World War II proved pivotal: it revived old fears of hunger and despair but also consolidated nationalist thinking about water. After many decades, famine returned to South Asia. In 1943 in Bengal, a vicious cyclone and tidal wave flooded fields and washed out crops. As many as three million people died. The massive, devastating Bengal famine reminded Indians of nature’s vicious power. The famine, Amrith says, ‘shattered the complacent assumption, pervasive by the 1930s, that nature had been conquered’.
Here too, it seemed, the British government’s policies made things worse. Rail embankments had undermined productivity over the years. Market mindsets had eroded social solidarity and safety nets. During the famine, the British actually sent rice out of Bengal. ‘It was a man-made famine,’ Nehru wrote, ‘which could have been foreseen and avoided.’
The war also bred faith in technology and central planning, particularly related to water. Perhaps no one spoke louder for bigger and bolder plans to capture water and remake landscapes than Meghnad Saha, a scientist trained in astrophysics, originally from a low-caste East Bengal family.
The founder of the journal Science and Culture, Saha became a ‘missionary for scientific development’ and critic of Gandhi’s rural romanticism. ‘We do not for a moment believe that better and happier conditions of life can be secured by reverting back to the spinning wheel, the loincloth, and the bullock cart,’ he wrote.
Saha had analysed Bengal’s changes over the decades, and called for big dams along the lines of the USA’s Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). A remote part of the US South, the Tennessee Valley housed some of America’s poorest residents.
In Tennessee, Saha said, ‘Nature, vested interests and thoughtless management made a once prosperous valley a wilderness, but Nature, Man and Science can again make it a smiling garden.’ As in the US, dams and ‘Science’ with a capital ‘S’, he believed, could ‘liberate’ India’s rivers from the unpredictability of the monsoon cycles.
Famine had stalked the plains year after year in the late 1800s but had not shown itself for decades, until wartime Bengal in 1943. Old fears returned. The war also fostered new trust in governmental action.
‘The trauma of famine and social breakdown,’ Amrith writes, ‘met a newfound confidence in the power of state planning and big technology to reshape economy, society, and the environment.’ The path was set for aggressive postwar dam construction.
The disease of gigantism
Some historians see India’s independence in 1947 as a watershed moment in South Asian history. They argue that Indian control of the government changed much. Before 1947, events flowed one way, afterwards they flowed another direction.
No doubt independence brought significant changes. But if you look at history from the perspective of an actual watershed, with a focus on water management strategies, 1947 actually does not look that different from 1907 or 1887. India’s new national leadership continued ambitious attempts to use human technology to flatten the unevenness of the monsoon, efforts broadly akin to the British colonial government’s railways, canals, and early dams.
If anything, the years after 1947, sparked by wartime developments, intensified and expanded bold efforts to control the region’s unruly waters. Looking back, should we now call these efforts heroic or hubristic?
In India’s postwar development efforts, huge concrete dams took centre stage. Dams sprung up not just in India but around the world. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, in both the West and the developing world, dams took on a kind of magical power.
The very first Life magazine cover, from 1936, celebrates a dam, a towering facade of cement. At first, the photo seems bizarre, a mountain of bare grey concrete, until one grasps the cover picture as a symbol of national pride and hope, of power, during the deep despair of the Great Depression, history’s worst economic downturn.
Perhaps no dam project earned more attention worldwide than the Tennessee Valley Authority, a network of dams and government programs aimed to root out entrenched poverty in one of the poorest corners of the US South. Engineers and policymakers from around the flocked to see it, including, in the late 1940s Bhim Bahadur Pande, Nepal’s diplomat and development secretary for much of the next decade.
In the decades after World War II, the TVA’s broad vision fuelled the nationalist dreams of Asia’s rising nations, particularly India and China. ‘Dreams of hydraulic engineering,’ Amrit writes, ‘were inseparable from dreams of freedom.’
In 1947, fewer than 300 dams sat upon Indian rivers, by 1980 there were more than 4,000. China under Mao outdid even this, building 22,000 dams in the postwar decades.
In India and China, large dams carried enormous symbolic power. ‘They epitomized the dreams of development promised the mastery of nature,” Amirth writes. ‘Dams promised to liberate India from the capricious monsoon. They promised to finally free it from the specter of famine that had struck so often.’
They promised independence from foreign meddling and freedom from the monsoon. They promised release from hunger.
Few of India’s dams took on more meaning than the Bhakra Nangal on the Sutlej, a Himalayan river that races down into Punjab’s arid plains. According to a 1957 government documentary, the Sutlej’s ‘unused, wasted’ water could solve the region’s ‘never-ending’ search for water. ‘The Sutlej must be tamed,’ the film announced.
To do so, India erected a 680-foot high dam, the world’s second-tallest. To produce the 500 million cubic feet of concrete needed for the dam, the government built Asia’s largest cement factory.
The Bhakra Nangal project symbolised India’s progress. At the opening of one of its canals in 1954, prime minister Nehru remarked, “What place can be greater than Bhakra Nangal … where thousands of men have worked or shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be holier than this?”
In 1957, a feature film about dams and India’s struggle for water and freedom, Mother India, became a global hit. The film tells the story of Radha, a proud grandmother who, looking back on her life, sees mostly flood-induced misery and heartless moneylenders.
Partway into the film, a flood devours Radha’s modest house but villagers rally around to save what they can, helping with a successful harvest the next year. Eventually, one of India’s new large dams helps deliver protection. With new hope, Radha is invited to flip the switch to open the dam’s gates.
Mother India is a story of terrible nature overcome by human ingenuity and perseverance, and found a global audience, capturing the dreams of vulnerable people across Asia and Africa for a better life. Its hopeful message resonated broadly for deeply impoverished newly independent nations. It was still drawing good crowds in Nigeria in the 1990s.
Ultimately, the film is a story of finding security through controlling the weather and the waters. ‘In Mother India, vulnerability to the weather is confined to the unhappy past,” Amrith writes, ‘it represents an old, unchanging India, juxtaposed against an India where technology and political freedom would triumph over nature.’
Sadly, India’s huge dams did not live up to the high expectations. They destroyed as many hopes as they sustained. India’s dams gobbled land and pushed aside communities. Three of the biggest 1948 dams — the Bhakra in Punjab, the Hirakud in Odisha, and Bengal’s Damodar Valley — each destroyed more than 100,000 acres of land. Water flooded what was called ‘waste land’, but land that often had homes, fields, forests, grazing areas, and ancestral sites.
Over the decades, as many as 40 million Indians, disproportionately from adivasi groups, lost their homes to such dam projects. Poor rural residents were asked to sacrifice, while benefits flowed to rich businesses and urban residents. Environmental costs were high: submerged forests, ruined soils, blocked rivers, wasted silt, disrupted drainage patterns, and often more severe flooding.
Even before the end of the 1950s, Nehru himself began to rethink the big projects as their unintended costs began to mount. “I have been beginning to think,” he noted, “that we are suffering from what we may call ‘disease of gigantism.’ “
Amrith writes, ‘Behind the glossy dreams of dams and plenty was a darker reality.’
Since the 1960s
Since the 1960s, South Asia’s landscapes have grown only more complicated. Populations have mushroomed. Economic growth and urbanisation have burgeoned, ratcheting up pressure on resources and landscapes.
The Green Revolution’s new hybrid seeds have brought toxic chemicals and surging water use. Pollution has dirtied the region’s air, water, and soil. Not least, geopolitical tension in the Himalaya has escalated, boiling over in the 1962 war between India and China. Recent skirmishes in the mountains show that tensions between the two giants remain high.
Perhaps most unsettling is climate change. As the world warms, glaciers melt faster, rivers change shape and flow, and rain patterns shift. The monsoon itself has changed, growing more erratic. And yet, increasingly, aided by new mountain roads, South Asian governments are turning to large scale hydro in the Himalayas — ignoring, it seems, ever larger geopolitical, climatic, environmental, and seismic risks.
With climate change, history itself is as much an actor as nature and politics. Climate change in South Asia is ‘irreducibly historical’, says Amrith. Changing weather patterns will play out across a landscape ‘shaped by the past — shaped by the cumulative effects of social inequality, shaped by the borders of the mid-twentieth century, shaped by infrastructures of water control. And it will be shaped by the legacy of ideas from the past, including ideas about climate and the economy’.
Intractable social inequality, hardening borders, bigger infrastructure, faster economic engines all move about the South Asian stage, demanding attention.
As do cultural fears about climate and the monsoon. South Asians have faced famine more recently and on a greater scale than other nations. They rightly worry about the monsoon and its capriciousness. ‘For us in India,’ Indira Gandhi poignantly noted, ‘scarcity is only a missed monsoon away.’
This uncertainty and deep loss has fostered an intense drive to control nature, but that in turn has fueled climate change and new instabilities and risks. The monsoon, still powerful, is even more unpredictable than ever. Amrith warns of the ‘willful blindness’ to the consequences of ‘repeated attempts to conquer nature’.
He also warns of overheated nationalism. ‘Today, the inability of states to think beyond their borders imperils lives and denudes the political imagination,’ he notes. Water connects Asia and Asians but also divides them.
In the late eighteenth century, bearing witness to relentless Himalayan floods that left engineers and their iron, concrete, and science with little option except to just sit nervously and hope for the best, Rudyard Kipling had asked, “What man knew Mother Gunga’s arithmetic?”
Today, through humanity’s actions, Mother Gunga’s arithmetic has grown far more complicated and more unpredictable than ever before.
Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history.