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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 206-207

Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India

Madras Institute of Development Studies, 79, II Main, Gandhinagar, Chennai 600 020, India

Correspondence Address:
Karen Coelho
Madras Institute of Development Studies, 79, II Main, Gandhinagar, Chennai 600 020
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Coelho K. Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India. Conservat Soc 2008;6:206-7

How to cite this URL:
Coelho K. Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Jan 21];6:206-7. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/2/206/55781

Rohan D'Souza. Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India. 2006. 264 pp. INR 595 (Hardcover). ISBN 0-19-568217-3.

The opening scene of the book evokes the raging floods of 1982 which overran great tracts of Orissa, causing massive damage to crops, lives and infrastructure, and exposed the failure of the mighty Hirakud dam across the Mahanadi river, the apotheosis of more than a century of flood control measures in the state's deltaic zone. Viewed through the pragmatics of assessing flood control efforts in Orissa, D'Souza's story is one of a relentless progression of failures: from the networks of embankments constructed in the early nineteenth century, to the canal systems of the 1860s and beyond, culminating in the famous multi-purpose river valley development (MPRVD) schemes of the 1940s and 50s. The epic transformation of the delta through this series of interventions is comprehensively captured in this book, aided by the author's evocative recreation of the dynamic action of the deltaic rivers in their pre-dammed state, a spectacle of overladen rivers periodically crashing down into the delta, bringing their anticipated bounties of silt laden flood waters to shape cropping and land use strategies of the season, in what he terms a 'flood dependent agrarian regime'(p. 2). By the last line of the book, 'Drowned and dammed flows the Mahanadi'(p. 224), the reader is left with a sense of the colossal damage wrought upon a delicate and complex flood plain ecology by decades of colonial civil and social engineering.

Yet, as the author emphasises from the outset, the book does not intend to tell a simple tale of success or failure; it rather demonstrates how the successive failures of flood control efforts in colonial Orissa only continued to provide grist for further extensions and elaborations of the colonial agenda of hydraulic control. The failures, in other words, served to fuel the onward march of the colonial mission of remaking the delta in the image of a capitalist commodity, with the concomitant re-organisation of social, political and economic relations in the area. Regulating the river waters of the delta was part of the empire's task of disciplining its subjects. The book, then, is a closely researched and detailed work of political ecology, which effectively portrays the history of flood control efforts in Orissa as integral aspects of the technologies of colonial rule, specifically the installation of a regime of colonial capitalism in the tumultuous terrain of the delta.

Essential to the colonial enterprise of governance was the establishment of capitalist relations in land, starting with the creation of private property. Imperatives of revenue collection through tax constituted a defining motive shaping the approach to water regulation in the delta. As D'Souza takes pains to recount, rendering the landscape of embedded social and political relations which characterised the pre-colonial agrarian administration in the delta into an orderly grid of private property was a task that took decades and involved a substantial recasting of the ecology of the region. The challenges and anomalies that confronted the colonial regime's dogged efforts to realising the capitalist imaginary of private property in the delta are captured in detail in the book. Like David Mosse's work on the history of tank irrigation in southern Tamil Nadu [1], D'Souza's detailed exegesis of the difference between the pre-colonial (Mughal, Maratha) and colonial institutions of taxation and revenue collection contributes crucially to complicating standard narratives of colonialism as a simple disjuncture along the tradition/modernity line. Rather, this work portrays the embedded arrangements through which tax demands and revenue collections were operated by Mughal and Maratha administrators as a sophisticated system of creating and securing political alliances and promoting agricultural production in a highly unstable hydraulic context. Cadres of intermediaries with intimate knowledge of the social, political and agrarian dynamics of the area, who advanced loans for cultivations, invested in production and determined cases for exemptions and waivers, provided fiscal and administrative buffers between the farmers and the state in a non-capitalist agrarian regime 'when land was more than possession and less than property' (p.52). The sharp disjuncture introduced by colonial capitalism lay in the nature of property rights invested in the zamindar wherein revenue was structured as rent on land and, in the inflexibility of the revenue demand toward seasonal variability in output. This new regime of agrarian value threw up land protection through embankment as the only feasible technology for dealing with the seasonal disruptions of flooding.

D'Souza tracks the shifting characterisations of the deltaic phenomenon of seasonal inundation through the changing historical imperatives of colonial rule-from viewing floods as 'natural calamities' that interfered with revenue flows (the era of embankments), to viewing the water flows as commodities to be harnessed and priced for irrigation and navigational development (the era of canals), to viewing the river as a comprehensive and multi-pronged arena of capitalist production in itself (the era of MPRVD schemes). But the author also takes pains to thread all these shifting historical moments into a unifying dynamic-that of colonial capitalism as a specific social form. He then shows how the natural landscape and the ecological context are consistently read, and simultaneously recreated, through the optics of this regime. A flood dependent agrarian context is read as, and then effectively transformed into, a flood vulnerable landscape, perpetuating demands for flood control interventions through cycles of failure and redeployment.

The book thus fundamentally challenges any notion that ecological complexes exist independent of or external to the regimes of political economy in which they are embedded. In the case of Orissa's deltaic ecology, even its 'natural' rhythms of seasonal inundation predating the colonial era were integrally part of an agrarian system, which shaped itself around and managed the flows through strategies of flood water harnessing and utilisation, risk distribution and other means. However, the introduction of capitalist property-based land use regimes by the colonial administration introduced a decisive and major rupture in the prevailing conception of deltaic flooding. The optic of this regime perceived floods as calamitous events that undermined the value of land as pure economic form and created demands for structural measures to control floods. As meanings are inscribed on the landscape by a given socio-political dispensation, the landscape shapes itself around these images and reproduces them. Colonial flood control measures, sooner or later, reproduced the material realities as well as the ascribed image of flood vulnerability as natural calamity. The book also outlines how water flows are channelled and harnessed to shape social and political institutions and to legitimise regimes of rule (once again, resonating with David Mosse's work in southern Tamil Nadu). The transformation of the delta's ecology brought changes in social relations, reorganising the structures of privilege and creating new hierarchies and power centres through the flows.

This book is an important addition to a classical tradition and a still vibrant trans-disciplinary agenda of exposing the political and symbolic significance of water projects as favoured forms for creating and expressing a variety of governing agendas. It also contributes to a recent and welcome trend of examining large engineering and construction projects not as 'development projects', but as projects of rhetoric and rule. This trend moves away from assessing these projects in terms of their own categories of success or failure, but views them, rather, as artefacts of particular ideological missions, usually as monumental projects of nationalism, showcases of engineering achievements and embodiments of progress and civilisation.

D'Souza's book is a work which pulls together historical material of tremendous depth and detail into some forceful theoretical arguments. As a political ecology account rendered through the historian's method, it is invaluable in crafting a long view on ecological change as produced by the unfolding of the specific logics of political economic regimes. This is important reading for environmental historians or anthropologists, students of water governance, political ecology or colonialism.

   References Top

1.Mosse, D. 2003. The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India.  Back to cited text no. 1      


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