Articles and Commentaries |
March 6, 2019

Book Review: Unruly Waters

How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia’s History

Author: Sunil Amrith

Publisher: Allen Lane, 2018, PP 416

Price: Rs.799/-

Book Review by: K. Raka Sudhakar Rao

The centrality of water to South Asian civilizational dynamics is indisputable. This is more so for India, where rivers starting from the evanescent Saraswati to  eternally inspiring Ganga to the Godavari and Kaveri down south, not to speak of the mighty and ‘maha-baahu’ (deep-chested and huge-armed) Brahmaputra, inspired the course of history. Indians are essentially river people. People identify themselves as “Chora Ganga KinareWallah” or “Saryu Paree” or “Saraswats” or even ‘Sindhis’.  The rains, rivers, coasts and the seas have shaped the history of not just India, but the whole of South Asia.

In South Asia, water has spurred dreams of political freedom and economic development. This quest has egged them to re-engineer the flow of water through a slew of dams, barrages, reservoirs and aqueducts regardless of the environmental consequences. It has also catalysed inter-state and inter-country rivalry for control over water resources. Thus, water in India has both been a great cultural unifier as well as a nasty political divider.  Water is also politis.

Through his book Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia’s History, Mehra Family professor of South Asian Studies at the Harvard and MacArthur fellow, Sunil Amrith presents a compelling history of India over the last two centuries from the perspective of the deep interplay of its people and their tryst with water and of course, the weather. Amrith, whose earlier book Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and Fortunes of Migrants too talks about India and its tryst with water, continues his study of governing influence of monsoon in the current book too. He makes the profoundly significant statement that the Indian Ocean was a weather factory: the source of India’s climate. The Indian subcontinent “is the crucible of the monsoon and more than 70% of India’s total annual rainfall occurs during those three months. Despite a vast expansion of irrigation since independence in 1947, 60% of India’s agriculture is rain-fed” the author points out.

India presents a great paradox as waters that have profoundly affected the contours of its history so much,  deliver only 4 per cent of world’s fresh waters and provide fresh water to just 14 per cent of its population.  But it is this water that funded the British affluence and supported its military might. He recounts how British masters’ avaricious quest for revenues even in times of acute famines midwifed by truant monsoons wrought catastrophe on the country. The other side of this story is the efforts of visionary Europian mandarins who tried to master India’s water map of the country. This is another typical Indian paradox. Even while fighting the hegemonistic British rule, Indias venerated modern day Bhageeraths like Sir Arthur Cotton, who helped materialise marvels like irrigation projects, dams and an enviable reticulum of canals to turn a poor region into “an expanse of irrigated fertility,” to paraphrase the author. Similarly, the Himalayan mountain range disgorges 10 rivers that serve a fifth of humanity, running through 16 countries and fed by innumerable tributaries. The Ganga basin has thus become the hub that fuelled economics not just in South Asia but also in the Mekang region.

The book, a result of eight long years of scouring through the dusty archives stacked away in the labyrinthine storehouses of Imperialist British era, also chronicles the financial felicity of Indian economy catalysed by its maritime activity during the 16th Century.  He writes: “Indian economy absorbed 20 per cent of the world’s silver between 1600 and 1800. Throughout South East Asia’s era of commercial expansion in the 16th Century, Indian traders from the coasts of Gujarat, Madras and Bengal shipped cloth to Pegu and Tennasserim in Burma, to the thriving port of Melaka on the Malay peninsula and to the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, the author says.

He also tells us how the Moghuls and Sher Shah Suri improvised the already existing irrigation systems and how the Britishers stabilised the same systems using the modern technology during the 18th Century. Even after Independence, this quest to ‘free India from the seasons’ continued and Nehru termed these big irrigation projects “the new temples of India.”  ”Dams were the single largest form of public investment in modern India. Swallowing considerably more government expenditure than health care or education …. More than any other technology, they promised a mastery of nature,” writes Amrith.  But he is also not oblivious to the perils of big projects. He also laments that among the powers was a lamentable and “a willful blindness to the consequences of repeated attempts to conquer nature,” says Amrith. Sunil Amrith warns about the ecological impact of the ‘desease of gigantism’ sweeping through the South Asia. He argues that big dams may not always be the panacea for India’s water woes.

Amrith also talks about the positive and constructive role being played by NGOs and civil society organisations in efficient water management.  In the last chapter titled ‘Stormy Horizons,’ he talks about initiatives such as the ‘Third Pole’s Mapping Platforms, which imparts an ability to envision the risks involved in water management.  The taut narration has a lyrical lilt to it and makes this book a fascinating read. This original work of history will go a long way in improving our understanding of India’s water systems.

(Shri K. Raka Sudhakar Rao is a Hyderabad-based journalist and commentator.
He can be reached at )

(This Book Review is carried in the print edition of March-April 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)





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