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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

Unique Chronicle of a ‘Barefoot’ Engineer’s Experiences of Floods in North Bihar

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Subrata Sinha


Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters by
Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra; published by People’s Science Institute, Dehradun and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDARP), New Delhi; 2008; pages 206; Rs 595.

The book is a culmination of Dr Dinesh Mishra’s down-to-earth understanding of the flood problems not only of the Kosi but the entire linked-up river network of North Bihar—that even involves
Nepal. This unique chronicle depicts the personal experiences of a ‘barefoot’ engineering pilgrim who had traversed the entire North Bihar alluvial plains for about two decades. It is bound to fascinate any socially conscious and educated citizen of this subcontinent sharing this vast alluvial basin. This book is an antithesis of what one would expect from a member of the elitist and socially alienated engineering community brought up in the cultural ethos of the IITs.

Evidently, the author (Dinesh-ji) believes that ‘engineering’ should be an extension of, and not an interference with, Nature. It records what he has culled out from his extensive studies of ancient scriptures and edicts; and also documents related to various colonial and post-colonial commissions and committees constituted on the flood issue. His interactions and interviews with thousands of affected persons shows his deep attachment and affinity to the land where his roots belong! In the words of Dinesh-ji, “the book is based on my doctoral work done at the Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat ( 2000-2004)….” That probably explains the detailed expositions and information embodied in this invaluable volume. The book shall provide the guiding light for future researchers and workers.

On the other hand, the ‘Publishers’ Note’ clearly indicates that the volume is intended to focus on the cataclysmic Kosi floods in 2008, as a part of the government’s efforts to ‘push for mega projects in the name of development at an accelerated pace…..’ and that it ‘…is a timely interjection in this situation…’ Certainly, its name ‘Trapped! Between the Devil and Deep Waters’ in the context of the extensive public focus on the 2008 Kosi floods imparts to the volume and its publication in August 2008 the potential of an instant bestseller.

To serve that undeniably important purpose, the publishers should have taken the trouble to bring out a pamphlet accessible to a much wider spectrum of readers, akin to the ‘Dams, Rivers and People’ bulletins that many of us receive and cherish—but in an attractive book format! A listing of various official committees, commissions and policy statements, extracted from ‘A History of Flood Control’ (Chapter Two) could be a prelude for this pamphlet—to prove utter official apathy! Thereafter, the focus should be panned on the numerous significant statements and alternatives proposed in the chapter—‘Is there Any Solution?’ (Chapter Ten)—that provides the crème de la crème of the author’s expertise and experience.

THIS is where the issue of the proposed Barahkhetra Dam is discussed at length; even so, the problems arising out of all sorts of engineering interventions, including dams and embankments, are not categorically negated by the author. The efficacy of the traditional ahars and pynes just gets a passing mention. The fact that the river network emerges from the Himalayas, the most fragile, seismically and neo-tectonically active mountains on earth has been mentioned. Unfortunately, it gets lost in the less relevant narrations in the chapter! That the change of course has happened spectacularly in the past and is a part of such alluvial systems has been shown by the author. If Dinesh-ji was coaxed by the publishers to add a preface or post-script before publication, it would have put the 2008 calamity in perspective!

The author’s description of local traditions, including living conditions, agriculture and many other facets of ‘Living With Floods’ are certainly the most relevant and pertinent advocacy inputs for sustainable and inclusive development. Endowed as he is with a formidable arsenal of knowledge and ground experience, I had really expected Dinesh-ji to emphasise and elaborate on this very aspect. Since the book was prefaced by him in July 2008— when he was undoubtedly preoccupied in the affected area—probably he did not even have the time or leisure for this.

It is wellnigh impossible to publish a book (whatever name you may call it by) based on a person’s doctoral work to fit the bill of a catastrophic disaster alert! Despite having all the ingredients, the core was lost in the maze of not-so-crucial narrations—in conveying his firm conclusions to the beleaguered sub-continental dwellers! The publishers are urged to yet perform this act of grace by editing the volume and publishing a pamphlet, in a book format attractive to a much wider spectrum of readers. This is even more important, since the People’s Science Institute and SANDARP have also been working for sustainable and equitable development.

A person like me, who has spent more than forty years of my life on geo-environmental issues, and with some grassroots access to traditional knowledge, feels that only Dinesh-ji could have been able to emphatically announce his partisan view that Nature is supreme, and cannot be conquered! I do hope that Dinesh-ji—whom I have met a couple of times—does read this review and accede to my appeal to write up an ‘Ode’ for advoca-ting unequivocal human empathy with Nature! n

The reviewer is a former Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India.

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