Book Review · Fish, Fisheries, Fisherfolk · Rivers

BOOK REVIEW: Rare book on Rivers and fisherfolks of North India

Guest Article by Dr. Ruchi Shree

BOOK: Ramashankar Singh (2022), Nadi-Putra: Uttar Bharat me Nishad aur Nadi, Setu Prakashan, New Delhi.

The arrival of books viz. Dipesh Chakravarty’s The Climate of History in Planetary Age (2021), Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), A Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021), Sunil Amruth’s The Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have shaped South Asia’s History (2019) and numerous others has blurred the disciplinary divide between literature, politics and environment. These books have brought attention to the worsening environmental crisis worldwide and how developing countries or the global south is facing its severe brunt. As a consequence, one may notice an upsurge in literature in hindi and other regional languages around environmental issues in India. Last year, Shekhar Pathak’s book Hari Bhari Ummeed (2021) narrated the complexities of Chipko Movement at its 40 years and now this book here for review joins the club of interdisciplinary texts on environmental issues in India.

Extensive Research Ramashankar Singh’s Nadi-Putra:  Uttar Bharat me Nishad[i] aur Nadi is an outcome of his decade long research on the fishermen community in north India. Along with extensive field-work in Chandauli, Kanpur and Prayagraj (Allahabad) districts of U.P., he has done archival research in State archive in Lucknow and regional archives of Varanasi and Prayagraj. The narrative out of a wide ethnographic research with use of focused group discussions (FGDs) and in-depth interviews makes the text an authentic source of information. The book has delved into the ‘historicity of social exclusion’ of the Nishads and towards the end, it weaves the thread of growing assertion of this community in U.P. as a beneficiary of identity politics. The paradox of political empowerment and socio-economic marginalization is highlighted in the book. The book is divided into seven chapters and covers the pre and post-independence India’s history, culture and politics around fishing community on the banks of River Ganga.

The book contextualizes the debate around ‘Anthropocene’[ii] and rising number of ‘ecological refugees’[iii]. It problematizes how rivers have not been counted as an important constituent of economic and social system in India. As a result, the class dimension of those dependent on rivers for livelihood is not taken into cognizance similar to the communities’ dependent on land. Such a discrimination between land and river as productive forces has led to production of literature on rivers as either merely as socio-cultural entities or as waterbodies. The text argues that rivers should be studied as independent entities with their geographical specificities and their role as means of navigation and transportation. Such an exercise should be done along the interlinkages between the history, culture and memory of those who are dependent on the rivers for their livelihood.

The ever-changing relationship between human beings and nature (especially rivers) and their impact on each other constitutes the core of the book. From a historical perspective, it underlines the making of social institutions viz. caste and its varied manifestations in India. From Rig Vedic days to Vedic India and then to the post-Vedic days in India, the author traces the genealogy of caste system. The untouchability and caste-based hierarchy in the society led to rise of Buddhism. There was a gradual empowerment of State as an institution viz-a-viz society during the Mauryan period and this phase also marked the rise in urbanization. The complexities of caste system viz-a-viz the castes dependent on rivers during the Gupta period and medieval period has also been traced in the second and third chapter.

Modern mindset on rivers The author underlines that the arrival of Britishers in India and the advent of modernity led to change in rules and regulations for natural resources viz. forests, rivers, etc. in the fourth chapter. To name some of such acts, one may see the details of Northern India Ferries Act, 1878; United Provinces Mela Act, 1938 which depict the controlling nature of the colonial State in its role as owner of the rivers and the waterways. In post-independence period also, the rise in number of dams, hydropower project, barrages, water diversions, agenda of river front development and river navigation, dumping of all kinds of liquid and solid wastes into rivers, destruction of local water bodies, forests and wetlands in the catchments, defunct Pollution Control mechanisms, river blind mindset and proposals for interlinking of rivers across the country over the years suggests that the Indian State continued its attitude of control towards rivers.     

The book stresses on the need to have a cordial relationship between the state and the society. To substantiate such arguments, the author refers to the writings of Anupam Mishra and Elinor Ostrom who underlined the significance of swamitv visarjan[iv] (dissolution of ownership). While Mishra uses the concept for its existence in ancient India, Ostrom’s study is based on community managed fishing experiment on the banks of Nova Scotia in New Foundland (Canada) in recent past. To my mind, such diverse context of these two scholars in favour of role of community in management of nature and natural resources allows us to think of such a possibility as an alternative to the prevalent system of state or market managed/ controlled rivers and forests. The last two chapters of the book problematize the contestations between the communities and state as an actor. The author rightly points out that community alone can’t save the rivers and merely laws can’t ensure the river rejuvenation. We need to think of two other actors viz. state and individual/ market[v] which are the major claimants over nature and natural resources.

The contestation among different claimants shapes the debate on ownership of natural resources worldwide. In India, starting from Chipko movement (Uttarakhand) in 1970s to Narmada Bachao Andolan (Madya Pradesh-Maharashtra-Gujarat) in 1980s and the recent developments of Niyamgiri struggle (Odisha) in 2016 and Uttarakhand High Court declaration of two rivers – Ganga and Yamuna as legal entities (stayed by the Supreme Court) lead to new nuances/ discourses around environmental politics. While making the case for role of community, the book seems to stand for ‘rivers as commons’. However, it is unable to resolve the contradictions of modernity i.e. State as an owner and the society’s expectation from the state to be in the role of trustee on behalf of community. On the other hand, the rights discourse is fraught between individual rights and group rights. As a result, when it comes to rivers, we don’t have any framework or model to keep them clean through community participation, basically since the state has not tried any alternative model. There are other suggested models such as the Arwari Model in Rajasthan (Tarun Bharat Sangh) and revival of Kali Ben River in Punjab, but the state has not recognized or implemented them. Rather we have numerous state-led plans/projects for ‘rejuvenation’, ‘restoration’ and ‘river-linking’ to name a few, but none inspiring any confidence that they would be working for the rivers.

Interdisciplinary orientation An interdisciplinary orientation of the book is likely to appeal diverse readership i.e. the historians, policy makers, those fighting for the cause of rivers and sociologists to name a few. Its ample use of conversations, folktales, folklores and the narratives from epics makes it a popular text as well. It makes a case to bring together archival research and everydayness of society in social sciences. Such researches will not only capture the nuances and complexities of the society but also ensure a sensitive approach to the marginalized sections of the society. Although, there are some shortcomings of the book viz. some discrepancies in the main text and their references/ index. Similarly, the book could have highlighted the gender aspect of rivers (role of women in river governance) little more. However, given the fact that river research is gradually emerging as an interdisciplinary field of study across the world, this book is likely to be a significant contribution in Indian context.

Dr. Ruchi Shree ( is Assistant Professor at the PG Department of Political Science. She is a research fellow with School of Law, SOAS (London). Her ongoing research under British Academy Leverhulme Fellowship is titled ‘Fostering Ecocentric Community-led River Restoration and Conservation in the Ganga Basin (India).’


[i] Nishad is the fishing community of Bihar and U.P. and the formation of Nishad Party in U.P. in 2016 had led to political empowerment of the community.

[ii] Anthropocene as a concept was first used informally by American scientist Eugene Stormer in 1980 but it came in vogue after Paul Crutzen (the one who invented Ozone layer) and Eugene Stormer wrote an article in 1999. They argued that human activities have affected the earth the most and thus instead of holocene, this era should be called Anthropocene. 

[iii] A large number of people who are forced to migrate due to natural disasters viz. forest fires, floods, drought, etc. to find shelter and livelihood. Even the manmade changes lead to rise in the number of ecological refugees, e.g. construction of dams, depletion of groundwater, or excessive use of fertilizers make the land barren.

[iv] Anupam Mishra was a noted Gandhian environmentalist and his text ‘Aaj bhi Khare hain Talaab’ (1995)/ The Ponds are still Relevant has been translated in 16 languages. Elinor Ostrom was a nobel laureate in economics for her work Governing the Commons (1990).

[v] I have clubbed these two categories since both of them stand for private property as a form of ownership.

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