Some thoughts on the River Festival – By Rangan Dutta, Distinguished Fellow, Asian Confluence


Asian Confluence, Nadi Festival 2016


  1. The Ganga- Brahmaputra- Meghna basin and the Mekong- Irrawaddy river systems originated in the Asian Highlands forming the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau.These rivers and the basins they serve are integral to the eco system of the region and the delta in particular which is not divisible in ecological sense by manmade political boundaries. In fact the delta of Bengal is the only large compact delta land that has ever been divided in human history. Schendal in his seminal work ‘Bengal Borderlands ‘mentioned with brutal frankness that the Partition of 1947 was an instance of ‘political assassination of a vibrant regional economy that encompassed Eastern India and Myanmar’. The Partition was a geo economic disaster and the task before us in the 21st century is undoing the grievous aberrations it had caused obstructing progress of south Asia. Indeed mindless human interference oblivious of the ecological impact has only caused distortions in the proper functioning of the river systems, be it hydro power generation or dams or barrages like the one at Farakka, which has unfortunately stopped the natural movement of Hilsa fish upstream to Allahabad. Like living organisms, rivers have a symbiotic relationship with their physical environment, especially forests, the way land, river water and river beds are used. All these affect the ecological services that rivers provide to the basin. This is the first point – conservation of rivers and the eco system that must be highlighted.


  1. The tendency to treat river systems as a ‘resource’ only in the economic sense is pernicious,no matter whether it is navigation, power generation or irrigation. All these result in an approach and policies which relegate ecological services of immeasurable value and conservation to a very low priority. This is evident in the decisions to construct several dams on the Teesta River, in Arunachal or in Manipur, which have already caused so much tension that rivers instead of uniting are seen to be dividing the people. This applies to other parts of Asia. The Chinese plan to divert Brahmaputra waters must be seen in this perspective. Yes, Kaladan multi modal project involving Mizoram and Myanmar could be a good beginning. But its long term sustainability would depend on the draft of Kaladan which nobody can project now after having seen the fate of Yamuna in Delhi; and this suggests a strong afforestation and soil conservation component in the Kaladan Multi modal project right now for its long term sustainability as an independent access for the NER to the Bay of Bengal and for Myanmar an opportunity to renew her old economic linkage with the East and NE India on enduring basis.


  1. The real celebration of rivers in an environment where everything has gone wrong in our management of the ecosystem in the North East and elsewhere in the sub region, in my view, would be to give a hard look at the reality and identify issues critical for the rejuvenation of the rivers rather than grand plans for ‘extraction’ of water resource. One must remember that modern science and technology is not as yet adequately multi-disciplinary to provide a proper road map for sustainable development of large river systems; and these call for building independent R&D capability within the region to address region specific issues to create consensus on issues like sharing of water or flood moderation etc.


  1. Rivers are critical for the survival of not just humans but all other species including aquatic species which together constitute the life support system. There is thus a serious need for river research to deal with all these issues in an integrated manner. The River Research Institute in Guwahati is reportedly in a poor functional state. The neglect of river systems and research in India invited adverse comments in a recent feature in the Economist on Indian Rivers and it was damaging. Hence there is a need to develop river research on a broad basis before we think of river linking and large hydro power projects; because rejuvenation of existing rivers could revamp the local economies. Let us not forget that Sylhet, the headquarters of Surma Valley Division, only 140 km from Shillong by road, had a thriving boat building industry in not distant a past. In 1778,the District Collector Mr.Lindsay got a 400-ton ship made which was huge and a fleet of 20 such seaworthy crafts was used to carry rice to Madras. There is thus a definite scope now to revive old river routes.


Celebration of NADI-2016 will be a real success if it generates a will to understand and answer the above questions. What is needed is a radical change from the present policy to treat rivers merely as means of producing economic services without addressing the larger issue of the overall eco system and its sustainability.


  1. In this context, The Asian Confluence has in its institutionalized form- in an increasingly democratic world, effectively started to champion the role of “The Third Space”; and it deserves not only compliments but our all-out support. This kind of initiative has the potential to become game changers for Asia and the world. We shall fail in our duty if we do not complement and support the bold and visionary leadership of Meghalaya. Chief Minister Dr. Mukul Sangma who has not only recognized the good work of Asian Confluence but along with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS) has given full support to the celebration.