River Bagmati: Bounties Become A Curse
Dinesh Kumar Mishra
Sandrp and People's Science Institute
Rs. 595 pp 196
Manusmara is a killer tributary of the River Bagmati, also known as Purani Dhar or ‘old channel’ at Runni Saidpur in the Sitamarhi district of Bihar. According to myth, Lord Vishnu once stayed at the confluence of the Bagmati and the Vishnumati. The Bagmati touched his feet and the doab is called Siddhabhumi, where sin has no place. Hanuman is believed to have halted there before going to the Himalayas in quest of the Sanjivani plant to save Lakshman, fatally hit by an arrow during the Lankan war. Given all this, the existence of the Kala Pani of the Manusmara, another tributary of the Bagmati — the result of the dumping of effluents from sugar mills whose major shareholder, incidentally, is a devout Hindu — actually ridicules Lord Vishnu and Hanuman as anyone who now takes a dip here will, in all likelihood, soon die. Indeed, this makes a complete mockery of the Sanskrit sloka: “Who takes a dip in this river (Bagmati) will find a place in heaven”. All this is vividly told by Dinesh Kumar Mishra in a narrative packed with history, earth science and politics. The book includes maps and tables, folklore, myths and details about cruel mismanagement through thoughtless embankments and the destruction of fertile tracts that once produced cash crops.
The river has been prone to flooding through the centuries but floods are actually a boon for farmers unlike dykes, which, as Mishra categorically states, can become a curse. The issues arising from the placing of impediments to the natural flow of the river are old: changes to its course were recorded by William Hunter and James Rennel, two pioneering river experts of the colonial era. Then as now, vested interests ignored important studies. Today, political parties are strangely apathetic towards the pain of the people of the area.
Mishra has devoted his life to the people living along the banks of rivers like the Bagmati and the Koshi, who are victims of the greed of the construction lobby that colludes with a section of engineers and politicians. Saving the river is inseparably linked to the livelihood of millions.
This writer had the opportunity of traveling with the author to witness how floods and wrongly built embankments perpetuate misery in the region. The study of this great ongoing tragedy calls to mind the seminal work Development of Underdevelopment by Andre Gunder Frank. River Bagmati: Bounties Become A Curse is a call to action and definitely deserves to be read.
Sankar Ray is an analyst on the environment and Left politics