Governance and Societies Confronted with Environmental Challenges


International Research Network (IRN) Scientific Project

Coordinator: Frédéric Landy (section 39)

French Instituteof Pondicherry (UMIFRE 21, USR 3330)

Countries involved in the project:

India, China, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore

Multidisciplinary Project

The origin of this IRN SustainAsia project is based on two findings:

  • Scientifically, the need to examine more thoroughly the challenges raised in Asia by a fast-paced, spatially heterogeneous economic growth, that takes place in a fragile environment;
  • From an institutional viewpoint, the interest of a project federating the sub-network of the 5UMIFREs of Asia in order to constitute a “network of networks”.

1. State of Play: three major disruptions

The majority of the world’s population currently lives in Asia (58 %in 2017). This established fact is the result of an exceptional population growth, which went along with an equally remarkable economic and urban growth.

A first disruption however,is related to the unequal nature of this growth, which often leaves millions of men and women in utter destitution, and it has led to the creation or reinforcement of a small elite which is disconnecting herself from the rest of the population.

A second disruption lies in the very high urban expansion.While the importance of cities in Asia is old and often older than that of Western cities, their dimensions have reached unprecedented proportions. However, this goes hand in hand with the on going development of small towns and, in countries like India and several South-East Asian countries, with the growth of the absolute number of individuals living in rural areas. There is therefore an obvious paradox: the Asian continent is rife with cities but the number of its urban dwellers remains below 50% of the total population (49% in 2017).

Then, a third of these disruptions resides in the intensifying pressure on the natural environment. In cities, issues related to the quantity and quality of water, air and parks still represent a general problem, as it is recalled by frequent episodes of very high pollution affecting Delhi or Beijing. While air pollution affects all social categories almost equally, things are different when it comes to sanitation problems and water quality which concentrate their negative sanitary impacts on the most disadvantaged classes.

Furthermore,Asia’s natural environments are fragile, especially considering their population densities. This gives a highly worrying result as regards ecological resilience, which makes research development in these domains –sciences of environment of course, but also human and social sciences – all the more pressing.

2. Research to Be Networked

Through this international research network project, we intend to pool together the expertise accumulated in the five French UMIFRES located in Asia, as well as five of their local partners and the UMR PALOC, in order to shed a scientific light on the challenges posed by high and unequal economic growth in a fragile environment.

Therefore, we propose:

  • Multidisciplinary or even transdisciplinary research: in addition to the privilege of being established in strategic Asian countries, our UMIFREs gather researchers from all disciplines in human and social sciences tackling these issues, in addition to a team of ecologists working at the French Institute of Pondicherry.
  • Comparative research: each of the above mentioned thematic subsets will be addressed by several UMIFREs, so as to compare situations and processes that often differ highly from one country to the next, or to compare approaches, methodologies and scientific traditions peculiar to each of these countries.
  • Networked research: transdisciplinary networks, as well as trans-UMIFRE networks and, beyond, international networks (between France and six Asian countries).

2.1.The challenge of inclusive growth

The researchconducted in this perspective has a double purpose.

a) Developing and implementing new tools for measuring inequalities adapted to the multidimensionality and ordinalityof the variables concerned.

b) Empirically approaching the effectsof the disruptions thatthese inequalities entail in Asia

2.2.Territorial organisation of human activities

The first research work concerns ongoing agrarian transitions and the possible role of agro-ecology as a partial solution to rural overpopulation in many regions. These rural evolutions must be seen together with concomitant urban dynamics, where these can support each other.

Another research work is focused on in equalities as regards exposure to risks.

Investigation can then lead to the problems of spatial as well as social justice.

2.3.Degradation of the environment, public policies and political ecology.

The research conducted here questions the relationship between public policies and civil society in particular.What trends of social contestation or ecological initiatives emanate from the local populations, in the context of their resistance against top-down development logics?

Another part of the research aims at studying the resilience and strategies of local populations confronted with environmental challenges. The reactions of the affected population vary widely, between calls on the public authorities and the everyday practice of more or less efficient adaptation techniques.

Finally, a last main line of research consists in questioning the actual relationship between human beings and their environment. Cultural diversity in South-East and South Asia indeed questions the plurality of vernacular conceptions of nature, far from the nature-culture dichotomy favoured by Modernity.

3. Our Network

Our project links each UMIFRE with one or several local partner institution, as well as a wider network of researchers.As such, we intend to create a“network of networks”, to which UMR PALOC, based in France, shall be added.

UMIFRE - Proposed Asian partner

IFP: - IIT-Madras andMIDS, Chennai

CSH: - Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi

IRASEC: - Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok

CEFC: - Hong Kong University of Sciences and Technology

MFJ: - Universityof Tokyo (Department of Urban Engineering)

4. Practical Organisation of the Researchand Calendar

The IRN carries out networking for three types of research works:

  • Research which has been already successfully completed, with publications, and which will benefit from a newlight with the IRN, thanks above all to a comparative approach: writing joint articles following workshops and visits in the field, etc.
  • Research which is ongoing, which can be reoriented thanks to the meetings and interactions organised by the IRN;
  • Future projects that will be drafted during IRN workshops and, if they are financed in the meantime (ANR, ERC, other funders…), that could be started within the framework of the planned four years.

Meetings of two types take place:

  • National or regional workshops: However, the regional meetings are not included in the budget of the IRN.
  • International meetings: following an exceptional financial support of €8 000 from the INSHS, a network prelaunch project meeting took place at the IFP of Pondicherry in October 2018 (two days for the workshop + one day for a field trip). An annual meeting shall be organised by each UMIFRE, till the network closing conference (Singapore or Paris) in 2023.