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Land and Livelihoods in Kalimpong, West Bengal, by Sarah Besky

Monday, September 14, 2020 at 11:15am

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While the colonial and contemporary agrarian economy of Bengal’s Himalayan foothills is most often associated with the tea plantations of Darjeeling and the Dooars, the small farms of nearby Kalimpong were also a key space in which colonial agents and missionaries worked to “settle” the mountainous terrain. Focused on Kalimpong, this paper traces the trajectory of one technology of settlement, agricultural extension, from the late 1880s to the early 1940s. It highlights colonial agricultural extension’s racialized and gendered politics, as well as its implication in a long-term biopolitical project that merged material (i.e. food) provision with social reproduction (i.e. childrearing, kin-making).

Agricultural extension created a patchwork of relatively biodiverse small farms in Kalimpong that historical and contemporary accounts describe as a “green belt:” a socio-ecological opposite and a definitive outside to the plantation monocultures that dominate the hills. Despite this sense of deep contrast, this article describes how extension work aimed at the productive and reproductive labor of Nepali, Bhutia, and Lepcha small farmers in Kalimpong was essential to the architecture of the plantation economy. Through a combination of missionary agricultural education, state cadastral surveying, forest conservation, and seed distribution, extension work in outsides like Kalimpong absorbed the plantation’s biological and moral excesses while replenishing its deficits.

Sarah Besky is Associate Professor in the Departments of International & Comparative Labor & Labor Relations, Law, & History in the ILR School at Cornell. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014) and Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea (University of California Press, 2020), as well as the co-editor of How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet (SAR Press, 2019). Her new research explores the intersections of agronomy, Tibetology, colonial governance, and small-scale farming in the Himalayan region of Kalimpong, West Bengal.


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ILR School, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Asian Studies, Labor Relations, Law, and History, South Asia Program, Anthropology





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