.

Hydrologics demonstrates that viewing the city and its urbanization from the delta unveils a different history of empire-building and colonial bureaucracy. The book proceeds by elaborating how – in the indeterminate and shifting landscape of deltaic Bengal – the concept of “property-thinking” became critical in making land and water into discrete legal elements, with each being governed by separate arenas: riparian and land laws. At the same time, this delta space then became home to many urban infrastructural and legal experiments from the late eighteenth century that were transferred and transplanted to various parts of the world. Hydrologics concludes by illuminating how property-thinking, the revenue-economy and extractive principles have shaped and continue to shape patterns of urbanization in the region and the legal frameworks surrounding the property market with devastating consequences, as evidenced in the receding coastline in the Bengal Delta and elsewhere across the world.

Connecting multiple historiographies – legal, urban, and environmental – my book argues that the materiality of colonial landscapes and their ecologies played a decisive role in the making of property laws and the urban land market. Although there is a robust anthropological literature on urban land markets, town-planning and real-estate in Asian cities, we know very little about the historical genealogy of urban property. Recent historical and anthropological scholarship has already begun raising fundamental questions about the role of marshes and the riverine landscape in understanding territoriality, property regimes and urbanization. I focus on the history of the colonial administrative town of Calcutta as a space situated in the Bengal Delta and not cut off from it, so as to delineate the role of the hybrid environmental space of the delta and its ecology in writing an environmental history of urban property. My book reveals the productive and destructive roles played by the indeterminate delta landscape in the development of the colonial legal architecture of property regimes and a market in urban land.

As a fellow at IIAS, I will also be taking Dutch language lessons to prepare for my second project which will deal with the Dutch East Indies Company records. My second project tentatively titled Risky Credit: The Early-Modern Commercial World in the Bay of Bengal will explore how merchants, commodities, credit and ships crisscrossed this space of the Bay of Bengal from the sixteenth century, creating an ocean of papers in the form of diaries, litigations, insurance records, letters, petitions, ship logbooks and travelogues.


  • Modern and Early Modern South Asian History
  • Law
  • Empire
  • Property
  • Intellectual history

Country of origin


Period of stay at IIAS

05/10/2016 to 31/03/2017

Home institute

Research topic

Hydrologics: Property, Law and the Urban Environment in the Bengal Delta

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