A River Meander of Hope and Despair

Photo: Kadambari Deshpande
When the river Ganga meanders and changes course, it also rewrites human destinies. People commonly believe that they shape its course, but not my friends: the fishermen. The fishermen know how the river constantly at work, mocking such common beliefs now and then. It builds sand sculptures, destroys them and continues this process of creative destruction, almost endlessly. As a river ecologist, I am acutely conscious that I should not be personifying the river. The river is just a physical force; its meandering and sediment flux is neither intended nor purposeful. But try as I might, I cannot overlook the power of the river.
The fishermen at Barari at Bhagalpur always talk about the Ganga, or Ganga Ji, as if the river were a person among them and above them. The river moves, talks, gets angry, and becomes calm. Ask Jogi Babu. Over the last twelve years, the river has been the constant and recurrent theme of our extended “discussions.” More recently, our conversations have revolved around guessing when the meander nick at Lodipur, about 10 km upstream of Barari, is going to give way to the river carving a straighter path.
An overlay of satellite images of the Ganga River in Bhagalpur, Bihar. The river has charted two compound meanders over the last 30 years. The image shows the river course in 1989 (faded) and 2018. The orange rectangle shows the nick point at Lodipur where the meander till Barari is predicted to break. Prepared by Nachiket Kelkar. Satellite images: LandSat TM, 8 OLI.
We are on the river on a warm but moist October morning, and Jogi Babu is rowing his small fishing boat – a denghi – towards the large sand peninsula opposite of the Barari ghat, which is now his fishing spot. On a warm, moist October morning, we are on Jogi Babu’s denghi heading towards the large sand peninsula across the Barari ghat. As he rows the small fishing boat closer to his fishing spot, I ask him again, “will it be this year?” Jogi Babu is not so easily drawn in. “What can be said? It all depends on Gangaji. Jab Gangaji ka marzi hoga tabhi na diara katega (The island will be breached only when the river wishes).” I think better of pushing further and accept this parsimonious and error-proof explanation. It is indeed hard, if not wildly complex, to predict such a thing. Jogi Babu points towards a spot on the river. At the edges of ripples crossing over each other, I see the water’s hue change from a deep grey-brown to a milk chocolate brown, likely where a sand bar would emerge once the floodwaters receded. “Yahaan jaagega kachhaar! (The island will awaken here!),” he thunders. “This is the tongue of the growing peninsula. It will be a long time until the river can break through,” he says, gently touching the spot with his oar.
The Ganga meanders throughout its course in the plains through Haridwar, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and into West Bengal and Bangladesh, when it joins the Brahmaputra. Some meanders are small but growing bends. Some are large and ready to break off into “ox-bow” lakes. The river floods every year with the arrival of the monsoon. The floodwaters flow like waves pulsing through the river’s course, depositing tonnes and tonnes of sediment along the way, forcing it to carve out new paths, testing the resistance of its silt sculptures.
People all over the world have been vainly fighting rivers or fleeing them, for thousands of years. Modern technology and centralized state control of rivers have intensified such responses. In India, building large embankments to constrict the river’s course has been a regular intervention to prevent river erosion and stabilize agricultural production, and consequently, state revenue-generating policies, since at least the Mughal times. The colonial and postcolonial drives to ramp up food production and agricultural land revenue led to massive engineering intrusions into the river’s course. Large dams, barrages, diversion canals, and kilometre after endless kilometre of embankments worked in congruence to contain the rivers. Some efforts succeeded, many failed, and they severely affected the flow dynamics of most rivers. But fortunately, it has remained difficult to stop the Ganga from meandering or changing its course at will.
I track these growing and dying meanders through satellite images. But fishermen like Jogi Babu have their own undrawn maps, made and maintained by their years of daily fishing trips. While I pore over contour maps, they read the river by the touch of their oars. “Look here,” says Jogi Babu, docking his boat and wading into the water flowing by a small islet. He beckons me over to feel the silt-rich water with my feet for hard tubercles. Something hard pokes my foot. I reach down and a couple of minutes of digging later, a little roofed turtle sits in my palm, arms, legs and head withdrawn in its shell. Jogi Babu says this is a “kachhua daawar” or turtle-dig. It is from places like this that he can tell where the sandbar is likely to spread further. Any such spread blocking the river’s southward flow would belay the meander’s nicking and breaking.

Meanderings of River Ganga from 1984 to 2016

We move further along towards Lodipur, where the river has been butting against a huge eye-shaped island. This is the nick point. I tell Jogi Babu that I think the meander will breach the island only in 2022-23. He gives me a grave but thoughtful look. “That is going to be hard for us. For you, the meander breach is just a thing to study, but for us it means everything. What we are able to do tomorrow will depend on this meander’s fate.” I understand what he means. Simply put, the river dictates their lives; where they cast nets, when to weave new nets, how much to invest, when to wake up, when to sleep. The river may meander as she pleases, but Barari’s fishermen stake their lives on her course.
“If the river cuts across and Gangaji flows straight, we will have to worry less about being harassed by the local mafia who control this inlet now,” he sighs. He tells me that the peninsula across Barari has been growing a large tongue since 2015. The main Ganga river has moved slightly north since this sand mass started growing. This caused the side-channel at Barari, the Jamunia channel, to lengthen and get enclosed. “We now have to spend a lot more time to reach Gangaji. Hamare liye channel khulana zaroori hai (for us it is critical that the meander breaks and the river cuts through),” says Jogi Babu with a sigh.
Local criminals start extorting rents from fishermen working in these side channels. They also get leases to harvest fish and set up large mosquito nets as barricades. Sometimes, they will even poison channels, which is obviously illegal, but legal ambiguities about the channels themselves give them loopholes to exploit. This threat is smaller in the main navigable channel of the Ganga. So, the meander’s breach can straighten the Ganga’s course and wash away this threat to Jogi Babu and his folk, for some years to come. When a meander will reopen again, the fishermen would adapt to a different context – the changes in the meandering course are deeply interwoven with their lives this way.
Fishing boats in the side-channel at Barari, with the Bhagalpur bridge in the distance. Photo: Nachiket Kelkar.
A 10 m tall sand bank deposited by the river upstream of Bhagalpur. Photo: Jagdish Krishnaswamy.
For many others, such a breach would be a problem. Farmers will complain because their lands will erode and fresh conflicts will begin over the new boundaries that the river will draw on the floodscape. For poor fishermen, however, a fresh influx of fish will make their lives easier. But the river will also flow right along Bhagalpur city and pollution might increase. The peninsula opposite Barari has been growing fast. Large embankments along the banks of Raghopur (between Lodipur and Barari) have probably exacerbated the rapid erosion. Raghopur’s politicians and local contractors have been fortifying these riprap embankments with stones, cement, plastics, and whatever construction material they can lay their hands on. But this has also made the river flow fast and furiously undercut sediment. Attempts to dredge the river to deepen the channel near Bhagalpur so ships can pass, have also added to unpredictable sediment deposition patterns.
Cement sacks placed during embankment construction to block river flow. Photo: Nachiket Kelkar.
These human pricks to the river have probably sent Jogi Babu’s expert meander predictions askew. “Hum sau rupaiya ka sarat lagaye hai Raju Babu ke saath (I have a Rs.100 bet with Raju Babu on when the meander will breach),” he tells me sheepishly. We start returning to Barari, floating down by the shallow sand deposits and turtle-digs, watching the receding milk chocolate brown flood water, by the ugly embankments stretching for kilometres, and by the turn near the peninsula. All the way back, we continue our loud and pointless discussion on when the meander will break and straighten the Ganga river near Barari.
Nachiket Kelkar is a PhD Student in Academy of Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies at ATREE, Bangalore. (nachiket.kelkar@atree.org)
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