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Unbraiding the Brahmaputra

Children play on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

Children play on the banks of the Brahmaputra.   | Photo Credit: Akshay Mahajan

What is the price of a river older than the Himalayas, one that supports a civilisation, an entire ecosystem?

The plans are of a scale that matches the river; the Brahmaputra, after all, is the mightiest river in the Indian subcontinent. It’s huge—roughly 10 kilometres wide in upper Assam— and has an average discharge of 700,000 cubic feet of water per second. But numbers are a poor measure of its power.

When you stand on one bank of the Brahmaputra, in most places, you cannot see the other bank. Last year, it swept away a full-grown male elephant from Assam into Bangladesh. There were videos of the animal struggling helplessly against the current. This year, as usual, the floods have begun. Thanks to mobile phone cameras, there are videos again. One undated video shows grainy, shaky footage of a concrete house standing next to the river. There is a commotion, people shouting. The audio is not clear. Suddenly, the house starts to sink. The earth on which it stands is being swallowed by the river. In less than 30 seconds, it is gone. A minute later, there are only ripples in the muddy brown water where it stood.

At the conclusion of the first Namami Brahmaputra festival earlier this year, Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for road transport, highways and shipping, announced that the government would dredge the river. The plan is to use sand from the riverbed to build two expressways on the banks. Gadkari wants a 45-metre-wide channel of the river dredged all the way from Sadiya in upper Assam to Bangladesh, for use as a transport corridor to the Chittagong port there and the Haldia port in West Bengal. The expressways will together be 1,300 kilometres long—about twice the length of the river in Assam.

Greedy plans

On May 26, India’s longest bridge, 9.15 kilometres across the Brahmaputra from Dhola Ghat to Sadiya, was inaugurated. Meanwhile, China is building a series of four dams across Yarlung Tsangpo, Brahmaputra’s longest tributary, in Tibet. These “run of the river” projects do not store the water in large reservoirs and are less damaging to the environment than conventional dams. At least one of these, the Zangmu Dam, is complete. On the Indian side, the plans are greedier: India wants to build 168 dams on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The origins of these plans go back to the Brahmaputra Board of the 1980s. Stout local opposition has prevented these dams from being built so far. If they do come into existence, they will kill one of the last great free-flowing rivers in the world—a river that, according to geologists, may be older than the Himalayas.

The Brahmaputra is central to all forms of life in the valley that bears its name. Nature has worked over millennia to weave an intricate web around the waters of the great river, and its seasonal ebbs and flows. Civilisations evolved along its banks to coexist with its rhythms. Legends and myths grew around it. Even today, ancient Hindu pilgrimage sites whose origins are lost in time exist in its remote upper reaches.

There is a place called Parshuram Kund nestled in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district. It is a place associated with an origin myth of the Brahmaputra, son of Brahma. The story goes that the Hindu god of creation, Brahma, sired the river, which was born as a kund or lake. Much later, Parashuram, a Brahmin who had axed his mother to death, arrived there to wash away his terrible sin. The axe had stuck to his hand and defeated all his efforts to get rid of it. But here, it came loose. He flung it away with all his might. It carved a path through the mountains, and the river began to flow. Its waters were red, and so it was called Lohit, from ‘lahu’, meaning blood.

Brahmapurta, the world’s last great free-flowing river.

Brahmapurta, the world’s last great free-flowing river.   | Photo Credit: Akshay Mahajan

Parshuram Kund today is a small village with a few ramshackle bamboo dhabas. The owner of one where we stopped to eat was having a discussion with his neighbour when my friend Akshay and I arrived. A snake was stuck in the water pipe, and the dhaba’s water supply was disrupted. I suggested putting netting at the inlets to prevent such incidents. After a simple but tasty meal, we went to look for lodging for the night.

There was only one place to stay—the Parshuram ashram. A kindly baba gave us rooms that had not been opened since Makar Sankranti nine months ago. We gingerly cleared out rat droppings and cobwebs and rolled out our sleeping bags, hoping no snake or animal would disturb us. It was a night of darkness such as no city dweller ever sees. The stars were jewels of light in a blanket of blackness so thick you could not see your hand in front of you. The roar of the Lohit River, one of the principal tributaries of the Brahmaputra, was loud in the silence.

Arteries of silver

Early next morning, we walked down to Lohit, picking our way carefully on a slippery path thick with moss. Where the path ended was a torrent. The sound of water made conversation difficult; we had to shout to be heard and communicated in gestures. Words in any case seemed inappropriate. This was a primeval place, where the river, crashing against rocks and foaming white, did the talking. The icy cold water was crystal clear; whatever redness it acquires is from picking up sediments further downriver. There is a place in the hills not far from here where you can see the valley laid out at your feet—green and gold, laced with arteries of silver, of which the central one is the Brahmaputra.

We drove down from this vantage point to Sadiya, on the north bank of the river, the spot where the new bridge has come up. It is a place steeped in ancient myths. Rukmini, the wife of Krishna, is said to have been from an ancient kingdom that existed there. Historically, the evidence only goes back to a kingdom called the Chutiya kingdom—now spelt Sutiya—whose remains dating to the 12th century were swallowed up by the Brahmaputra when it rose after a great earthquake in 1950. The descendants of the people who built that kingdom are still around, scattered across upper Assam.

Crossing the river by wooden ferry is a slow task—it has no fixed departure or arrival times. It goes when it is full. On the other side, not far from the town of Tinsukia, is Guijan ghat. It sits on the banks of a surging brown river called Dibru. On the Dibru’s far bank is an island, 350 sq. km. in size and home to tigers, leopards, elephants, bears, wild buffaloes, feral horses, and numerous species of birds.

Early one morning, after a night spent on a houseboat, we set off for this island in a bhut-bhuti, a handmade wooden boat with a loud motor.

On the ferry to the far bank of the Dibru.

On the ferry to the far bank of the Dibru.   | Photo Credit: Akshay Mahajan

Our crew consisted of boatman Radhabinod Pal, a wiry, middle-aged Bengali, and his underage apprentice Amit, a shy boy of 13 whose job was to bail water from the leaky boat with a tin can.

The craft rode downstream on the racing Dibru, to a point at the tip of the island, and then turned upstream into a narrow channel barely 100 metres wide. Signs of human habitation had ceased by now. The vegetation, which was initially kaash grass taller than a man, had now given way to trees that huddled close together. Water birds took flight at our noisy approach. The river held hidden dangers: underwater tree stumps could rip out the bottom of the boat.

Pal left the rudder to the boy and positioned himself at the prow, peering intently ahead and making gestures for Amit to steer by. The intensity of his hand gestures were a measure of the urgency with which we needed to swerve to avoid being sunk. Once or twice he turned to glare at Amit; we probably had a few close calls.

The heat increased. Conversation ceased. We wiped the sweat from our brows. On the banks, trees again gave way to grasslands. Then, suddenly, around a bend in the river, we came upon a landscape the likes of which I have never seen anywhere.

The channel met a wider channel… but there was another channel flowing away from it. Then another, flowing in, and another, and another, all flowing in various directions. Sandbars and rivulets, some broadening into rivers, stretched all the way to the horizon. It was a water world. It was the Brahmaputra.

The Brahmaputra is called a “braided river”. Here, around the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, is where it is truly born. Before this, there are only the tributaries—the Siang, Lohit, Dibang, and many others. This water world around Dibru Saikhowa is where they meet to become the river the bard of Assam, Bhupen Hazarika, called Mahabahu, the mighty.

The channel met a wider channel and then another...

The channel met a wider channel and then another...   | Photo Credit: Akshay Mahajan

Pal pointed our boat into a channel. He seemed to know his way from instinct and memory. He had in any case been navigating by sight. Maps would be useless. A channel with water today may run dry a week later. A little rivulet may change course. A sandbar may appear, or be washed away.

The banks closed in on us. The channel narrowed and became shallower. Had Pal made a mistake? It was too hot and humid even to ask. Speaking was an effort.

Dangerous humans

The boat came to a halt. Wordlessly, Pal leapt out. He anchored and motioned for us to follow and started walking. Around us was open grassland. The sweat poured off us in buckets. “This is a green desert,” Akshay said.

I managed to catch up with Pal. “Where are we going,” I asked. “To see the wild horses,” he replied. We walked on in silence. Before us was a riverbed that seemed to have run dry very recently—perhaps a day or two ago. There were still pools and little channels of water, but it was possible to walk across. Pal shaded his eyes, looked across the riverbed, into a clump of forest and grassland, and declared “they are there,” before beginning to trot rapidly across a relatively dry section. We were about to follow when he called out, “Run across and don’t stop. It’s quicksand.”

The prospect of sinking gave us a fresh burst of energy. We raced across, struggling through the soft sand, leaving footsteps five or six inches deep, and staggered to the other side. A thin path led deeper into the wooded grassland. The undergrowth thickened. Suddenly, I heard loud snorts. Pal and Akshay had disappeared around a bend. I quickened my pace and was just in time to see Pal duck. I followed suit. Akshay, after a moment of masterly inactivity spent fanning himself with his hat, did likewise.

It was a herd of wild buffalo, massive creatures with sweeping horns—among the most dangerous animals in these forests. In Africa, in the days of big game hunting, the Cape buffalo, which is smaller than the Indian wild buffalo, was considered one of the ‘big five’ along with the lion, elephant, leopard and rhino. More snorts followed.

I considered my options and decided I would have to risk sinking in quicksand if they charged. There was a rumble of hooves. Fortunately, the skittish animals had decided to run away from us rather than at us.

Chasing wild horses on the island.

Chasing wild horses on the island.   | Photo Credit: Akshay Mahajan

We resumed our march. Shortly after, we were rewarded with the sight of a group of wild horses, including a little colt. Pal went around behind them and they took off, racing past us, manes flying in the wind.

We did not venture deeper where the elephants are, a march of days. That would need a proper expedition and some security; the animals are fine, but there are often dangerous humans in these jungles. Poachers and insurgents are said to hide out here. Rafts of trees illegally felled from reserve forests in Arunachal Pradesh float down the Brahmaputra regularly. Corrupt forest and police officers, poachers and members of militant groups—they all profit from the trade.

They are eating away the forests like locusts, but nonetheless, they are the relatively small fry. When their disorganised loot gives way to corporations that have sharks in suits, the game will change. The logic of profit and loss rides on a purely utilitarian understanding of the world. It reduces nature to “natural resources” and people to “human resources”. Its method is the method of counting and measuring; every quality is reduced to a quantity, a number.

How many megawatts of power can the Brahmaputra and its tributaries generate? How many millions in “shareholder value” will it be worth? What is the price of a river older than the Himalayas, which supports an entire ancient ecosystem? And what, indeed, is the price of the ecosystem itself?

After editing newspapers around India, @mrsamratx chucked up the rat race to spend his time in more pleasant activities such as writing books and being chased by wild buffaloes.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 3:04:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/unbraiding-the-brahmaputra/article19192861.ece

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