Brahmaputra, a river of hope and sorrow

The project “Science communication for water diplomacy in the Brahmaputra” launched a photostory exhibition on the mighty river. Arundhati Deka and Isha Thakur offer a glimpse of the plurality of attachments, concerns and hopes reflected in the photos.

The river at its origin, Yarlung Tsangpo in South Tibet (Photo by Xiawei Liao)

Sedimenting civilizations

Rivers hold a special significance as they have constructed and deconstructed civilizations, apart from being an essential element for survival. Brahmaputra is one of the largest rivers in the global south with a large number of indigenous and migrant communities living along its course. The river has been key in the civilization of the Tibeto-Burman communities that have been living along for centuries, agriculture and fishing forming an integral practice to their life and livelihood. The river in its origin in Tibet is most pristine, often seeming mystical as the gorges of the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon might have inspired the idea of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s book Lost Horizon. The river then flows to Arunachal Pradesh, where the indigenous communities worship the river as integral to their animist beliefs, before flowing through the floodplains of Assam and Bangladesh. While the communities dwelling along the upper reaches of Assam imitate the culture of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, although gradually evolving, the communities in the lower reaches of the state have cultural similarities to Bangladesh. With time, river’s resources have also played a significant role in harnessing other forms of development efforts such as navigation, power generation, etc. While the river and its course know no boundaries, people divide through boundaries, administrative and political.

 


Women potters use the clay collected from the riverside to prepare their artifacts
(Photo by Bikash Chetry)

Deconstructing boundaries

There have been several efforts toward deconstructing these boundaries, through collaborative efforts of civil societies and academia among the basin nations. During these discourses, it was realized that there is an astounding amount of distrust of the media as a stakeholder among the others, while being equally reliant on the medium as well for consuming and disbursing information, leading to lack of participation from this community. Moreover, the media also plays a significant role in bringing crucial information to the mass and shaping narratives for them, and the distrust of the media, while maybe valid for certain outlets, it seems to be more of a social conditioning now than something quite legit. While it might not be free of influence in an absolute sense, media is an integral part of people’s realities in a postmodern society and post pandemic world wherein individuals actively engage and initiate communication on issues of local to national significance. With lack of communication between media and water scientists, journalists are often not able to access scientific knowledge. To enhance their engagement, there is a need for water diplomacy involving both communities. With this idea and motivation to bridge the gap, IIT Guwahati initiated “Science Communication for Water Diplomacy in the Brahmaputra” with support from IHE Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development (DUPC2) funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The goal of the project is to enhance understanding of the media’s role in water politics and communication, and to bring the scientific and media communities closer.

“We have to build a wall too.” “Yes, we do.” “Like the ones in the city. They protect the shops and the cycles, the poles and the dogs.” “We will make a wall too.” “Yes, we do.” (Photo: Devadeep Gupta)

Visualising narratives

Within this initiative, as a means to bring stakeholders together while breaking boundaries, a call for a photostory exhibition was initiated with submissions remaining open to anyone who has an association with the river and engages with photography as a medium and even if just as a part of their daily lives. The exhibition thus, provided an inclusive platform to display the various narratives about the river from the region. The medium of visual storytelling had been encouraged as it could help make complex stories easier to understand and deliver a more impactful message. It makes stories as imaginative, modern and relevant for readers as they could possibly be. This virtual photostory exhibition on Brahmaputra aimed to explore the kaleidoscopic perspectives on life, community and infrastructure around the river, and to attempt to understand the hopes and trials surrounding the river. The call ultimately culminated into an inaugural webinar to launch the Brahmaputra Virtual Photostory Exhibition – River of Hope and Sorrow, and the website is now live! While in better circumstances, it would have been organized as a physical exhibition, for now the exhibition is only online. During the webinar, eminent scholar, Prof. Sanjoy Hazarika, highlighted that one of the features that makes Brahmaputra unique is the presence of several islands along its course in the floodplains, which are inhabited by around 3 million people, i.e., 1/12th of the population of Assam. While Prof. Sara Ahmed elucidated that photo stories are a combination of photos with small stories (usually 100-250 words) contextualizing it. The head of the collaborating institutes, Prof. Eddy Moors and Prof. T G Sitharam, hailed the efforts of the team and were delighted to support this initiative.

The water buffaloes love their bath during summer and relax in the Brahmaputra River (Photo: Ayon Pratim Saikia)

The stories shared have been a keen observation of living with the river, being quite contrasting for the urban and rural, and the diverse group of communities that dwell along the course of the river. For some, the river holds religious and spiritual significance (historically, the river’s prominence has been on communication and navigation), as they believe they can detoxify themselves of their sins and impurity in the river. While some argue that the river might bring peace to people, but the river itself lacks peace due to rapid development that has not only engulfed the region but also the global south. The shared river is also symbolic of animistic beliefs among the indigenous river communities across the boundaries. The photo stories exhibited capture the various imaginaries of the river and unfettered emotions of the storytellers while undertaking their journeys across the Brahmaputra. Some stories highlight the lives and trials of fishers, farmers and women living by the river; women particularly engage with the river differently as their relationship extends from the private to the public. Some stories brim with historical accounts of civilization that has happened along the river, and a sense of belonging, while some talk of adventures and unforgettable chronicles. There are stories about the river’s origin, its energy and flow, the biodiversity surrounding it and how that impacts the communities that depend on it. Some stories are poetic, some take the form of dilemma (like pulling through during the pandemic), some are informational and some demand action.

There is also a sense of longing among the ones who have lived away from the river, their memories of childhood along the river, the river fills them with nostalgia, homesickness. This often signifying the everlasting bond between the river and its people, and the integral nature of the river in the lives of its people. The meandering and shifting river find its association with the people, spanning from the public (leisure to livelihood) to private (domestic water use). The river has also been a source of loss and sorrow, not only due to annual floods and erosion leading to loss of life and livelihoods but due to other accidents related to development initiatives (Baghjan incident) that has left its inhabitants, flora and fauna distraught. Nevertheless, the communities have learned to adapt and survive through several annual calamities. Rainforests and wetlands are some of the well-known ecosystems where the ecology of the basin thrives. Among these exists a lesser-known ecosystem, the flood-plain sediments or river islands or vernacularly called Char-Chaporis, inhabited by migrant communities and with a unique biodiversity. The monsoons are particularly a blessing for both mainlanders and islanders for agriculture and fishing. The river is also a representation of the symbiotic relationship between humans and wildlife, and within the communities itself, the river holds different significance for different intersections or groups of people as the accessibility to resources for these river communities vary with respect to ethnicity, caste, class, etc. But time and again, the communities have also expressed their unity, sometimes as ‘Luitporia’ or ‘people from the banks of Luit’ and sometimes through the music of Bhupen Hazarika (India and Bangladesh), apart from through a shared cultural identity.

The exhibition is virtually a glimpse into the river Brahmaputra and the landscape around it. The stories are engaging and stirring, and take you on a journey filled with insight and emotion. Please visit http://brahmaputra-exhibition.com/ for the stories from the river, and let us know your thoughts by sharing your comments in the space provided under each story.


Arundhati Deka

Arundhati Deka is a Research Associate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati. Currently she is working on understanding the need for science-media communication and diplomacy in the Brahmaputra, and to realize what role water infrastructure plays in the evolution of nature-society relationship. Previously she has been engaged with ‘Transnational Policy Dialogue for Improved Water Governance of Brahmaputra River’ for 4 years, which has generated a platform to work on cross cutting issues for the riparian nations. She has a master's degree in Environmental Studies and Resources Management and a bachelor's degree in Geology. Her research interest lies in development studies and particularly on water science, policy, and governance; socio-hydrology; and gender in water.

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