Disaster Relief and the Sovereignty of Knowledge

In July, Assistant Professor Saptarishi Bandopadhyay will be visiting Melbourne Law School as a host of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities.  During his stay, Saptarishi will be presenting his latest research which studies the relationship between national assertions of sovereignty during disaster relief operations.

image credit: Roland Verant "30 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster" (2019).

What can near histories of disaster relief teach us about the character and integrity of sovereign authority? In this paper, Bandopadhyay investigates disaster relief operations in India (tsunami, 2004), Myanmar (cyclone, 2008) and Haiti (earthquake, 2010). He argues that the politics of disaster relief and the lessons of Global Warming discourse oblige us to understand ‘sovereignty,’ a core tenet of international law, as a show of technoscientific (epistemic) prowess.

The common distinction between scientific and political authority is a nineteenth-century artifice. For over three centuries, rulers have understood that political authority is sustained by the perceived reliability of knowledge claims about how best to regulate society’s relationship with nature. Today, foreign intervention in disaster relief operations is seen as a fundamental challenge to state sovereignty. But whether the challenge is justified as moral, political or legal, it is always a wager against the state’s ability to correctly balance natural forces and social expectations.

Employing insights from Environmental History, critical International Legal Theory, and Science and Technology Studies, Bandopadhyay contends that political sovereignty is a peace-time indulgence earned on the back of technoscientific shrewdness; it is a luxury that is immediately and existentially tested in the aftermath of crises that once marked epochs but now occur weekly.

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Professor Bandopadhyay’s research and teaching interests are in the areas of intellectual property (particularly, copyright), disaster management, environmental law and politics, as well as issues related to risk, technology and society. Professor Bandopadhyay’s work often integrates historical, socio- scientific and humanities research into legal analyses.

He has served as a Visiting Professor and Catalyst Fellow at Osgoode, and an adjunct faculty at Northeastern University School of Law. He has received the Irving Oberman Memorial Environmental Law Prize and the Abram Chayes International Public Service Fellowship. He has also received research and advocacy fellowships from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University’s Office for Scholarly Communication, the Public International Law and Policy Group, the Center for International Environmental Law, and the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

Professor Bandopadhyay has studied disasters in the borderlands between India, Pakistan, and China, and in the Philippines. His doctoral dissertation at Harvard, entitled: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Disasters: Early Modern Precedents to Twenty-First Century Disaster Management, 1660-1800,’ offered a socio-legal history of the emergence of disaster management practices in relation to the rise of the State in the early modern period.