Megnaa Mehtta is an environmental anthropologist with an interest in the political economy of values, emotions and ideas of well-being and how they relate to debates in global conservation and political ecology. Her research explores how ethics, economics, mythologies and desires co-constitute peoples’ relationship to the landscapes in which they live and work. She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science in January 2020. Her doctoral research, based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the Sundarbans forests of India, interrogated what it means to conserve life for those living alongside a submerging global conservation hotspot.
At Sheffield, Megnaa is working on a book manuscript tentatively titled “Conserving Life: Political Imaginaries from a Forest”. The book explores the various potencies—from Sufi religious figures to endemic storms to colonial forestry—that animate contemporary life and imaginations in the Bengal Delta. Her research aims to make the selective process of conservation more visible, and to make sense of it. Who and what are worth conserving? Who chooses? Does the choice to conserve certain lives, values, skills and myths obliterate others? With a careful attention to Bengal’s historical inheritances, the mobility of people, ideas, spirits, stories and deities across the Indian Ocean, and based on extensive fieldwork with Sundarbans fishers, Forest Department bureaucrats, national rights activists, eco-tourism agents, and various nodes in the global supply chain, she explores how different actors imagine the Sundarbans forest and uphold entangled and competing conceptions of what to conserve. Ultimately, her research envisages a more expansive idea of what governs people’s lives and how, in turn, we might reconceive ideas of forest governance in the Sundarbans and beyond.
Alongside her academic writing, Megnaa mediates between a wide range of environmental stakeholders, including Delhi and Kolkata-based lawyers, activists, filmmakers and conservationists with the hope to contribute to conversations and initiatives at the intersection of law, civil society and anthropology that work toward more convivial forms of conservation. This is part of her longer-term interest in the intellectual potential of anthropology, both through its methodology of long-term participant observation and the concepts it generates, to co-create alternatives to the current political, ecological and economic impasse and renew ways of caring for our environmental (and other) commons.
From August 2020 to January 2021 she will be a visiting fellow at the International Centre for Advanced Studies: Metamorphoses of the Political (ICAS:MP) in New Delhi. Previously she has worked on issues of alternative politics in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Udaipur, Rajasthan. A semester at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, during her undergraduate years at Yale University, played a seminal role in shaping her as an anthropologist.
Research interests: political ecology; conservation; environmental commons; forest governance; anthropology of emotions & ethics; landscapes of fear; monsoons; mythology; ritual; notions of sufficiency and consumption; women’s (re)productive labour; global supply chains; rights-activism; migration; ecological refugees; illegality; enchantment.