Rising Temperatures

The Visceral Temporality of Urban Development in India’s “Air Conditioned City”

The following is a summary of the SUNTA Graduate Paper Prize Winning Paper for 2016

On April 24, 2016, Bengaluru recorded its hottest temperature since 1931 at 39.2 degrees Celsius (102.6 Fahrenheit) (The Hindu 2016). There’s still time for 2017 to top that score. It seems that each year the thermostat reaches new heights in India’s “IT Capital” and one of its fastest growing cities. Bengaluru’s upward trend in average temperatures is a common topic of conversation throughout the city, and during my eighteen months of doctoral fieldwork (June 2014–January 2016) I heard time and again the common lament that the city’s temperature never used to get above 25 degrees Celsius, for example, but now it’s 35 or worse. Or that it used to rain every evening during the summer, but now the city remains dry and steeped in heat.

With time I realized that these common descriptions of Bengaluru’s changing weather were narratives about larger processes of transformation in the city. Bengaluru has long been known for its temperate weather, earning it the title of India’s naturally “air conditioned city.” As temperatures rise, city residents link the loss of the city’s clement weather with other concerns about the changing cityscape. Urban buildup, deforestation, the loss of water bodies, proliferating waste, and traffic congestion are all topics of conversation among diverse swaths of society, from domestic workers to auto rickshaw drivers to IT professionals. Focusing on narratives of rising temperatures allows us to understand how these interlinked urban transformations are felt. Experiences of heat link rapid urban development with embodied experiences of the city, illustrating what Purnima Mankekar calls the “affective potency” of temporality (Mankekar 2015). Critiques of Bengaluru’s worsening weather tell a story of urban transformation through what it feels like to occupy space in the changing cityscape. As Deepa, a lifelong resident of the city, put it, “there is no winter anymore… We don’t even need to take out a pullover.”

Rising temperatures have become a key site for Bengaluru’s residents to discuss and denounce unchecked urban buildup.

Narratives of Bengaluru’s worsening weather provide an entry point into broader criticisms of the unbridled urban expansion that is believed to have destroyed the tranquil city that came before. This feeling of loss was most commonly expressed in terms of the two competing cityscapes of Bengaluru: the “Garden City” and “IT Capital.” Bengaluru’s botanical gardens and tree-lined boulevards have long held a special place in the national and local imagination of the city (see Nagendra 2016). Today, the green landscapes and moderate temperatures that characterized the city are felt to be rapidly slipping away as lakebeds are drained for development and trees felled for highway overpasses.

The majority of Bengaluru residents with whom I spoke associated the decline of the “Garden City” with the rise of the city’s status as India’s “IT Capital,” drawing a direct line between the IT boom that began about three decades ago, the municipal policies that support it, and the rapid urbanization that has drastically altered the city. In describing the effects of the IT industry on his hometown, Chenappa suggested that urban buildup had worsened the city’s weather: “Now we are facing the temperature. It was an A/C city, now the lakes are closed and concrete buildings have come. So automatically we have to face the consequences.” These connections between the IT industry, urbanization, and hotter temperatures are also made in scientific discourse about Bengaluru’s changing weather. Two researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, T.V. Ramachandra and Uttam Kumar (2010), use the framework of the “urban heat island” to make an explicit link between rising temperatures and urban development in Bengaluru. They argue that the drastic reduction in green spaces and water bodies over the past few decades have played a central role in the city’s changing weather.

In registers both scientific and popular, rising temperatures have become a key site for Bengaluru’s residents to discuss and denounce unchecked urban buildup. Such critiques capture the temporality of Bengaluru’s change. Rather than positioning the city’s worsening weather within the framework of global climate change—which is indeed a common topic of conversation in relation to other challenges such as declining rainfall and agricultural insecurity—commentary about heat in Bengaluru is linked with the specific history of urbanization. As such, visceral experiences of rising temperatures provide a way to depict and critique the effects of unplanned and uncontrolled urban development. There is potential, then, for weather to serve as a platform that can bring together a wide range of communities in Bengaluru to demand that urban planners and policymakers consider the effects of development on human bodies and urban ecologies.

That said, while the felt effects of the temperature recorded on the thermostat might offer a shared experience of urbanization, the ability to mediate hotter weather differs along socioeconomic lines. Whether one can retreat to the refuge of an air-conditioned home, car, and office significantly alters one’s experience of the changing cityscape. Indeed, it is often the most marginal communities who are at the deadly front lines of high temperatures. (For a public health analysis of the links between socioeconomic status and heat-related deaths, see Kovats and Hajat 2008). In addition, by focusing critique on larger policies and processes of urbanization, complaints about rising temperatures among the middle and upper class often neglect the role of individual consumption patterns in the worsening urban environment. As Amita Baviskar notes, much of the middle class’s environmental activism is “subverted by the class’s own toxic enchantment with automobiles” (2011).

In Bengaluru, as elsewhere in India, it is largely the middle class that sets the policy agenda for urban environmentalism (see Baviskar 2011; Mawdsley 2004). While the associated relationship between the decay of the “Garden City” and the rise of the “IT Capital” place these two imagined cityscapes in competition, both cityscapes have been shaped by the political power of the middle class (see Nair 2005). Today, many of the efforts to counter Bengaluru’s rising temperatures privilege the concerns and desires of the urban middle class. For example, programs for lake preservation often privilege leisure over livelihood activities (Unnikrishnan and Nagendra 2014). Lakes are fenced off and visitor activities are restricted to those that are primarily recreational, preventing nearby village communities’ use of these spaces for activities such as fishing, washing, and collecting fodder.

The privatization of green spaces is not the only way in which the middle class enacts environmental politics. There are other initiatives, such as the recent campaign to stop the construction of a large steel overpass, that have demonstrated the potential for environmental concerns to bring together a wider range of frustrations and demands (see Shree 2016). The visceral effects of changing weather patterns might offer an opportunity to find common experiences of urbanization that can serve as a galvanizing platform for collective critique of the ecological and social harm of uncontrolled and unsustainable urban development. Yet the potential for solidarity across class lines is limited by existing disparities in both contributions to and ability to deflect the effects of rising temperatures. Still, I wish to leave open the potential for narratives of rising temperatures to create space for discussion of different experiences, concerns, and hopes for the future of India’s “air conditioned city.”

Camille Frazier is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at UCLA.

Cite as: Frazier, Camille. 2017. “Rising Temperatures.” Anthropology News website, July 28, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.521

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