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.
At Sheffield, Megnaa is working on a book manuscript based on 22 months of long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the Sundarbans, tentatively titled “Conserving Life: Political Imaginaries from a Submerging 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 July 2022 to January 2023 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.
Mehtta, M. (2021) ‘Crab Antics: The moral and political economy of greed accusations in the submerging Sundarbans Delta of India. In the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI). Volume 27 Issue 3 https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.13551
Mehtta, M. (2020) ‘A New Crisis and an Old Conversation: Reflections on Quotidian Care in the Sundarbans’. In American Ethnologist Pandemic Diaries on “Intersecting Crises” ed. Calynn Dowler [Accessed Here]
Hughes, G. Mehtta, M. C, Bresciani et. al (2019) ‘Ugly Emotions and the Politics of Accusations’. Co-edited a Special Issue and co-authored the Introduction to the Special Issue. Volume 37, Issue 2 at the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology https://doi.org/10.3167/cja.2019.370202
Intimate Antagonisms and Unlikely Friendships between State and Society in the Sundarbans Forests of India. Preparing revisions for Current Anthropology.
Edmonds, C. Mehtta, M. Noy, I. Banik, P (2021) The Climate (Ir)resilient Society of the Indian Sundarbans: Tropical Cyclones, Sea Level Rise, and Mortality Risk in The Palgrave Handbook of Climate Resilient Societies
Mehtta, M. (2020) A Forest of Refuge, or a Forest of Refugees? Moral Valences of Risky Work in the Sundarbans of West Bengal in the edited volume The Tides of Life: A Sundarbans Anthology (ed. Aditya Ghosh).
Mehtta, M. (2019) Unembanking Habitations and Imaginations: Ebbs and flows of the politics of life in the Sundarbans forests of India. Essay in Monsoon Ontologies, an interdisciplinary inquiry into relations between changing monsoon climates and rapid urban growth in South Asia. (ed. Lindsay Bremner)
2021. ‘A ‘Licence’ to Kill in the Sundarbans’ in The India Forum which reveals how the violence of colonial era licences is on par with rising sea levels, cyclones and tiger-attacks. [Access Here]
2021. ‘The quintessential prey: Care, coexistence and predation in a recent Hindi film on human-animal relations’ for Himal Southasian [Access here]
2021. ‘A sinking island of political pawns’ a newspaper article in The Telegraph co-authored with Kalpita Bhar Paul [Access Here]
2020. ‘Is the Managed Retreat Plan for the Sundarbans Misguided’ a two-part series for The Diplomat, critiquing the technocratic plan to relocate large populations from the coastlines of the Sundarbans as a result of sea level rise. Co-authored with Debjani Bhattacharyya [Access Here]
2020. ‘Is concrete the way forward in rebuilding the Sundarbans?’ newspaper article in The Telegraph co- authored with Debjani Bhattacharyya [Access Here]
2020. ‘A Fishy Marriage: Dignity and Distress in the Sundarbans’ written for a fundraising publication organised by students of Jadavpur University, Kolkata, highlighting the counterintuitive causes of increased child marriage in the Sundarbans in the aftermath of cyclones.
Interview with SAPIENS on ‘How to Survive Climate Change in the India-Bangladesh Borderlands.’ [Access Here]
Interview for Himal Southasian “What the Sundarbans tells us” in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan [Listen here]
Interview for The Being Human Show by the RAI – “Conservation and Human-Animal Distancing” [Listen here]
Interview with Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio (NPR) for an episode titled “Meet Bonbibi: The Indian Forest Goddess Worshipped Across Religions” [Listen here]
Twitter Handle: @MMehtta