Nationalising the Brahmaputra

The unruly Brahmaputra has always been an agent in shaping both the landscape of its valley and the livelihoods of its inhabitants. But how much do we know of this river’s rich past? The Unquiet River, Historian Arupjyoti Saikia’s biography of the Brahmaputra reimagines the layered history of Assam with the unquiet river at the centre. The book combines a range of disciplinary scholarship to unravel the geological forces as well as human endeavour which have shaped the river into what it is today. Illuminated with archival detail and interwoven with narratives and striking connections, the book allows the reader to imagine the Brahmaputra’s course in history. We are publishing the extract from the last chapter of the book.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY SAW THE emergence of many ideas related to meaningfully transforming the Brahmaputra to serve the government and the country. Experts toyed with ideas on how to tame the river. If other rivers of the world could serve the cause of the governments of the countries through which they flowed, why should the Brahmaputra not be trained in similar ways? It was only a matter of the appropriate calculations and necessary engineering works. What was called for was a plan for the river’s regulation to achieve the desired goals. The river, despite its erratic temperament, was bound to behave according to the rules thus framed. After two centuries of political, economic, intellectual, and bureaucratic negotiation, the river has become part of India’s national imagination. India’s stake in the Brahmaputra is now firmly established. The genealogy of this belief in the expertise, knowledge, and governance of the river goes back to the mid-nineteenth century as the example of the Kalang, a distributary of the Brahmaputra, shows.

The Kalang is the river on the banks of which I have partly grown up. The mouth of this distributary was closed in 1964. Once the highway for kings, traders, and British steamers, the river is now highly polluted. It now carries only carcasses, human excreta, and hardly any water except during the monsoon. More recently, there was an increasing public clamour to re-wild the river. Different public organizations demanded that the river’s mouth be restored and ‘regulated water flow’ maintained. As I finish writing this book, nothing of the sort has happened. But this public demand provides an opening to explore how a river’s destiny is connected to knowledge and governmentality.

A RIVER OF MANY LIVES

Early nineteenth-century accounts of Assam contained this singular piece of information about the course of the Brahmaputra: that in the central part of the valley, the river bifurcated into two channels, the southern one taking the name of Kalang.

On reaching Assam the Brahmaputra turns nearly due west and receives a copious supply of water from that region of rivers. About 104 miles above Gohati in longitude 91 48 E it separates into two branches of which the northern is by far the greatest and retains the name while the southern is called Kolong [Kalang]; they enclose an island five days journey in length and about one in width.1

This stream of the Brahmaputra has undergone several geographical transformations. Dead channels called Mori-Kalang and Pota- Kalang indicate the earlier courses of the river. Both manmade and geographical transformations reduced the river into insignificance from the second half of the twentieth century but in the sixteenth century the river was an important source of navigation and military mobility. In 1529, the Ahom king Suhungmung sent a ‘filibustering expedition down the Brahmaputra’ (using the Kalang channel) against the Mughals.2 This southern branch of the river was less ferocious and agricultural production flourished on its banks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The kings, their soldiers, and merchants regularly travelled through this branch of the river. The Ahom kings relied on this region for the supply of rice, mustard, cotton, et cetera. The river also hosted several custom checkpoints including the Raha chowki (customs checkpoint). Goods arriving from Assam’s southern hills had to necessarily pay taxes there. In the seventeenth century an influential Ahom official, Momai Tamuli Barbarua, ensured human settlement along the Kalang and brought significant areas under reclamation. When British officials toured the central parts of the valley early in the nineteenth century, they detoured through the Kalang, as it was deep and full of water. Mills recorded that the scenario of the densely populated villages, with ‘good gardens and rich cultivation’ situated on both banks, was ‘most gratifying’. ‘There is no part of Assam more populous or prosperous.’

The Kalang’s course ensured that the present Nagaon and Morigaon districts of central Assam were divided into two. The East India Company (EIC) established the headquarters of Nagaon district along the banks of the river. The British shifted three times before finally settling down here in 1837. Most British officials did not have good things to say about the river, with some critiquing the river as ‘swarm[ing] with mosquitoes’, but they recognized its role in consolidating EIC rule in this part of the valley. Both imperial and Assamese officials posted in the district realized the tremendous possibilities of trade and commerce via improved navigation. Over the years, these localities were able to make vast improvements in agriculture, and were also the meeting point of a wide range of hill-based commerce. On both sides of the Kalang there were permanent agricultural villages, some of them benefitting from regular monsoon floods.

The life of the Kalang changed when its headwaters came to be obstructed by the formation of a sandbar in 1852–3. Due to the sedimentation, the upper portion of the river was rendered virtually unnavigable. Such geomorphological processes, integral to the Brahmaputra, were serious obstacles to the colonial enterprise. Eager to make the interiors of the newly occupied territories accessible for trade and commerce, Butler proposed to A.J. Moffat Mills, the touring judge from Calcutta, that the ‘bank might be removed or cut through which would [give] incalculable benefits to the people of Nowgaon as large boats would be able to pass through entire length of the district and trade would greatly promoted thereby’.3Like many other British officials, Butler believed the floodplains should be remunerative, like any other tract of land; an estimated 10 per cent of the district’s revenue came from the chapori areas in 1851–2. The primary reason behind attempts to improve navigation on the Kalang was to allow access to the hinterland of one of Assam’s richest agricultural areas, which produced rice, mustard, and cotton, apart from other forest produce in the Naga hills. Mills agreed to what Butler proposed.

Even as the ideas and financial outlays of improved navigation were being debated, the river posed new challenges. Towards the end of 1857, a char was formed at the mouth of the Kalang, which limited the flow of water into the river. The char ‘has set with great impetuosity on the south bank exactly at the pace where the cut is proposed’. This further setback in the navigability of Kalang must have worried officials. Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, as Sub-assistant Commissioner of Nagaon, reiterated Butler’s proposal of opening the ‘mouth of Kullung’. A great admirer of British science and technology, he believed European modernity could bring order to the chaotic landscape of his birthplace. Phukan maintained that at least till ‘24 years ago waters of the Brohmopooter flowed through the Kullung all the year round’. Asserting his personal knowledge of the localities the Kalang traversed, he corresponded with his superiors including Francis Jenkins, the commissioner of Assam, regarding the rationale for river engineering. He observed that this question had ‘frequently attracted the earnest attention of those who have hitherto had occasion to think or write upon the means of advancing the prosperity and resources of this district’.

Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, who played a key role in the remaking of the Kalang
Source: Arupjyoti Saikia.

Phukan was convinced that navigation on the Kalang throughout the year would consolidate commercial and agricultural speculations which had acquired new dynamism with the advent of British capital. He proposed that the Kalang’s mouth be kept open in the dry season by ‘cutting a canal through a less sandy soil, or by any other means which a scientific examination might render it fit to suggest’. Phukan suggested the proposal be scientifically examined by an official from the Public Works Department.

Jenkins quickly forwarded the proposal to the Bengal government, observing that ‘the want of a better navigation is a serious drawback to the improvement of one of the finest Districts in Assam’. ‘Could the upper mouths of the Kulling [Kalang] therefore be kept open all the year, the advantages to the Divisions would be almost incalculable, and to the whole province it would be a benefit of great value.’ While Jenkins did not oppose Phukan’s proposal, he favoured a ‘short new cut’ connecting the Kalang to the Brahmaputra.

Such a canal would ensure more waters across the Kalang, argued Jenkins. ‘Not only might these streams and bhills bring down a sufficient body of water to keep the Kullung below navigable all the year but a large extent of country would be efficiently drained which from marshes and morasses are now useless and very pestilential [sic].’ These would be the regular medium of navigation and ‘useless’ dangerous areas would become useful. The beels were part of the old beds of the Dhansiri River. Jenkins aimed to turn these beels into a ‘living’ river by connecting them artificially and thereby opening ‘a most valuable internal navigation from Golaghat to Gowhatty through the finest parts of Nowgong’, and linking ‘the Kullung with a large system of navigable branches of the Berhampooter which pass in the rains through the district of Sibsaugor’.

In May 1857, the Bengal government sought a report on the project from the chief engineer of the Bengal Presidency. Though we do not know what happened in that respect, in January 1858, Phukan wrote a detailed report to his superior Lieutenant B.W.D. Morton, the principal assistant commissioner at Nagaon. Visualized with rough sketches, this report summed up Phukan’s observations based on his own inspection of the course of the Brahmaputra. He noted with astonishment that the river had been cutting through the sandbank at the mouth of the Kalang ‘exactly at the place’ where he had proposed the cut, reducing the sandbank to only 10 m. The ‘Heavenly Will of Providence’ was behind this wonder, he wrote to his superior. But he reiterated the need to accelerate the process by human intervention.4Phukan was in favour of any form of river engineering, from constructing small embankments to redirecting the flow of a river.

Phukan’s proposal faced strong opposition from local inhabitants, the ‘principal ryots and mouzdars’, and local revenue officials. Many felt this scheme would lead to ‘the most dreadful consequences’ as the Kalang would overflow and inundate the paddy fields on both banks of the river. They had been regularly ‘repairing and maintaining extensive bunds’ along the river to prevent floods. If the Brahmaputra’s floodwaters flowed into the Kalang it would be an invitation for disaster. Seeing the strength of the opposition from people, Phukan admitted that he had not had the opportunity to observe the extent of floods in those localities. ‘I do not suppose that it is wholly impossible for the Kullung after an active current of the Brahmaputra to overflow its banks to a greater extent than it has hitherto done.’ However, he was confident that ‘by the small cut … [nothing] more will be done than what the course of the Berhampootra will itself eventually accomplish’.

Phukan’s proposal had many supporters including his superior B.W.D. Morton, who remarked that the ‘proposed cut is one which will confer the greatest blessings on the district and will not be attended with slightest danger’. He requested Jenkins to grant Rs 150 as expenses for cutting a rivulet to connect the Kalang and the Brahmaputra. Jenkins, with the approval of the Government of Bengal, happily sanctioned this trifling cost for an ‘experiment’ of great import.

Phukan died in June 1859 at the young age of thirty; but before that, in April 1859, Captain Marshall, an engineer fairly well acquainted with Assam’s geography, submitted a report to Jenkins on Phukan’s proposal. Marshall was convinced that any attempt to improve the Kalang’s navigability by opening its mouth would be an environmentally impractical project. He suggested an alternative: that a whole day’s journey could be saved for boats by cutting through the neck of ‘a great bend [in the river] … between Raha and Jaggee’. Marshall also suggested the levelling of some steep sections of the Kalang’s tributary Kopili, which stood as major obstacles to country boats. Navigation through these sections involved additional expenses as boatmen had to unload and load their goods. Marshall was also expected to comment on Jenkins’ grandiose plan of connecting the Kalang to the Brahmaputra. Since it was difficult to reject Jenkins’ ideas given his seniority, Marshall cautiously noted that the proposed 50–65 km long canal would cost no less than Rs 4 lakh; even then it would only result in a paltry increase of half a metre of water in the dry season. To link the Brahmaputra with the hinterland by a cart road would serve the purpose better. The general concurrence of the engineers was that the scheme for opening the navigation of the Kalang might be abandoned. The chief engineer quickly agreed and wrote to the Bengal government expressing his view that Assam’s economy did not warrant such work at the time but might be taken up when a suitable time came. The Lieutenant-Governor concurred with the views of the chief engineer.

In spite of Marshall’s unenthusiastic report, Jenkins continued to try to persuade officials in London. In 1860, the secretary of state in London agreed that if implemented the project would bring ‘great benefit to the country’. Advisories from London resulted in an apportionment of a sum of Rs 1,500 for removing the rapids in the lower reaches of the Kalang but actual work did not begin. In February 1861, Colonel Reid, the superintending engineer, warned against any attempt to bring the force of the Brahmaputra into the Kalang. Reid concurred with Marshall’s idea of a raised cart road from Nagaon to Tezpur which would be traversable throughout the year. This work could be carried out at a much lower cost compared to the expensive plans of river improvement. However, by 1864 no aspect of the dream river improvement had seen the light of day.

The history of the Kalang in the interim period, of almost a hundred years, until sometime after Independence, is unclear. The river probably began to receive more water from the Brahmaputra, as prophesied by Anandaram Dhekial Phukan. It continued to flood fields and urban areas. The older generation that I met cherished their memories of the Kalang and the abundance of food it engendered. Post the 1950 earthquake, due to the raising of the Brahmaputra’s bed, more water came through the Kalang, which triggered high flooding in urban areas. These floods caused by the Kalang, in the 1950s and early years of the 1960s, led to a strong political demand from the urban elite to close the mouth of the river at its source. A war of words ensued between the rich and poor, between upstream and downstream dwellers. In 1962 the Government of India approved a scheme to embank the river. This was the time when floods were seen as destructive and the assertion of human will over nature viewed as essential. The waves of major floods that severely affected the town of Nagaon in August 1963 compelled K.L. Rao, Union Minister of Irrigation and Power, to make a brief visit to Nagaon. After a hastily taken decision, the mouth of the Kalang was finally closed in 1964. This cut down the river from its organic wing and it was allowed to die out. Kalang was separated from the Brahmaputra both physically and in terms of the local imagination.

The closing down of the mouth of the river affected the fields, trees, and kitchen gardens of the peasants. As water stopped flowing in the Kalang, it meant a fall in the water table of these areas, sounding the death knell for plants and fields. The fate of the soil, fish, and fishermen was captured in the Assamese short story ‘Ekhan Nodir Mritu’ (Death of a River), where one of the protagonists recalled a popular saying about the Hindu Kali Yug: crops would disappear, fish would disappear, fruits would disappear. Within a year, ‘an area of 10,000 acres of land was reported to have suffered’ as fields went dry.5Widespread protests grew, and peasants came out in large numbers to break the embankment.

To mollify the disgruntled cultivators, the government proposed a lift-irrigation project at the site where the river’s mouth was closed down. The peasants in the downstream demanded that they also be provided with irrigation waters. A reworked irrigation project now released 600 cusecs of water from the Brahmaputra into the closed Kalang to rejuvenate a dead river, like an artificial heart. In 1975, with funds amounting to Rs 4.75 crores from the World Bank, an irrigation project was undertaken, with the pumping station in the closed mouth of the river, where Anandaram Dhekial Phukan had spent weeks observing the river. This irrigation project continued to play a game of hide and seek until the end of the century as the water retreated or moved forward.

Lift pump at the headwaters of the Kalang to carry waters from the Brahmaputra
Source: Arupjyoti Saikia

Post closure of the Kalang, human habitation suddenly soared (as agricultural areas were brought under habitation), wetlands decreased (mostly because of human intervention), areas under grassland increased, the upper reaches of the river remained dry during the pre-monsoon period, and finally there was a significant deterioration of the physio-chemical parameters of the water. While the Kalang had stopped flowing, it continued to be fed by smaller tributaries. According to a recent government report, the Kalang is one of the most polluted rivers of India.

Hyacinth-choked headwaters of the Kalang in 2018 Source: Arupjyoti Saikia.

Anandaram Dhekial Phukan had been struck by the technological wonders and progress of England. His grand scheme for the Kalang was part of his effort to bring the British experience to his homeland. Nature must serve the cause of the nation and the government. This would be possible when one has thorough knowledge of nature. In the nineteenth century, Assam’s nature at large came to be catalogued and codified in a language suitable for a modern capitalist economy. The process of knowing the Brahmaputra acquired speed after the 1950 earthquake. A complex array of scientific and technological knowledge became the medium through which the mechanization of the river and the nation’s claims to the river was sought to be achieved. In the process, the river and the corpus of scientific knowledge about it became part of the modern nation-building process.

Assam’s politicians reposed complete faith in their engineers as the true custodians of their rivers. Experts were seen as blessed with power and wisdom—people who could rescue Assam from the fury of the river. The experts’ answer—embankments—was partly a failure and partly a disaster, belying Assam’s hopes. Experts then convinced their political masters to experiment with storage dams. With the march of multinational capital to the eastern Himalayas by the turn of the twentieth century, the experts’ dream of big dams came closer to fruition. Both the Indian technocrats and corporate capital have been enthusiastic about the future of the river. This confidence had strong but often not uncritical backing from the Assamese ruling elite.

The Brahmaputra continues to be a bone of contention between the Assam and Indian governments in terms of apportioning of respective rights and responsibilities. The river still instils in and consolidates a sense of identity for the people of Assam as a counter to the idea of India. At the same time, ecological sensibilities continue to divide technocrats, bureaucrats, and, more so, politicians about river engineering. The Brahmaputra is truly sandwiched between hopes of India’s economic prosperity and great ecological uncertainties. The new age of river engineering appears to be at cross-purposes with the river’s intimate connection to the floodplains. Human history and the biological life of the river now begin to disappear from the new narrative of the river crafted by the nation.

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ARUPJYOTI SAIKIA Written by:

Arupjyoti Saikia is Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Guwahati, India. His previous books include "A Century of Protests: Peasant Politics in Assam since 1900" and "Forests and Ecological History of Assam, 1826-2000"

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