Living rivers, dying rivers: River Godavari

Godavari river (Source: Wikepedia)
Godavari river (Source: Wikepedia)

The lecture dealt with 'Perceptions of a river, life and the idea of floods in politics and commerce', with the metaphor of control over rivers dating back to the times of Sir Arthur Cotton, who built the Dowlaiswaram anicut on the Godavari in 1863.

Crucial to the idea of the river as a life principle is the prime attribute of seasonal flooding, a trait characteristic of Godavari like many other river systems. It is around this idea that the speaker had spent considerable time throughout her travels to Godavari and had received the knowledge of a river not just as a living system but as a living feminine person. The speaker was interested in social history of the river as a living system and the politics that redefines it. It is from this angle that she focused on the river for the talk on Godavari, a hugely contested river of Andhra Pradesh and five other basin states. The talk identified a specific locale but at a larger level it was relevant to understanding rivers on the one hand from the state and politics point of view and on the other hand from the world view of people by a river system.

It is here that Uma Maheshwari found the metaphor for the river – “she comes”, “when she comes”, “if she comes” etc and has since come to see the river as one that does not flood. Peoples’ understanding is simple yet profound like the depth of the river Godavari - a truthful evoking of a larger life system principle of permanent flows. It presents the meaning of true depth and its interconnectedness.

Metaphor of control over the river

On the other hand, the states perception is shallow as noted in her travels from 2006 to 2010. She compares it with surface water with convoluted mathematics created over it to generate uses that will make the river a pain proposition. The moment the idea of possession and ownership comes in, it brings with it ideas of conflict and power as also ideas of wasting into sea of that which could have been possessed, controlled and manipulated to stop on command and give dividend on expenditure when it is released as a ration.

The language of policy makers, state and technocrats is that of death like the usage of the term dead storage. It looks at everything in consumption and commodity terms. For people there is no dead storage. For them the river flows the course and it must meet the sea. “No matter how many barrages are built Godavari must go to the sea. That is the law of nature. So many barrages were built. Has it stopped the river from meeting the sea?” This is what a fisherman Satyanarayana told the speaker in Kobbarichattapeta village in East Godavari district.

Human interaction with the river

There is no consumption or use of the river as a one-time mammoth exploitation. The river is used over centuries of interface for sustaining life and basic livelihoods. In popular discourse, Godavari does not flood. For people living in the close vicinity of the Godavari there is a name and a vintage to the floods. For them it is a natural phenomenon which has relevance to life. The relevance to past coming is typically prefixed by the year of coming. The floods of 1986 are referred to as "enabhai-aaru Godavari" and not as "enabhai-aaru varadalu". In mainstream history the river has had massive flooding ever so often. In the socio-economic and cultural context of the people, the river never floods; she comes and leaves ("ade vellipotundi").

Yet these categories are not halfway simplistic or romantic. For most of the tribal, dalits and marginalized in the three districts of East Godavari, West Godavari and Khammam in the present context they would be losing their lands, forests and livelihoods in the wake of the dam itself. This may be one large event in their many historic life negotiations.

Perceptions of flooding and floods show as to how a structure is created by politics and commerce. The anicut in Godavari initially touted as being constructed as an answer to control floods on the river and address famine did not really control floods. There were two kinds of images of Sir Arthur Cotton – at a popular level as a messiah training the wild river, controlling floods and famine and at the government and international level he was justifying the plan and urging investments and promising returns on investments.

How language and idiom form the history of river access

There was a level of myth making as well in language and idioms used and Uma Maheshwari looked at the continuities today. But more than a physical sense of reincarnation it was reinvoking of a colonial thought process. Language of the mainstream power politics in Andhra Pradesh is essentially a deltaic language, she said. The political language is built from a history of river access in Andhra Pradesh. The mainstream political history of post independence Andhra Pradesh has never been of drylands or of the forests. It is the rivers Godavari and Krishna that have defined politics and nature of economic development in the post independent state, born in 1956 in relative turmoil.

Fisher folks’ perspective on the ecology of the rivers

The perception of people on rivers and flooding are very different from that of the states. The system of works now in progress in the Godavari are intended to embrace four objects – to restrain the river, to preserve the land from floods, to supply it constantly with water and to pervade the tract thoroughly with means of very cheap transit. Note the term “constantly with water”.

The river touches diverse landscapes, terrains and cultures. The speaker noted how fisher folk feature nowhere in the R&R plans, as they cannot claim ownership of the rivers. Although they have fished in these waters for centuries, subtle changes in their settlement patterns were never important enough to be recorded by census officials. Since they are marginalized it does not seem to be important for the state to even consider their histories or memory as of consequence to the nation built only around a few industrialists. The movement of a river and non-movement in all these grandiose plans of storing/ linking rivers is controlled by the history of just a few of these moneyed parties in our country. Nobody moves policy as the top few do.

When a river is dammed it becomes part of the forced universal

What makes a river a living river is these relational aspects to the community, ecological diversity, constant flow yet a rhythm and pace typical of the season and the physiographical contour. A living river touches cultures, peoples, season, highs and lows, has its summers, winters & monsoons and colours & shades. The fields in the command area are always pumped with water from the system no matter what the mood or pace of the river. The crops too are universal, single dimensional, monocrops, paddy, sugarcane, tobacco requiring water at certain levels without which they cannot thrive. And if changes are made in the crops and the water availability they cannot manage it. They are not strong enough nor are the soil.

So when a river is controlled within a universal system or structure even agrarian patterns become universal. No fallows are permitted in a commerce driven regime – a system that constantly demands returns on investment from a constantly active market which never takes rest. The market is active in all seasons and there is no concept of seasonal crops. The system does not allow space for some fluid yet deeply bound histories of the river such as that of the fishing communities, tribal communities, hunters and food gatherers and forest dwellers. It is a mainstream universal history with dominance of a land based landscape over all others.

Concepts of R&R are couched in this universality, which is problematical. The colonial period saw the birth of a system that demanded returns on every infrastructure built by them especially with regard to irrigation system.

Playlist: Rivers of Andhra Pradesh

The lecture in various parts can be viewed at Youtube here –


Related content

The lectures in the series can be viewed here:

India Water Portal is grateful to Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer and the India International Centre for allowing it to record the lecture and share the videos online.