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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 18  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 313-314

The Unquiet River: a biography of the Brahmaputra

Currently, Dean, School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Dhirendra Datt Dangwal
Currently, Dean, School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_20_40

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Date of Web Publication02-Jul-2020

How to cite this article:
Dangwal DD. The Unquiet River: a biography of the Brahmaputra. Conservat Soc 2020;18:313-4

How to cite this URL:
Dangwal DD. The Unquiet River: a biography of the Brahmaputra. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Dec 2];18:313-4. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2020/18/3/313/288800

Environmental Historians working on rivers in India have primarily focused on issues of irrigation, canals, dams, displacement, water conflicts, etc., but rarely on rivers themselves. The Unquiet River is a bold step towards understanding the Brahmaputra in its totality. It discusses geological past, geomorphology, biological life, and ecological features of the river along with how this river shapes human and non-human lives around it. Saikia in this biography of the Brahmaputra leaves no aspect of the river untouched and pushes the frontiers of history writings into new directions. He complains that historians in India have 'remained too firmly on land' and advises them to 'take a boat to the middle of river to observe the land'. The book under review broadly covers three aspects: the river itself; the way the river supports human and non-human living along its course; and the recent efforts of the state to 'tame' this 'wild' river.

The Brahmaputra is a 'geological wonder'. It is a unique river for the amount of sediments and water it carries, its numerous tributaries, a watershed that receives heavy rainfall and the large area it inundates every year. While it flows rapidly with high velocity in its upper course, it quickly descends to the plains and slows down considerably in Assam creating a unique landscape of multiple channels, the chars (islands), and chaporis (river banks). Saikia explores how these features have evolved over the long geological time. The process of change, however, continues and most recently the earthquakes of 1897 and 1950 reshaped the river and its floodplains considerably. The time period Saikia covers is from geological time to the present, longue duree in a true sense. To develop his narrative the author consults an amazing range of sources, from geological, geographical, hydrological, cartographical, and archaeological to travelogues. He superbly links climate, rainfall, and seasonality data to build his narrative.

To his credit he makes complex scientific literature comprehensible for an ordinary reader.

The Brahmaputra has created highly fertile floodplains where rice is being cultivated since prehistoric times. People have domesticated these plains in spite of frequent floods. The Ahom rulers particularly promoted cultivation of the floodplains by erecting embankments (called alee). The Brahmaputra and its tributaries have, in the past, supported various occupations and crafts, like gold washing. The gold thus extracted was even exported. Floods not only made the plains regularly fertile with alluvium but also brought fish to the rice fields, where these could be easily trapped. Along with rice, fish provided regular sustenance to people. Saikia seems to suggest that people made a living on the bounties of the river and made little impact on the ecosystem in the pre-colonial period. This living in harmony with nature is hard to imagine in the absence of detailed discussions on the extent of use of the floodplains for cultivation, the hills for shifting cultivation, and hunting practices of the people (not discussed at all) which might have impacted fauna. Further, Saikia himself has suggested that boat making, existing at least from the first millennium CE in Assam, involved regular cutting of trees, sometimes tall trees.

The author suggests that the human induced transformation of the Brahmaputra floodplains started under colonial rule. The first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824-26 drew British attention to the Brahmaputra and Assam was brought under colonial rule in 1826. However, the Brahmaputra was difficult to navigate. Local boatmen had developed skills of boating on this river. The deltaic fluvial plains of the Brahmaputra create marooned islands during floods which could be connected only through boats, a lifeline of Assam till recently. Comprehensive discussion by Saikia on the significance and use of boats along with boat-making craft underlines this importance. However, boats sailed too slow. Any idea to control the huge territory of Assam and its resources by the colonial state required faster means of transportation. The Steamer was seen as an answer. However, the Brahmaputra's main channel was difficult to locate and became too shallow in winter, to facilitate easy plying of steamers. Steamers were still put into service by the middle of the nineteenth century as tea had to be exported for the global markets. Railways also made an entry in the early twentieth century, albeit cautiously in these unstable and unpredictable floodplains.

Introduction of tea plantation in the hills and jute cultivation in the floodplains changed Assam as never before. Tea plantations were created at the cost of virgin forests and required bringing in of a large number of indentured labourers from other provinces. No less was the impact of jute cultivation. It emerged as permanent cultivation in the chaporis and chars, completely transforming the floodplains. Chaporis and chars were cultivated by the Assamese temporarily, only in the winter. The British, obsessed with augmenting revenue, saw these lands as a potential source of revenue. People from east Bengal were brought to settle permanently in the floodplains to cultivate jute. Jute cultivation, apart from completely transforming this floodplain ecologically, also created social unrest from the early twentieth century onwards, when competitive claims were made by various communities on this land. Bringing chars under permanent cultivation adversely affected large fauna of the valley which used these islands as routes of migration. Saikia suggests that 'Jute symbolised the British imperial conquest of the Brahmaputra floodplains'. (p. 358)

As the floodplains began to be cultivated permanently, the perception of floods as a source of replenishment for the fertility of land changed; floods came to be seen as a problem, and demand for building bunds and embankments increased. The British repaired some embankments built by the Ahom rulers, but did not focus much on flood control and flood relief. This became the focus of the state policy only after independence. The 1950 earthquake, Saikia has shown, significantly transformed the Brahmaputra and its floodplains and contributed to devastating floods in 1954. Controlling the flood acquired centrality in the politics of Assam and consequently innumerable embankments were constructed. These hardly prevented floods, but completely transformed the ecology of the floodplains from 'fluvial agro-ecological system to sediment deposit landscape'. Saikia argues that the political, bureaucratic, and technocratic elite began to perceive floods in the Brahmaputra as a national problem and worked for finding its solution. Along with embankments, building large storage dams emerged as one of the solutions. To national planners these dams were promising for their huge electricity generating potential. Saikia warns against such misadventure, as he has amply demonstrated that the Brahmaputra and its floodplains are highly unstable, unpredictable, and ecologically fragile. The geological past of the river, the earthquakes and floods the region has seen; suggests Saikia, give enough warning to the planners to heed.

The Unquiet River is an encyclopedic work, covering a range of issues in which finding a linking thread is not easy. At the core of the book is the natural history of the Brahmaputra and how this river shapes the lives of people who live around it. The chapters can be categorised into two sets depending on themes: one set is extraordinarily innovative, and unusual in terms of themes; the other set of chapters is more or less on familiar themes to historians. Exploring the geological past of the Brahmaputra; looking at earthquakes as factors transforming landscapes and human lives; and unraveling the mystery of the origin of the river, are chapters of extraordinary quality. Saikia consults a wide range of sources in these chapters. Developing a meaningful narrative from such a wide range of sources requires a rare skill which the author demonstrates in these chapters.

The profusion of sources poses a challenge to a historian; that of how much to use and what can be relegated to footnotes. Excessive use of sources in giving extensive details hinders flow of narrative and diverts attention from the core argument. Saikia has in general made exceptionally good use of sources. But occasionally provides avoidable detail. There is considerable overlapping and repetition in the chapter on boats and steamers. Similar is the case with chapters on tea, jute, chapories and chars.

Some of these chapters could have been combined together to produce a comparatively concise volume.

Saikia argues that the Brahmaputra is called enigmatic, mysterious, unpredictable, uncontrollable, etc., by people, but there is very little discussion on the cultural aspects of the river. There is some use of Assamese literature, but the use of folklore and folktales is very limited. Above all, while Saikia claims that he is writing a biography of the Brahmaputra, effectively he is focusing [he accepts this] only on the portion of the river in Assam (700 km of the river's total journey of some 2900 kms). There are a few spelling mistakes like D'Anvile is also spelt as D'Anville on p.205.

Notwithstanding these observations this is a work of exceptional scholarship and Saikia sets high standards for anyone aspiring to take up a biography of other Indian rivers in future. As mentioned earlier, in terms of themes and the period the book covers, it is outstanding. But what sets this book apart is the range of sources it uses and the ease with which Saikia makes complex issues simple for readers. The narrative he weaves is engrossing. There is excellent use of sketches and maps. The book is a seminal contribution to scholarship. It is useful not just to historians and social scientists, but also natural scientists (like geologists, hydrologists, ecologists). It will be valuable as a guide to policy makers engaged in planning for rivers.


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