Dealing With Rivers, Forests and Hills with Dignity

By Dinesh Kumar Mishra
Convenor – Barh Mukti Abhiyan

There is an episode in Mahabharata. Patriarch Bhishma, while lying over the bed of arrows awaiting his death, used to give sermons to the Pandavas every evening on the various aspects of governing the state. Once Yudhishthir asked him about different kinds of treaties a king could enter into with other kings. Bhishma told him that a king should make a careful study of the rival king. If he is weak then asking for a treaty is his concern and the treaty could be entered into on one’s own terms. If the other side is equal in strength, then the king must ascertain weak points of the other party and find a suitable time to remind him of one’s strength time and again so that the other side does not take things for granted. While dealing with a side that is much stronger Bhishma narrates a story of the ocean and his wives, the rivers, to Yudhishthir.

He said that once the ocean called all his wives and said, “Rivers! I notice that during floods you all get filled up to the brim and uproot big trees and carry them with their roots and branches but the willow is never seen in your flow. The willow is a very thin and insignificant plant. It has no strength of its own and grows all along your banks. Still, you are not able to bring it to me. Do you avoid the plant or has it done some good to you (that you favour it)? I want to know (from you) why this plant does not leave your banks and come here.”

The Ganga replied, “O Lord of Rivers! The big trees because of their arrogance, do not bow before the might of our flow. They get destroyed owing to their confronting nature and have to leave their places, but because the willow is not like them, it bows before the swift currents and when the river subsides it is back in its place. It judges the times and behaves accordingly; it is always in our grips and is never unruly. There is no trace of arrogance in it and that is why it doesn’t have to leave its place. The plants, trees and creepers which bow before the might of winds, and rivers and raise their heads only when they subside, are never destroyed…”

Bhishma said, “… when a learned king judges that the opponent is more powerful, he should behave like a willow and must bow before him. The wisdom lies there.” Bhishma was sermonizing treaties but gave a very important and one of the first lessons in dealing with rivers citing the example of willows.

The arrogance of scientists and engineers in controlling nature has created more problems than it has solved. We keep on hearing about flood resistant houses, flood resistant crops, flood proofing and so on. Why can’t we have flood tolerant, houses and flood tolerant crops? Why should modern technology treat everything as its enemy? Why don’t we ever try to convert flood water into a resource rather than a liability? We have had this in our tradition but who bothers about the tradition? The moment one talks of traditions, one is charged of taking the society back to primitive days. Talking about traditions means showing the red rag to development bull.

Much is talked about floods and the resulting havoc that the rivers play with the life of the people in the basin but we rarely try to look into the traditional ways of dealing with our rivers and living in harmony with them. Needless to say that civilization grew along the rivers and if the rivers and their devastating effect, the floods, have been much of a problem, the population and the population density in places like Rajasthan would have been much higher. Misuse of natural resources has, however, led to the destruction of civilizations too.

The Mithila Tradition of Dealing With Rivers
On the banks of the Balan River, in Jhanjharpur block of Madhubani district in Bihar, there used to be a village called Partapur. The village had one big and three small tanks in it. The bigger tank was located at a higher elevation and linked to the Balan River by a drain. The entry point of the drain near the river was blocked by mud. As the water level of the Balan was raised during the rainy season, the villagers would open the drain and the top layer water of the river would gush towards the main tank. After the main tank was filled, the river water would be diverted towards the smaller tanks for filling. Once all the tanks were filled, the inlet to the drain near the river would be closed only to be opened next year.

The tanks had a water spread area of about 14 hectares and the village agricultural area was about 100 hectares. Thus, there was enough water in the tanks to provide supplementary irrigation to the Rabi crop of pulses and oil seeds as well as to meet their daily needs. These tanks never dried up and this meant that the open wells located along the lower periphery of the village too would never dry up. There was strict adherence to the rule that the well water would only be used for drinking water purposes. Moreover, the villagers had their own traditional variety of paddy seeds which could tolerate prolonged submergence up to 1.2 to 1.6 meters. The river being free to spill over a vast area would never rise beyond these levels. Thus the villagers would have paddy, plenty of fish in the river tanks, pulses and oil seeds. No wonder, the floods in Balan were eagerly awaited.

The river would spill 5 to 6 times during the monsoon and irrigate the fields along with the nutrients carried by its waters. The paddy and fish would grow together; and if there is any dry spell the fish could swim into the series of ponds and the tank water could also be used for irrigation in case of extreme emergencies. This is just an example. Almost every village of Mithila has had some arrangement of irrigation and ensuring its agriculture. The tradition never tried to block the flow of a river.

Mithila is known for its Paan (betel leaves), Makhaan (Gorga nut) and tanks. Tradition has it that all the sources of water, be it tanks or wells or any other such source; it is cleaned even today on the Viashakh Sankranti (middle of April) every year in Mithila as a ritual and it is referred to as Joor Shital. Many fairs are organized along the banks of the rivers almost round the year. Normal floods are a welcome event and this is occasion is celebrated with gaiety. Modern scientific and technical interventions have turned welcome floods of the rivers into a disaster and unless that mindset changes, the rivers will continue to play havoc with the lives of the people.

Recent floods in the Kosi basin (2008) are a living example of ill treating the river. The arrogance to tame the river was given a fitting reply by the river for the eighth time on the 18th August 2008. It is reminded here that the Kosi embankments had breached earlier also on seven occasions, twice in Nepal and five times in the Indian portion. Kusaha breach was the only incident when the embankment had breached upstream of the Kosi Barrage. This breach had affected nearly 3.3 million people with more than half of them living in 3.4 lakh houses that had either slumped down or were washed away in the flood that followed the breach at Kusaha. The flood waters had spread over 3.68 lakh hectares of land. Never before in the known history of the Kosi, 527 persons were killed (there are nearly 3700 persons still missing) in a single year. What an illusory protection the embankments gave to the people on their countryside? The river was now flowing through a new course that was its path in 1870s.

Bengal’s Traditions Were Not Lagging Behind
When the British took over the reigns of the country; they carefully studied the Yamuna Canal built by Feroze Shah Tughlaq in the 14th Century. Enhancing India’s food production was not the priority of the British. They had their eyes firmly fixed on the revenue that canal irrigation could generate in future. They further studied the Ganga Basin and concluded that if this basin were made flood-free, they could levy a tax for providing this protection. Afterwards, the flood protected area would need irrigation and canals providing it would generate more revenue. And so they planned it both ways. There approach was leading only towards profits and not the welfare of the people.

They built the embankments along the rivers in the Ganga Brahmaputra basin and also strengthened the existing embankments; but the outcome of this effort was not very encouraging for them. Nevertheless, in order to keep the issue of taming the rivers alive, they kept on referring rivers like the Kosi as the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’ and the Damodar as the ‘Sorrow of Bengal’ etc. Rivers are often referred to as mothers. Mahabharata calls the rivers as the mothers of the world. It is intriguing how a mother could be a source of sadness. It is the difference of culture that that induces one to rate rivers as ‘sorrow’. It is also interesting to note that the people of any basin in the flood prone area, while narrating the horrifying stories of the floods, address the rivers as ‘mothers’.

A train service was started in India on the April 16, 1853 between Mumbai and Thane. It reached east India after one year when the first train was flagged off between Ranigunj and Howrah on the August 15, 1854. This railway line was exposed to the floods in the Damodar and hence construction of embankments was begun along this river in 1855. These embankments were quite high and sturdy. The British wanted them to be waterproof and strong enough and to be unbreachable.

After constructing embankments along the Damodar, the British constructed the Eden Canal also. The Railway line itself was an embankment. The Grand Trunk Road connecting Calcutta to Delhi was also raised and strengthened. All these structures ran parallel to each other and cut the drainage line almost at right angles. The drainage mechanism of the area was thoroughly disrupted due to these structures. As far as flood control was concerned, they worsened the situation. Commenting on these structures constructed one after the other, a British engineer, William Wilcox, wrote, “These five satanic chains imprisoned the River Damodar and pushed the entire happy and prosperous area between Burdwan and Hooghly into abyss of poverty and malaria.”

Following the construction of embankments along the Damodar, the natural tanks and lakes in surrounding countryside started dying unnatural death as they all got filled up aquatic weeds. Moreover, the fertility of the land started diminishing and droughts and famines began showing their ugly faces. In 1861, within just one year of the completion of the railway line, malaria spread like as an epidemic in Burdwan and the entire area was subject to great hardships.”

There was no mechanism of railway through the railway line and water started stagnating around it. Although there was no effective treatment of malaria in those days, the Government, nevertheless, had to open charitable dispensaries in Burdwan, in order to fight the epidemic. And in 1859 itself, the Government was compelled to demolish the right embankment of the Damodar over a length of about 32 kilometers to restore fertility of soil. The situation became normal only by 1863.”

Following the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, the extension of railway lines and roads had in any case become important for the colonial rulers. Extension of railways played havoc with forests as it consumed wood not only in sleepers but also as fuel in engines. Coal came to be used much later in railways. Reckless use wood denuded all the forests in terai area and floods became unmanageable.

The British, however, learnt the Damodar lesson a hard way. The villagers in the basin used to construct a very low height bund along the Damodar just to be used as a path way in normal season. As the rainy season started, they used to broad cast paddy seeds in their fields and it would take nearly three weeks for the seedlings to be ready for transplanting. Mosquitoes would also breed in the fields simultaneously and their larvae would get matured in nearly three weeks. This was also the time for the river to rise and once that happened, the villagers would breach the bunds en masse and all the river water would rush towards the fields. This essentially was the top layer of the river water which is known to carry the fertilizing silt. Along with river water fingerlings of fishes would also travel to wherever the flood water would go. These fingerlings being carnivorous would eat all the larvae of the mosquitoes and there were little chances of any malaria being spread. The river normally spilled 5 to 6 times in the season and that was the kind of irrigation needed for the paddy crop. To take care of any prolonged dry spell, every family had a pond in front of his house to give shelter to the fishes and provide for irrigation.

The British happened to learn the intricacies of the indigenous system only after they had destroyed it. Not only did they destroy the harmony which the farmers of the Damodar basin were living in with the river, they also had destroyed the famous Aahar / Paine system of Bihar simply because they could not device means to assess the irrigation from Sone Canals if the water of the canal was diverted into Aahars.

Forests Play the Crucial Role of Conservation Forests have suffered the same fate as rivers and only a lip service is being provided to restore them. Wild life conservationists have picked up slogan which essentially is derived from Mahabharata. In the Udyog Parva of the epic, Vedvyasa says,
“ Na syat Vanamrite vyaghraan Vyaghra na syurite vanam
Vanam hi rakshate vyaghrairvyaghryarn rakshati Kaananam.”
It implies that without tigers the forests cannot be saved and without tigers the forests cannot survive. This is because the tigers save the forests and the vice versa.

There are directions in scriptures about plucking the fruits also from the tree. It is said,
“ Vanaspater pakwani phalani prachinoti yah
Sa napnoti rasam tebhyo beejam chaasya vinashyati
Yastu pakwamupa dyatte kale parinatam phalam
Phalam rasam sa labhate beejachchaiva phalam punah.”

Udyog Parva of Mahabharata, verses 15 and 16 of chapter 34.

He, who plucks unripe fruits from the tree, not only deprives himself of the juice of the fruit but also destroys the seed of it. But he who enjoys the ripe fruit gets the juice of it and the seed provides him with the fruit time and again.

Not only the unripe fruits but leaves are also barred from being mishandled. It is said,
“Yasya chaadrasya vrikshasya sheetachchhayam samashrayet
Na tasya parnah druhyet poorva vritta manusmaram.”
Should one stay under the shadow of a tree blooming with green leaves, one should not think of destroying even a leaf of that tree remembering the goodness of the tree that it provided the shadow at one time. It needs protection from him.

Will those looting the forest wealth and those trying to protect the same try to look back into traditional wisdom of our ancestors.

Hills were worshipped on the same lines
It is interesting to note that while responding to the salutations of the younger generation, the elders used to bless them by saying that as long as the kingdom of forests, rivers and hills lasts on the earth, your name, fame and honor would remain intact.

Market Forces and Consumerism
There are two kinds of approaches towards our natural resources. One, to assume that nature has got enough for every one’s needs and should be exploited to that end. Two, the nature has got enough for every one’s needs but not enough for anyone’s greed. The latter was a famous saying of Gandhi Ji. The difference in approach signifies the difference of cultures. Exploiting nature cannot be one way traffic. If one is extracting something from it, it is expected that the same is returned to the nature in some form or the other. That would form the basis of sustenance. A British engineer, FC Hirst had once said in early twentieth century that arresting rivers is like throwing gloves at nature, an insult that the river is not likely to leave unavanged. Same thing holds for forests and hills to. When exploited beyond repairs, they will also not keep quite. They will avenge their destruction in some form or the other. How this happens is not exactly known.

Tradition bestows divinity on our rivers, forests and hills that no other culture provides and yet, we are dealing them with contempt. This is the time to act and restore their pride.

Dinesh Kumar Mishra
Convenor – Barh Mukti Abhiyan
6-B Rajiv Nagar
Patna 800024


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