Caught in the current: Check out Abhijit Banerjee and Sarnath Banerjee’s series, Water Wars - Hindustan Times
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Caught in the current: Check out Abhijit Banerjee and Sarnath Banerjee’s series, Water Wars

Mar 29, 2024 04:30 PM IST

How have diet, real-estate, crime contributed to our water crises? Two great minds collaborate to offer answers, in a series of animated narrative short films.

An artist and an economist walk across a bridge…

A still from The Land of Good Intentions, on Punjab, rice and agriculture, illustrated by Sarnath Banerjee. (Courtesy MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and MIT Department of Economics) PREMIUM
A still from The Land of Good Intentions, on Punjab, rice and agriculture, illustrated by Sarnath Banerjee. (Courtesy MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and MIT Department of Economics)

If that sounds like the start of something, well, it has been.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Abhijit Banerjee, 63, and artist and graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee, 52, are working on an unusual project together.

Water Wars, which they have nicknamed The Insubordinate Lecture Series, is a mixed-media video-art series that aims to bridge the gap between the dryness of academic discourse and the vibrancy of everyday life. It’s an idea they came up with while on one of their long walks together.

The project consists of two short films (with a third in the making) that seek to trace the social, historical and economic roots of India’s evolving water crises, through questions such as: How does the collapse of Kolkata’s industrial sector in the 20th century factor into the city’s perennial urban floods? How do changes in our diet tie in with New Delhi’s smog crisis?

Funded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Center for Art, Science & Technology, the films are titled The Land of Good Intentions and The Eternal Swamp, are each about 17 minutes long, and are available on YouTube.

In The Land of Good Intentions, anecdotes about the cultural significance of rice and rotis leads into a historical analysis of the conditions and policies that led to the massive protests against the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s 2020 Farm Bills. The Eternal Swamp traces Kolkata’s flooding all the way back to the fallouts of 19th-century economic developments. A third film will look at a water crisis in South India.

The films exist in a liminal space between public lecture, animated documentary and Kolkata’s famous informal addas.

Abhijit Banerjee weaves history, personal anecdote and academic research into nuanced and illuminating scripts. (Bourtesy MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and MIT Department of Economics)
Abhijit Banerjee weaves history, personal anecdote and academic research into nuanced and illuminating scripts. (Bourtesy MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and MIT Department of Economics)

Acting as narrator, Abhijit Banerjee weaves history, personal anecdote and academic research into nuanced and illuminating scripts, touching upon everything from the Sikh tradition of langar to the nexus between crime, politics and the real-estate industry, while water remains, as Sarnath Banerjee puts it, “a solvent to dissolve all these other stories into”.

The artist’s wry illustrations — simple line-drawings and stop-motion animation — bring each tale to life, further infusing the abstract with the personal.

“This isn’t the kind of economics where you quickly close the book or you wait for the answer. It’s an economics which has stories that you will find familiar. Therefore, it’s an invitation to come inside and think [with us],” Abhijit says. “If you look at the places in the world that are really at the margins of water crises, India is absolutely one of them. If I had to pick something that’s a live, day-to-day issue for millions and millions and millions of people in India, it’s water.”

Battle stations

The Banerjees first met over a decade ago at the Mumbai Litfest. Despite Sarnath Banerjee’s initial distrust of economists (“a generation of us were taught to keep a healthy distance from classical economists,” he says), they quickly became close friends. They found common ground in a love for long, meandering discussions, and in their shared experience of growing up in Marxist Kolkata.

“We spent a lot of time just walking around different cities whenever we met, in Berlin, in Boston, in Delhi,” Sarnath says. “We would walk across Longfellow Bridge [in Boston] and share memories from the times we grew up in.”

The idea for Water Wars emerged from these ambulatory discussions. Could they, together, talk about important, substantive issues in a way that felt inviting to a lay audience?

They drew inspiration from the 19th-century tradition of theatrical public lectures, in which the likes of Charles Darwin, John Locke, Michael Faraday and Jagadish Chandra Bose made dramatic presentations of new scientific discoveries in global cities such as London, Berlin and Calcutta.

They were also inspired by the Scriblerus Club of 18th-century London, an informal association of writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope who came together to satirise the pomposity and pretentiousness of the academic discourse of their times. (Their nickname for the series draws on the spirit of this group too.)

“There’s a very clear manual of style that guides the way economists talk about the world,” Abhijit Banerjee says. “There are certain words and a certain amount of emphasis and weight that goes with them. The lecture series is insubordinate to all those things, all those canons.”

Central to the Water Wars series is the notion that short-term thinking and greed can often lead to bad policies and disastrous unintended consequences, a theme that both have riffed on before: Abhijit Banerjee in the 2011 book Poor Economics, which he co-authored with wife and fellow Nobel laureate Esther Duflo; and Sarnath in his 2015 book All Quiet In Vikaspuri, a dystopian graphic novel about a near-future Delhi in which neighbourhoods fight brutal wars over water.

With Water Wars, Abhijit and Sarnath are also making a case for the role of storytelling in the social sciences, at a time when the field is increasingly suspicious of narrative.

As Harvard political scientist Gary King wrote in 2014, “the social sciences are in the midst of an historic change, with large parts moving from the humanities to the sciences…” New technologies have given researchers access to vast amounts of data, and the ability to analyse such data quickly and effectively.

But, the economist and the artist seek to argue, narrative is as essential as ever.

“A story offers people the option of making something their own, because they can carry that away, take it with them,” Abhijit Banerjee says. “There are many studies, but in that sense it is the story that becomes transportable, and that’s part of the goal of any science — to create certain narratives that people can utilise in their own lives. Otherwise the whole thing is a bit pointless, isn’t it?”

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