Above: A fisherman crosses the river with his boat. Photo: © Sameer Kumar/VBREC.
-Nachiket Kelkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was a pleasant November afternoon when we were travelling down the Ganga River by boat, surveying river dolphins. Tall grass had grown on both banks through the flood recession period. The water level had become very low already. Two magnificently large concrete buildings; one, the agricultural college, and the second, the industrial office, stood precariously by the edge of a rapidly eroding bank. At the turn of this bank, the Ganges Voyager appeared in a sudden sight. British tourists with gleaming shades, sunning their fair skins to balanced tan tempered by muslin umbrellas put over brick-red wooden tables, waved at us from the deck of the Voyager. Uniformed Indian attendants confirmed that they were not waving out to any dangerous people, in a re-enactment of the old colonial days. The Voyager had fifty air-conditioned luxury rooms. Their windows were made translucent by pale mauve and white chiffon curtains artistically tied in an hourglass shape.
The Ganges Voyager was like a luminous sculpture of marble, a true white elephant, an unbelievably striking white contrast from the grey of the Ganga River on which it moved. It was somewhat like those two tall buildings that looked over an agricultural floodplain and riverscape: there was something discordant and deceptive. This was unlike the inland waterways ship that was anchored in the shallower side off the other bank – which seemed purely involved in sinister activity. Its dredging pillars moved up and down over a large pivot, extracting several kilograms of river sediment in a single bout, of which many followed in rapid succession.
Our river dolphin survey boat on the other hand, was a knobbed, rivet-struck structure of only grey, brown, and black. Pramod, our skipper, lay down on a ragged quilt blackened by the grime and grease of the sooty, noisy and shuddering engine. The bamboo platforms of the ship were creaking with the slightest shift of body weight caused by observers turning their heads in various directions to spot dolphins better. The boat was physically rattled by the huge V-shaped ripple that was created by the Ganges Voyager. The observers silently imagined what Ganges River dolphins underwater would have felt by the swamping concussion of the engine noises of both boats together. Balancing their chairs on the boat, they waited for the Voyager’s influence to subside. For us getting a good population estimate of river dolphins was the ultimate objective today. Our boat had a couple of costly and high-end acoustic machines towing behind to record dolphin sounds. The noises of the dredge, the voyager and the terrible current must have wobbled and upturned the devices in the water. The Voyager must have surely meant a lot of work for another small boat being rowed by three fishermen in the distance. To keep them from netting over the acoustic device, our skipper asked them to row away backwards. But in doing so, their oars tripped over a giant trailing stir left by the Voyager. The boat viciously toppled and one of the oars chipped off at its corner edge. We could only imagine the human strength it must have taken the fishermen to keep the boat’s bow down after that jerk. This must have been rather tiring – worth abandoning if not for the day’s meal – much more than what the calm river afforded in November generally.
As the wave extinguished in strength, we heard a loud bang, and a water fount sprung from the river’s calming surface. “Dolphin” shouted one of the volunteers, and others thought the bang was perhaps of firecrackers from some wedding ritual in villages on the river’s banks. It was neither of these. But then a heavy black boat with a tall crest arrived, a boat larger than both our survey boat and the fishing boat. The man on the bow stood with a black cloth flag and vigorously waved it and shouted, hurling abuses. Two other men brandished their rifles and flashed a commander torch. This was their signal for us to stop and veer the boat towards them. They were an armed gang of bandits. As we turned, the bandits fired six shots at our boat, which landed in the river around and produced six large founts. We had already ducked under our chairs and sacks, in a display of thoughtful cowardice – with the simple logic that they had guns and we did not. As our boat turned the bandits saw the banner on the boat’s side that read – “River Dolphin Survey”. The bandits had nothing to do with us; they stopped firing. Hurling an abuse their leader shouted: “Get lost – or there will be trouble. We have scores to settle here with others. Your safety is in going away right now. Get lost!”
Pramod turned our boat back on track, with acoustic devices trailing and all, and off we went, downriver. Our fisher friends later told us that there was an armed fight between two gangs because of some land dispute right after this flood season. And we happened to be the useless sort of innocent bystanders, who had a fortunate escape. There was a complex silence on the boat after the shooting incident, and I am sure our team missed counting some dolphins because of being caught in an endless web of nerves and thoughts. But soon, near the meander at Ismailpur, dolphin calves started surfacing aplenty with full zest and energy. As the survey progressed, our silence and nervous ponderations broke away and the sense of wonder returned to the observers. The marvel and delight of watching little dolphins jump around the boat defeated the fear of bandits, the awe of the Voyager, and the fickleness of self-interest and life-insurance. Conversations into the night slowly transcended into a warm but morbid humour on how we were still alive. When had fieldwork in Bihar been different?
The story of the four boats that met at this river crossing serves as a resounding metaphor of where we are headed. The largest boats represented the highest power – and the smallest boats were brutally shaken by the shock-wave sent by the largest. They could dredge, they could sell, and they could even drown you. The National Waterways Bill (2015) on the anvil currently – wants to commodify and relegate our rivers to mere ‘freight-carriers’ and ‘tourist routes’ because its imagination is narrow and sickly. The bill shows complete indifference towards the wide diversity of ecological and social meanings embedded in India’s rivers. Its sheer scale and arrogant ambition makes it the most gigantic of water-grabs after the dam-building spree of the past 5 decades. They say that political ambition is the ship that can sail even without water. The Ganges Voyager is a stunning expression of this, and will be bringing back a neo-colonial form of control. Its movement on the rapidly vanishing river floodplain water is literal proof of a rigid and mindless top-heaviness.
As the boats, large and small, moved past each other – our collective destinies were slashed through by the antagonistic razor-edges of conservation, development, conflict, and neoliberalism in the Gangetic basin. River dolphins, fishes, fisher folk, farmers, bandits, conservationists, tourists, vessels, barges, ships, boats, fishing nets and sediment particles all got tossed around multiple times in that fleeting moment. There were four boats – four viewpoints, four realities that clashed at that crossing– but only over one finite river.
-Nachiket Kelkar (email@example.com)