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Britannia, Rule the Floods!

Britannia, Rule the Floods! Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India by Rohan D


Britannia, Rule the Floods!

Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India

by Rohan D’Souza; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp 264, Rs 595.


lood plains were the cradles of early civilisations. Ever since that ancient period, a flood has been seen not only as a destructive force but also as a gift of nature. The silt carried by floodwater was an invaluable source of soil fertility and nutrients. But to enjoy that allowance, people had to learn ways to cope with the hazardous face of a floods. From time immemorial, they have been devising ways to reduce damages caused by flood. These include both flood moderation, and adapting to it. Human civilisations could never achieve complete success in controlling floods. Only once, after the spectacular advances with cement, mortar, and concrete, there was such a hope. The beginning of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was flaunted as ushering in a new era of bygone flood menace. TVA inspired may similar projects, including the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) and the Hirakud dam in India. But soon the hope faded away. Despite TVA, floods continued to occur in Tennessee Valley. In February 1973, Chattanooga city was devastated by a 37 feet high flood. Parts of the TVA were designed primarily to protect this traditionally flood affected city. The TVA consoled itself claiming that in the absence of its dams and regulators, the water would have crested at 52.4 feet.1 This was not the lone incidence of flood in post-project period. In just about 30 years, the TVA realised that its dams and reservoirs could only moderate, but would not prevent all flooding. Since then TVA also tries to “keep the people away from floods”.

“Keep the people away from floods”, which, in policy parlance is known as “flood plain zoning”, is now the official policy of the US. In 1968, the US Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Act, which inter alia, guides development away from flood prone areas. By now, 20,000 local administrations have adopted local flood plain management ordinances prohibiting walled or roofed constructions in the flood prone zones. In India, flood plain zoning was proposed in the early 1970s. In 1975 the centre prepared a Model Bill and circulated it to the state governments. Rashtriya Barh Aayog too, recommended enactment and implementation of flood plain zoning. But this is one of its many recommendations that remained on paper. Investments in vulnerable structures continue unabated, multiplying losses of lives and money, and draining away expensive disaster relief every year.

Already, by the beginning of the 1960s the US Congress had decided against taking up new flood protection structures. Though no clear policy has been adopted, in India there is a tacit moratorium on further construction of major flood control structures. But unlike US, India has made little progress towards living with floods. Success is limited to matters like early warning, but not in flood plain zoning or flood adapted development. The negligence is rooted deep in Indian polity. The concerned parties, the union or the state governments, the technologists and the development workers, or the sufferers, are not ready to accept that they have to live with the reality of floods. This book, about the evolution of flood policy in Orissa delta, traces back the folly to a century. It contains an appalling story of administrative dogma for endorsing “control” over “adaptation” that ultimately permeated the Indian polity. In the author’s words, “the idea and practice of flood-control” in colonial India was “an ideological construct”.

Reckless Extension

Before the advent of the British, the author argues, the farmers of the Mahanadi delta had developed as flood adapted communities. They were not petrified by regular occurrences of floods, and inundations of their fields. Instead, they were harnessing floods. The author identified two broad flood utilisation strategies: a defensive strategy of coping with temporary dislocations in crop output by adopting risk-adjusted cropping practices, and a proactive one of utilising silt-laden flood waters for regularly supplementing soil fertility. The colonial authority, in sharp contrast, depicted flood as a calamity. The author engaged in a long but incisive and substantive discussion to establish that the depiction was not innocuous, but rooted in the ideological moorings of the colonial power. A calamity rationalises undertaking of protective works, and that in turn justifies demands for higher revenue. While harnessing the flood, farmers harvested varying amount of crop from year to year. While they might have seen the best of the years and producing bumper crops, the Company officials depicted the scene as dwindling harvest and revenue loss. This view would then justify investments in protective works. The first of these protective works undertaken by the colonial rulers was embankments. Several embankments, including some very large ones, existed in the pre-British era. Earliest inquiries by the East India Company officials had noted that different embankments performed different functions. But being filtered in the ideological position, the functions of the embankments became single-purpose. The colonial authority began to construct embankments hoping that they would stabilise output and revenue. The extension was not a continuation of the old structures and practices. Their layouts of the new embankments were suited to a narrow set of objectives. Besides, the scale was unprecedented. The reckless extension of embankments caused a massive physical reorganisation of the delta shattering its ecological balance.

Backed by a load of information the author asserts that the hydrology of the delta became “violently unsettled” following the flood control embankments. But dismantling the embankments would have

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

effectively dissolved private property. Hence instead, the government began to look for an alternative. At that time, in south India, Sir Arthur Cotton had successfully introduced several profitable private canal projects on major rivers. He pushed private canal irrigation as a great investment opportunity in the Mahanadi belt as well. The Orissa canal system began in 1863. But the project was a miserable failure in all aspects. In subsequent years, the delta experienced vicious flooding and popular resistance. Several inquiries made by the government in later years could not establish that either the embankments or the private canal brought some positive benefits. In fact, some of these government level inquiries claimed otherwise, that canals reduced the output in value terms owing to loss of soil fertility and monocrop regimes. Influential sections were vociferous in demands for dismantling of both embankments and private canals. But again, that was not done. Instead, the search for another alternative paved the way for the multipurpose project and the Hirakud dam.

When embankments and canals, located in the flood belt, failed to deliver, attention was diverted to catchment-control. A new approach, preventing excess water from flowing into the river by impounding it in large reservoirs located in the catchment, had its appeal. Ultimately, this plan was implemented as the first multipurpose river valley project of independent India. The 25 kms long Hirakud dam, commissioned in 1958, is still one of the longest dams in world. But even at the proposal stage, expert opinion had raised doubts about the viability of this project. Two out of six chapters of the book discuss the debate, as well as the events that led to the acceptance of this alternative. It is a rich repository of questions about technical issues of concern, much of which is of relevance today, when the achievements of the gigantic project is in question. The author cites (p 215) from another paper, that after the commissioning of the Hirakud project, on an average, Mahanadi basin is being visited by three high floods and three more gentle low floods in each 10 years. The estimates also claim that the after the project the frequency of high floods has risen and gentle low floods has fallen, both marginally.

Why certain administrative policies and strategies were persisted with despite their causing recurring environmental catastrophes and social unrest? Such is the question that the author chooses to answer. His analysis is directed to establish that the persistence was integral to strategies for empire. In British India, the quest to control water and dominate rivers was rooted in the ideological construct of colonialism and its political economic compulsions. He argues that there is a basic incompatibility between colonial capitalism as a social form and nature as a process (p 16). While nature has its originality, capitalism would like it to act within some dictated coordinates. This incompatibility was the impetus for ecological change in the Orissa delta, where we find capitalism trying hard to divest nature of its originality and make it exist as an artifact. The developments, from embankments to canals, and finally to the multipurpose river valley project, were not just a story of technological progress towards river control, but as much a tale of depriving nature of its originality, which culminated in an effort to reorganise the river, as a gentle stream whose flows can be regulated at will (pp 204-05). It follows that the failure to control the river even with the gigantic project would not lead to the abandoning of such efforts. A still bigger, a gargantuan project will be the next choice. In the conclusive paragraph the author points his finger to the current interlinking of rivers agenda.

Living with Floods

Quite rightly, as a historical account and ecological critic, the book does not make any effort to find the right alternative. But it forcefully argues for a symbiotic existence with floods. If floods cannot be controlled, we should better learn to live with them. The debates and discussions introduced in the book have much to contribute also in the constructive way, towards learning an alternative way to cope with flood. This is a less obvious aspect of the book. Living with floods is not synonymous to resigning to fate. This is about viable development within a flood belt, about adapting not resigning to floods. Along with prohibiting inappropriate structures, the US ordinances also indicate possible developments, as permitted activities. These may include such activities like agriculture, orchards, forestry and seed production, athletic facilities, temporary fairs or carnivals, or temporary shelters. I have already mentioned that the author introduced flood utilisation strategies in the pre-colonial delta as a defensive strategy and a proactive one. The probe goes deeper. The author discussed varieties of purposes for which embankments were constructed, the silt cutting practice, mud value and the manner of its application, etc. At the same time, the author shows some appreciable restraint by not making an effort to enlist all the structural and nonstructural measures in use for flood utilisation and living with floods.

The great debate on hydraulic structures had leading experts on both the sides. The foremost expert championing the counterofficial position was Sir William Willcocks, another leading engineer of imperial Britain. He was highly critical of the colonial embankments and had recommended instead, developing on local practices like silt cult or mud value. Though Willcocks did not work on Orissa, his views are very relevant for the debate. The substantive introduction of Willcocks’ overflow irrigation concept (chapter 1) certainly adds to the richness of the present volume. I take this opportunity to share with the author and the readers another very relevant piece of information. Comparable failures of the flood control strategies, and popular resistance had led the colonial rulers to search for a third alternative also in Bengal. The TVA model of catchment control was not yet so well known. The only possible alternative was to develop on the models of Bentley and Willcocks. In 1939, a scheme called the Damodar Hooghly Flushing and Irrigation Scheme, was passed by the Bengal legislative assembly.2 The resolution was unceremoniously dumped after the DVC, in TVA model, was proposed.

On the negative side, intense political economic and ecological analysis is sprinkled throughout the text, making the book a difficult reading. The literature survey is at times uncritical and at other times unduly critical. These apart, the research work is commendable. Though flood havocs are on the increase, there are not many analytical studies of flood policy, in India or elsewhere. This book, and its rich documentation is therefore, a very valuable contribution. Also, with its thoughtful use of the ecological paradigm, the book is a significant addition to the growing bodyof literature on environmental history.




1 TVA website

index.htm. 2 Damodar Valley Corporation, Golden Jubilee

Commemorative Volume, Profile of a Pioneer,

Calcutta, 1998, pp 58-59.

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

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