Guest Blog by Dr. Ruchi Shree
Champanagar, a small suburb in Bhagalpur district of Bihar derived its name from a river named Champa. However, in the last three decades or so the river has reached in such a state that it is called nala (drain) by the local people. Even the administration uses the term ‘nala’ for the river and this narrative is an attempt to explore this shift i.e. how Champa ‘nadi’ became ‘nala’. To me, Bhagalpur is a new place as I joined a workplace here merely four months back but due to my interest in ‘politics of water’, I got curious in a campaign titled ‘kahan gum ho gayi Champa’ being carried out by a Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran in November, 2019. Following the newspaper reports, I was interested in exploring the change in this narrative. I intend to write three to four pieces in this series (viz. problems faced by the rivers, the prospects of river rejuvenation, etc.) in near future and the first part will focus on significance of this river for this region. The series could also be seen as an attempt to understand the history of the city through its rivers or water bodies in general and Bhagalpur as a city in particular.
While Bhagalpur is famous for its silk production and also called the silk city of Bihar, the Champanagar area in its outskirts is known for a Jain temple in this area and a cluster of textile shops in numerous households. The social composition of the area is diverse one with a sizeable presence of Muslims, Jains, Bengalis, etc. Bhagalpur at the bank of river Ganga has a rich tradition of cultural syncretism and all over the city one may notice a number of mosques, temples (Jain as well as Hindus), churches and gurudwaras. It is a small but quite an old city and its significance lies in being a hub of education as well as for commercial purpose in that region. In last one decade or so, the city has emerged as a hotspot for coaching institutes for competitive examinations of different kinds. The city is quite densely populated and the waste management system is very poor. Most of the areas have open drains and during the rainy season water logging is a regular feature.
The making of a city is at times about unmaking of the rivers[i]. Most of the times, the overpopulation, growing industrial pollution, construction of dams & diversions and many such other factors lead to neglect of rivers. Rivers which have long been considered as commons in most parts of the world have undergone a massive transformation[ii] in last few decades. The picture of the riverside turned into a site for dumping the garbage speaks a lot for itself and similar sights are common along many rivers in India. The five-year-old girl in this picture is my daughter who accompanied me to the field and I had a very difficult time answering her series of questions – why have people dumped the garbage here? Is this what a river looks like? and many more. Till date, she had seen the rivers from the trains or car while travelling and it was her first experience of seeing a river from so close. Although, being with river was certainly not soothing for two of us (the foul smell, the heap of plastic waste, cows looking for leftover food in the waste, to name a few) but as a researcher on water for more than a decade and off late exploring the idea of ‘rivers as commons’, I was left with a perplexing state of mind.
In Kaka Kalelkar’s words, “Every river is the flow of a culture. Each has its own greatness. One feature of Indian culture is to build unity out of this diversity. So we consider all rivers to be the wives of the ocean. One of the most distinguished synonyms of ocean is saritpathi, the husband of rivers. It is given this distinction because all the rivers let their sacred waters flow into the ocean. Hence, we say sagare sarva theerthani (the ocean is the ultimate sacred site)’’[iii]. He wrote these words over fifty years back and since then river as a flow of culture has changed to rivers as sites for dumping the garbage, that is what ‘development’ and ‘planning’ has given us. I am using these two terms/concepts as they have shaped the policy making in India in a major way and my previous writing on SANDRP reflects on the same.
“People have tended to see rivers merely as cubic metres of water to be dammed and diverted, but rivers need to be understood as the complex ecosystems they are – possibly the most important ecosystems for life on land. In spite of a growing awareness that a narrow engineering approach to rivers is reductionist, a more holistic perception of rivers is yet to emerge”[iv] writes Jayant Bandopadhyay, renowned scholar on water in India.
Similarly, in a different context, Kuntala Lahiri Dutt[v] problematizes the social and historical construction of rivers. She argues that rivers are ‘embodied entities’ which can be seen, felt, touched, and traced on a map and as a ‘resource’, we want to get best use of rivers by harnessing and controlling them. Himanshu Thakkar argues that ‘a river is a complex and beautiful system which does many things along its course’[vi]. Needless to mention that the sorry state of rivers in India is a major cause of numerous other problems (depleting groundwater, destruction of biodiversity & livelihoods for millions, to name a few).
Coming back to the story of Champa river, as you can see in the picture, there is so little water in the river but the length of bridge possibly reflects the capacity of the river. The term ‘nala’ was used by the administration in late 1960s[vii] and since then it gradually became part of the common parlance. In a long conversation with Mr. Subrat Acharya, a retired govt. official and resident of Champanagar for more than six decades I got numerous insights about the river and the city. He shared with me the rich past of Bhagalpur which was known as Angpradesh during the days of Mahabharat and Karna (step-brother of the Pandavas) also called Sutputra (son of a low-born person) is said to have ruled this region and the river Champa was fortified by him to safeguard his kingdom. I will write about the intertwined history of the city and the river next.
Dr. Ruchi Shree (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Asstt Professor at the PG Dept of Political Science, Tilka Majhi Bhagalpur University, Bihar.
Note: This is part of 3-part series of articles on Champa River by the author. Other two articles in the series can be seen: 1. https://sandrp.in/2020/04/12/champas-angpradesh-to-champa-nala-of-bhagalpur/
[i] I borrow this line of argument from Arturo Escobar as in his famous book Encountering Development, he makes a case for making and unmaking of third world.
[ii] Shree, Ruchi (2018), Rivers as Commons: Reality or Myth?, as guest blog on SANDRP website, available at https://sandrp.in/2018/03/14/rivsers-as-commons-reality-or-myth/
[iii] Lal, Amrith (2018), ‘My Friend, the River’, The Indian Express, 25 November. This piece is about a unique celebration of the river Chandragiri in Kerala’s Kasargode. The local people have compiled a volume titled Jeevanarekha. Lal has mentioned about Kaka Kalelkar’s (noted Gandhian) magnificent work on waterbodies Jeevanaleela (1964) and his view on rivers.
[iv] Bandopadhyay, J. (2018), ‘Why we need a new perspective on rivers’, July 25, available on https://www.orfonline.org/research/why-we-need-a-new-perspective-on-rivers/
[v] Dutt, Kuntala Lahiri (2010), ‘Imagining Rivers’, EPW, Vol. 35, No. 27, pp. 2395-2400.
[vi] Thakkar, Himanshu (2015), ‘The Narmada and Other Rivers of Gujarat’ in Ramaswamy Iyer (ed.) Living Rivers, Dying Rivers, OUP, New Delhi, pp. 339-363. To mention his full definition, ‘a river is not just a channel carrying freshwater, but a hydrological, geomorphic, ecological, biodiversity-rich, landscape-level system that serves as a key part of the freshwater cycle, balancing a dynamic equilibrium between snowfall, rainfall, surface water, and groundwater, and providing a large number of social and economic services to the people and ecosystem all along its watershed’
[vii] As told by a local resident in a conversation about the river Champa and history of the city named Bhagalpur. I got to know about the story of Bala-Bihula through which the Manjusha art became popular.