The path to the creation of civilization has presented humans with a variety of challenges. None has been more enduring than nature itself. A battle with the elements has featured through the history of the evolution of human beings. The idea of the conquest of nature, though not entirely novel, has been pushed forward rapaciously in more recent times. Quite aside from the terrible irony of the fact that ‘putting nature in its place’ can have undesirable and destructive consequences, especially in the long run, the story of the short and medium run is the story of the course that history takes while humans attempt the impossible.
It is in this spirit that the reader must approach Unruly Waters, historian Sunil Amrith’s panoramic understanding of how one of the elements—water—has influenced the history of South Asia. Amrith has previously authored Crossing the Bay of Bengal, a book that grants ocean systems their rightful place in the study of history. The book under review continues to expand on the theme. A state-centric understanding is present but not necessarily privileged in the author’s account, giving room to people and nature and allowing for a fuller, more vibrant insight into our society.
The book begins with a brief account of the centrality of water resources for the various empires that ruled the South Asian subcontinent through the medieval period. Power struggles that marked the demise of the Mughal Empire and the establishment of British Colonial rule placed water administration on the backburner. The colonial government slowly gained control over its subjects, and the task of extraction of resources began in earnest. Maximizing the utility of water was critical for the smooth functioning of both agrarian and the budding industrial procurement web. Individual administrators, some of whom were sympathetic to the local population, initiated the development of a modern canal irrigation network for agriculture developing upon older, preexisting networks as a means of ensuring drought resilience in an arid region with uncertainty about rains. Ports came into sharp focus, and so did shipping companies. The decision to lay down a railway network relegated waterway navigation to a state of relative insignificance, though the latter was cheaper and used the knowledge of local people. However, the railways were never a replacement for waterways, and depended upon the assistance of waterway engineers, for instance, in the case of bridge building.
The occurrence of storms and famines on the subcontinent spurred the collection of climate data. Scientific linkages were established between local climate and famines, and records of the human crisis precipitated by these events were also created. This development is significant in light of the fact that across the world, including in rich advanced countries, science had not been able to break the enchantment with ‘moral meteorology’, i.e., natural calamities are the result of divine rage, well into the modern period. Eventually though, famines came to be seen as failures of administration, leading to the setting up of inquiry commissions that concluded that they could be avoided by better management of water resources. Amrith has tweaked out astonishing details through his research, which tells us about debates among different groups of scientists and also the state of colonial administration.
Storm science also gathered strength. A proper meteorological infrastructure was setup by the British administration. Usually manned by white scientists (there was the odd white woman too, who predictably, did not get her due), the observational data was collected with the help of the local population. These efforts were directed towards blunting the edge of monsoon unpredictability by searching for rainfall patterns. On a larger scale, the quest for patterns remained elusive, though the administration quickly understood the value of looking for signs using traditional knowledge used by the local subject. The author does ask though whether detecting a weather pattern would have been of any use in the absence of state intervention for prevention of losses due to natural calamities or famines. He asserts that the famines must be foregrounded against the colonial desire to drag India into modern capitalism instead of blaming the weather.
Closer to Independence, a flurry of activity occurred around water management for irrigation. In the Punjab, Canal colonies were built as an upgradation on using water from wells and tanks. This partly explained agricultural prosperity in the region, but the author also sees such developmental activity as a way to secure its colonial frontiers. A new source that came to be tapped was underground water, and fisheries were encouraged in the coastal areas as a supplement to crops for food security. However, the largest among all these projects were dams. Several countries were by now enthused by the Tennessee Valley Authority project in the United States and were looking to replicate its success. Influential Indian scientists continued to lay emphasis on developing localized, small-scale irrigation methods suited to a region, but the lure of controlling and harnessing water was powerful, and in 1944, the Bhakhra Dam was proposed.
In the post-Independence period, water became a bone of contention due to Partition. The carefully developed infrastructure, institutions and personnel were arbitrarily divided between two countries, leaving both weakened. Subsequently, riparian issues threatened to turn into disputes. In the Southern part of the country, river water sharing was already disputed and those issues are yet unresolved. Simultaneously, the outcome of the obsession with high science after Independence led to the inauguration of a slew of river valley projects in India, several of which led to major contention among people who lost land and livelihood in the process, and developed into strong social movements.
Ocean science had started developing through multilateral collaboration among different countries of the world. India became part of the Indian Ocean Experiment, claiming its place among the contributors to ocean science. This noble experiment was not free of gender discrimination though. Women scientists were discouraged on the pretext of unsuitability due to bodily functions or an imaginary lack of strength. On the upside, scientists were able to detect carbon deposits due to aggressive human activity on the oceans, an early warning of climate change that was to come.
The story of India’s complex developmental trajectory and following from that, its political history is revealed to the reader through extensive archival research. By focusing a great deal on individual administrators and scientists, the reader gets a ground level view of the future developmental state.
The text highlights several scientific debates that serve to bolster the fact that science is neither neutral, nor can it be viewed in isolation of everyday politics. The same argument can be made about natural resources: to view them as abundant ‘gifts of nature’, ready-to-use for human life, without a keen eye on the processes and consequences, is a narrow-mindedness the world can ill afford now. Both these arguments are dovetailed into a fascinating political history of the country, and the implications of the decisions taken by administrators are in full view now. The book looks at various regions within the country and also spends quite some time comparing India with China, which appears as a co-traveller on the path to development, but also subsequently emerges as a rival. On a more human note, the anecdotal accounts reveal that the relations between the ruler and the ruled were not always inimical, and much work-related collaboration occurred between them, where they found themselves on the same side.
The book is a beautiful example of not merely writing history in a way that disrupts the traditional state-centric narrative, but is also a lesson in how to write science into politics, and how to present the complications of both science and politics in an easy, accessible manner to a general readership. Amrith has delivered this tall order without compromising on accuracy, a testimony to his breathtaking writing and research skills. The conclusion is obvious—this book is a must read for anyone concerned with the future of human society.
Sucharita Sengupta is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.