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DEV Research Seminar – Friday 22nd March

This Friday Rinchen Lama, a Postgraduate research student from the University of Reading, presents his research hydropower development in Darjeeling and local agency.


Politics of precarity: exploring local agency in hydropower development projects in Darjeeling Himalayas

Friday 22nd March | ARTS 2.03 | 12-1pm | Rinchen Lama

In the last two decades, proliferation of hydropower projects in the Eastern Himalayas has garnered significant attention in academic debates and popular media. Empirical accounts of the exercise of agency by local communities with respect to such projects largely focus on contestation against them on the grounds of cultural impact and loss, which in turn is intricately linked with people’s relationship to land.  In the Eastern Himalayan context, indigeneity and ethnicity function as bargaining chips with the state to resist, leverage, or negotiate access to benefits in exchange for land.

In this seminar, I examine how landless labouring communities effected by hydropower development in Darjeeling exercise agency despite having no recourse to land ownership and indigeneity used by other groups in the region.  In contrast to the dominant narrative in the literature, I focus on groups who support hydropower projects, examining their lived experiences to explore how, why and with what implications they supported the projects. The concept of ‘precarity’ is mobilised as a means of exploring how vulnerabilities are shaped, experienced, resisted and what are its outcomes in marginalised and informal settings. I argue that support to the projects are a response to both material need and internalised constructions of social categorisation, relative underdevelopment and isolation, and perceived backwardness relative to other communities.

Drawing on eight months of multi-sited qualitative research, I demonstrate how lived experience of precarity endows individuals and groups with local and experiential knowledge of working with the state to their advantage through negotiation, even though these negotiations are not always fruitful. Considering emerging debates on precarity, this paper builds on, and contributes to, the growing scholarship on the contentious politics resulting from hydropower development in marginal locations of the Himalayas.