“Hell Is Empty”: Verticality, Property, and the Nature of India’s Coal Fires, 1908–75

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 8:30 AM
Beekman Room (New York Hilton)
Matthew Shutzer, Harvard University
Mine fires in the Jharia coalfield of eastern India have been burning since the early twentieth century, producing a charred geography of former farm and forestland that over a million people depend upon for their livelihoods. The spectacular spread of these fires followed the movement of European and Indian capital into Jharia after 1908, which created an extractive landscape of underground fires and land subsidence described by one observer as a space that “began to eat itself.” This paper explores a series of court cases and scientific investigations in the twentieth century that attempted to ascribe compensatory responsibility for Jharia’s coal fires through the language and precedents of tort law. The paper will specifically focus on the emergence, during the interwar period, of a globally-circulating discourse of “spontaneous combustion” as the primary causal mechanism of mine fires in both Jharia and worldwide sites of fossil energy extraction. Rather than merely offering a social deconstruction of the discourse of “spontaneity,” this paper will instead trace the specific modes of legal thought spontaneity enabled, and the manner in which Indian tort law came to enact novel scientific classifications relating to the agency of nature. The conceptual content of this agency, I will argue, drew firstly from orientalist constructions regarding the fecundity of tropical environments, and secondly, from the legal ambiguity of the standing of subterranean property claims in colonial law. This account of the legal and environmental transformation of Jharia reframes histories of property regimes in South Asia by moving beyond state-centered genealogies of legal knowledge. In its place, the case of Jharia exemplifies the legal slippages that construct human and non-human agencies, and the adjudicatory limits of private property regimes in defining both singular and collective culpabilities for environmental destruction.
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