Between Kosi and Bihar: ‘Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters’ by D K Mishra

Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters
by Dinesh Kumar Mishra
People's Science Institute & SANDRP, 2008

To study a river, one needs to think like a river – meandering, playful and capable of diversity in form. However, the bureaucrats and engineers who are assigned the task of dealing with Southasia's watercourses seem to work best with numbers and structures. They are used to thinking in straight lines. When they encounter a river, they are able neither to understand nor to speak the river's language. Finding it hard to adjust their way of thinking, they prefer to mould rivers into straight lines, like their minds – linear, blinkered and uniform. Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters, chronicling the Kosi River of Nepal and Bihar, authored by an engineer, has been launched at a time when the linear thinking behind the mega-projects of river management lies fully exposed, in the wake of the Kosi embankment breach of August 2008.

Unlike many other river narratives written in different continents, this book is not so much an eco-biography of the Kosi. Rather, it is a meticulously researched and thoroughly detailed historical account of human tampering with not only the river's flow, but other aspects of the river as well. It draws its authenticity more from historical fact than from a theoretical discourse on river cultures. The politics of river management is skilfully unveiled, making this chronicle an eye-opener for the uninitiated. As one reads on, the story of the Kosi unfolds simultaneously as a story of Bihar. The Kosi's tragedy here explains much of Bihar's tragedy, and answers several questions pertaining to the state's chronic under-development. And so, as much as politicians and bureaucrats have tried to separate the Kosi from the people of Bihar by way of embankments, this book presents – albeit perhaps unwittingly – the story of the people of Bihar and that of the river as one and the same.

Trapped! focuses on the flood-control programme of the Indian government for the Kosi. Thrashing out the entire debate on the taming of the Kosi since pre-Independence times, Dinesh Kumar Mishra covers all aspects of the river (though not with equal emphasis) – geography, mythology, a history of major floods, the political impulses behind flood control, schemes and projects born out of these impulses, their failure, the people's responses, their plight, solutions offered and the 'relief packages'. In doing so, Mishra throws open the debate on the 'control' of rivers, forcing readers to re-think and unlearn much of what they believe and opine, while also making a mockery of all that has happened with regard to flood control so far.

A unified ecosystem
The book begins with a portrayal of the Kosi's cultural significance, and what it meant to the people in 'pre-embankment' times. Examples from local mythology articulate the relationship the riverbank communities had with the Kosi, and tell a tale of a river being more than just a waterway. Instead, rivers are subtly shown to be considered as mothers in India – as cultural artefacts, shaping people's personal and collective ways of being. Mishra masterfully details a comprehensive history of floods and their control, taking readers back to ancient times when humans began to inhabit the floodplains by clearing the jungles, thus creating the phenomenon that their descendants distinctly knew as floods. The author then goes on to describe the colonial mindset: dominated by engineering science, divorced from ground reality, and fixated on revenue collection. It is here that the root of today's technocratic attitude towards nature and towards the Kosi lies, says Mishra. No longer an intimate and multifaceted relationship with nature, ours is one of control and management, with the central idea being that of 'use' as 'natural resource' for 'optimum profit'. This is the unfortunate imperial-capitalist ontology that has changed the face of ecosystems in postcolonial India.

While the British left, their mindset did not. It continues to haunt all established institutions, like a ghost from the Subcontinent's past. Engineers, with blinkers on, fail to pay cognisance to any aspect of the river other than the water in it. Blinded by this limited scientific approach, they literally stand in the way of people and rivers, building embankments and disallowing the two to meet. And so, the only solution engineers and bureaucrats can offer for floods today are embankments and dams, dividing a once unified ecosystem into land, water and human beings.

The Kosi riverfront, like all riverfronts, is a meeting point for waterscapes and landscapes, making it attractive for human and animal activity. Biodiversity thrives in such ecological zones. Indian communities never envisaged themselves as insulated from this abundant yet fragile ecosystem, and were a very active part of it; rivers were allowed to meander, change course as the silt raised the bed, and expand to their will. Humans adjusted to the vagaries, having in-depth knowledge of the workings of their river goddess. The floods were a boon, as they brought in silt, which rendered the soil very cultivable, and recharged ground water, filling up the aquifer tanks and wells. Embanking the floodplain meant confining the Kosi, thus increasing its might when it makes a break for freedom by breaking the levees. Trapped! reveals how Indian communities, which once utilised floods, have by now been transformed into being wary of

them. This is not to say that the people earlier were not harassed by floods at all, but the damage was limited. 'Living with the flood', which is beginning to sound like a cliché, was a historical reality. Mishra argues that the local knowledge and indigenous systems can still be further worked with to prepare the people for the monsoonal inundation. The book archives the fact that small seasonal embankments and canals were built in the medieval period to divert extra water. The fundamental difference between river engineering done at that point, and colonial dams and embankments that continue to dominate the hydraulic scene even today, needs recognition. Present-day river engineering seeks to change the very nature of the river, in order to harness it as a resource, while medieval structures merely diverted the extra water of the monsoons for seasonal irrigation, without tampering with the flow and course of the river. Whether this difference in approach is one of degree or a paradigmatic one is a question left to be answered.

High and dry
Mishra explains in detail the adverse affects of the dams and dikes that constitute the only official response to flooding. They cause more intense flooding, water-logging, salinisation, disruption of drainage, relentless elevation of the riverbed, diminishing groundwater and spread of disease. The author also includes an exhaustive report of all the schemes and projects that the government has thrown at the people, one after the other, each failing to make way for the next and leaving the people of Bihar high and dry. The reader watches how the government authorities, both state and central, shrewdly devise faulty policies as quick-fix measures, implement them half-heartedly, and then make promises to the people to keep vote-banks intact.

Any reader is bound to be left shocked at the callousness and lack of vision of the Patna government in particular. Mishra provides a sketch of the deplorable conditions of communities trapped within the embankments south of the Kosi Barrage at Bhimnagar, which is on the Nepal-India border. From livelihoods to sanitation, health and education facilities, housing, labour, migration, crime and communication – the entire scenario presents itself as little better than hell itself. For decades now, people here have been living in sub-human conditions. The author also draws attention to the questionable role of NGOs, which in the name of 'disaster management' have been working in the Kosi region for decades, but only to provide immediate relief and little else. Such a band-aid approach, in which the non-government sector is also complicit, is devoid of any ideology or long-term vision.

Mishra concludes by correctly declaring that the state government has not resolved the Kosi problem, but has merely pushed back the days of reckoning. In so saying, the book offers small, localised solutions that involve the very ideology of 'living with floods', alongside triggering a questioning of the very idea of development itself. The book is definitely one of its kind and cogent in its field, owing to the in-depth research that has gone into creating it. However, it is this very factor that slightly dulls the appreciation and tests the readability, with its surfeit of facts and chronologies of events. Also, India-Nepal relations have not been factored into the discussions, something that plays a significant role with regard to the politics of the Kosi. The cultural aspect of the Kosi could also have been discussed more, in order to highlight the river's relationship with the people in Bihar. Despite these few shortcomings, Trapped! is a must read for those hoping to gain knowledge about river politics in the Subcontinent.

~ Sarandha is currently writing a book on the Yamuna riverfront in Delhi.

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Himal Southasian