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Book Review: Building Back Better in India

Book review of Raja Swamy's Building Back Better in India: Development, NGOs, and Artisanal Fishers after the 2004 Tsunami (2021)

Published onNov 28, 2022
Book Review: Building Back Better in India

Building Back Better in India: Development, NGOs, and Artisanal Fishers after the 2004 Tsunami, by Raja Swamy (2021). Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. 

Raja Swamy’s Building Back Better in India is a timely contribution to critical disaster studies—a field, which has grown over the past 15 years, as the social sciences have sought to grasp the social and economic dynamics that constitute manmade and environmental disasters. Referencing how disasters in other contexts—such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—were transformed into opportunities for capital accumulation, Swamy takes the reader into the world of post-disaster reconstruction in India in the years following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. 

Swamy explores the struggles and dynamics involved as an amalgam of NGOs, the state, and international capital working to respatialize the coast and displace artisanal fishers from their fishing grounds. In doing so, he sheds light on abstract principles intrinsic to “disaster capitalism” (Schuller 2008): neoliberalization and the rapid expansions of markets for capital accumulation in the wake of the tsunami’s destruction in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. This region sustained the most extensive material damage and loss of life during the 2004 tsunami and has also historically been the home to a small-scale, artisanal fishery. 

Swamy draws a detailed picture of how the rebuilding efforts relied on a constructed discursive separation of “the economy” on one hand, from the livelihoods of fisherfolk as operating on the fringes of the formal economy on the other. This separation was instrumental for the state-led promotion of economic development projects underwritten by the ideals of development and modernization. Swamy shows how it came into being through a complex manipulation of laws, such that the re-zoning of coastal areas eventually prohibited the re-establishment of fishing communities near their prior fishing grounds. 

The fishers’ displacement was not met without resistance. In this regard, not only is Building Back Better in India a detailed ethnography of a post-disaster response, but it also challenges politically mobilized narratives of demobilized populations in the wake of disaster-related traumas. Swamy’s interlocutors appear not merely as passive victims, but as active, political, and historical subjects resisting, and at times subverting, the onslaught of different scales of power—both in the wake of the tsunami and also prior to it.

The book is divided into three parts. In part one, “Nagapattinam,” Swamy describes the devastating effects of the tsunami and how a depoliticized rebuilding process—a key feature of disaster capitalism—played out in its aftermath. The second chapter details the structures of politics, kinship, and gendered divisions of labor that make up the artisanal fishery as well as pre-tsunami efforts to industrialize the coast via aquaculture projects aided by World Bank loans. With this example, Swamy provides a historical backdrop to understand the deeper politico-economic context upon which the post-tsunami rebuilding process hinged. Furthermore, by detailing the ways in which earlier attempts to displace fisherfolk were resisted—oftentimes most forcefully by women from fishing communities—he establishes early on that the question of agency is central to his inquiry. 

In part 2, “The Politics of Humanitarianism,” Swamy explores the humanitarian sector and analyzes the logics of work carried out by international aid organizations. Drawing on Vincanne Adams’ 2013 ethnography of post-Katrina New Orleans, Swamy frames the daily operations of NGO workers in Nagapattinam as a form of “affective labor” (Hardt and Negri 2005) in a context characterized by highly unequal relations between local and international NGO workers. He shows how the distribution of aid was driven by a logic akin to that constitutive of a gift economy. Yet he also shows how such logic was at times circumvented by fisherfolk as they re-circulated and exchanged “tsunami houses” gifted to them by NGOs despite the absence of legal titles of ownership. Swamy thus challenges a discourse advance by NGO representatives and politicians who represented fisherfolk as hapless victims engaged in subsistence-like economic activities. More powerfully, however, part two of the book is an engagement with the ways in which power and politics operate beyond the state. Here Swamy mobilizes a Gramscian understanding of civil society as a site of contestation and struggle, thus pointing to the ways in which the years following the tsunami opened possibilities for claim-making beyond those directly related to post-disaster reconstruction.

In the final part of the book, “Economic Development and Humanitarian Aid,” Swamy explores how local experiences of history were silenced in the place-branding efforts aimed at promoting a version of heritage tourism that relied on the colonial-era idea of this area being “untouched.” He discusses how Danish investors and representatives of the Danish state—a former colonizing power on the Nagapattinam coast—were central agents in this regard. Drawing on Tamil literary sources from the first millennium, Swamy asserts the long-standing presence of fisherfolk in the area and the significance of the coast for local lives and livelihoods. He also shows how this aspect of history was operationalized by fisherfolk in the present to make claims on the coast and its future during post-tsunami reconstruction. 

By making connections in time and space—from colonial relations to contemporary investments—Building Back Better in India is an important intervention that asserts the necessity to grasp the phenomenon of disasters beyond their eventfulness. Beyond being significant for the field of critical disaster studies, Swamy’s book is relevant for readers interested in NGOs and NGOization, subaltern studies, the dynamics of power and resistance, gendered divisions of labor, and transformations in work. In this sense, the book is not only a convincing account of the aftermath of a disaster but an engaging ethnography for anthropology at large. 



Adams, Vincanne. 2013. Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2005. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press.

Schuller, Mark. 2008. “Deconstructing the Disaster after the Disaster: Conceptualizing Disaster Capitalism.” In Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction, edited by Nandini Guewardena and Mark Schuller, 17-28. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.


Author Biography:

Tilde Siglev is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and social anthropology at the Central European University in Vienna. Her dissertation explores racial politics, labor, and the intersection of economic and environmental precarity in the commercial fishery of coastal Louisiana, USA.

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