environment Reviews

‘The Unquiet River’ review: Bends in the river

A cautionary tale for planners as Assam’s history is viewed from midstream through an intimate biography of the mighty Brahmaputra

On September 26, 2018, two 1,000-tonne barges carrying fly ash reached Dhubri in western Assam after setting sail from Kahalgaon in Bihar on August 20. The 1,885-km journey was touted as a milestone — cargo transport on such a scale had never been attempted across two of the country’s largest river systems, Ganga and Brahmaputra. The government has bigger plans for waterway renewal on Assam’s mighty river.

Brahmaputra National Waterway II, an 890-km stretch from Sadiya in upper Assam to the Bangladesh border, is envisaged as a corridor that could position the State as the gateway to Southeast Asia. Mirroring ambitious Chinese projects, efforts are also under way to tap the steeper gradient and frenetic flows of rivers originating in the eastern Himalayas for hydroelectric power, starting with the lower Subansiri dam whose construction resumed this year after public protests put it in deep freeze for eight years.

Lifeblood of a region

The idea of harnessing the river to unlock the region’s economic potential has preoccupied colonial and pre-colonial governments too, though the accent was more on extending acreage in the floodplains and facilitating the movement of men and material. But can nature and natural formations be bent at will without the attendant consequences?

Historian Arupjyoti Saikia pieces together an intimate biography of the Brahmaputra to urge caution. The cause of many a woe in the eponymous valley inflicted by floods every other year, he argues the Brahmaputra has also been the region’s lifeblood, central to its political and material well-being right up to the mid-20th century. And elaborate plans to confine the river to a single channel trained into a series of easy bends have inevitably been swallowed by its swirling waters.

Using the longue durée (‘long term’) approach of the Annales school of history writing, Saikia pieces together the ebb and flow of the majestic river from its prehistoric origins right up to the present day.

The earlier sections, for lack of historical records, rely primarily on geology and archaeology to trace the river’s changing course over millennia and the history of human settlement from Neolithic times. While early settlers and scattered attempts to bring land under reclamation are found by the 2nd century BC and 11th century AD respectively, the first rush towards the river basin took place during the long rule of the Ahom dynasty (1228-1826 AD).

The British takeover in 1826 AD, and the need of the colonial state to maximise revenue, finally transformed the floodplains into an optimally populated and cultivated space.

From the vantage point

Saikia’s narrative puts the river at the centre of Assam’s history, gazing at unfolding events from the vantage point of the waters as the connecting thread between the lowlands and the hills. He illustrates the centrality of riverine transport to the local economy and its interface with regional and international commerce, a position dislodged only in the early 20th century with the arrival of an elaborate network of surface transport in the form of roads and railways.

The human is only an element in the interdisciplinary sweep that includes exquisite sections on the craft of boatbuilding, the now defunct art of gold washing on the upper reaches of the river, and the entry of the steamer that opened up possibilities of scaling up commercial cultivation of tea from the 1830s.

Waves of human migrations

Steamboat navigation also facilitated newer waves of human migrations, this time westward, from rural districts of eastern and central India to bridge the labour deficit in the plantations (a community now known as the ‘tea tribes’) and from present-day Bangladesh to cultivate jute and rice in the virgin agricultural frontiers of the lower Brahmaputra Valley.

Human habitation and natural disasters in a seismic zone exacted a huge toll on flora and fauna. The author notes the gradual disappearance of crocodiles from the river and tigers from the grasslands, the reduced habitat for the hoolock gibbon, as also the millions of fish that died in the 1897 and 1950 earthquakes that raised the Brahmaputra riverbed. The clearance of forests in the uplands to fashion a manicured landscape of plantations affected the subsoil system; extensive domestication of Camellia sinensis not only changed the wild tea plant but also sparked pestilence.

Living force

The Unquiet River is much more than a seminal contribution to environmental history. The story of the Brahmaputra it unravels is one of an unbridled river that has resisted taming, breaching embankments with yawning regularity.

As the modern Indian state seeks techno-bureaucratic solutions to yoke the river into service of the nation, the governing idea is of power generation, not flood prevention. Re-engineering a living force that has shaped the destinies of people over millennia through dams, run-of-the-river projects and dredging is fraught with consequences. Heed Saikia’s cautionary note.

The Unquiet River; Arupjyoti Saikia, Oxford University Press, ₹1,195.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 7:42:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-unquiet-river-review-bends-in-the-river/article30593481.ece

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