ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Imagining Rivers

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What is a river? Is it only what we imagine it to be? Rivers do exist – they are ‘embodied entities’ that can be seen, felt, touched and traced on a map. Their characteristics – different and visible though they undoubtedly are and have been – are lived out in a physical body. Still we have a plethora of images and different discourses of ‘the river’ reflecting a confusion about what the river is, what it should be, and what needs to be done if, as a ‘resource’ we want to get the best out of the water it carries. It is thus possible to see rivers in different ways, and the fact attests to the social and historical construction of rivers. As a student of geography which straddles the physical and social worlds, I have followed with much interest the rising emotions over the Narmada and the issue of water resource planning in India and have wondered if there is a right way of imagining rivers. I am not attempting to correct or supplement a false or incomplete representation; there may not be an ideal and right way of representing rivers. The focus of my discussion is on how rivers have been conceptualised, and how the modernisation and development agenda of the government has created binary oppositions such as traditional vs developmentalist, anti-dam vs pro-dam, local vs global, biocentric vs anthropocentric, and small vs large.

Let me begin with an example. In his article ‘Problem of canal excavation in Damodar Valley Corporation’ published in 1959 in Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development, Ram Sarup, an engineer of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) described how the construction work on canals progressed through mighty problems, and how they were dealt with. He elaborated how heavy bulldozers were brought in to ‘clean up land’ since thick jungles and ponds were hindering the survey of the area. Then ‘heavy pumps were used to ‘dewater’ the ponds, and the ridges between the ponds were ‘derooted’ to ‘avoid damages to the tyres’. The soft, deltaic, alluvial soil was hardened this way so that motor scrapers could be used. Since the water table was very high, ‘borrow pits were left for drying up for several days and machines had to fill the embankments in patches here and there adjacent to their respective borrow area’. Even then, the use of machines proved difficult as tractor scrapers got stuck and ‘had to be towed out with great difficulty’. Then a problem of soil shortage arose while constructing the embankments along the Damodar, and ‘some more land was acquired to meet the need for soil’. The embankments, however, created another problem in turn; they obstructed the tributaries to meet and the distributaries to take off from the Damodar. Thus, the Sali river ‘was closed by building embankments along the course of the main river’. Ram sarup’s view must have been the ‘right’ way to imagine rivers in an India aspiring to capture the benefits of western science and technology.

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