Above: A local fisherman fishing upstream of the barrage (Photo: Gauri Noolkar-Oak)
Guest Blog by Gauri Noolkar-Oak
Few journeys take us through a string of experiences that nourish the senses and the soul. A thoroughbred urban, city-lover, I nevertheless knew deep down that my journey of such nourishment would be with a river. I began researching rivers by chance, but with time, I grew to first like and then worship the entity. In early 2017, I acquired a grant from the Joke Waller-Hunter Initiative to study water conflicts in the Teesta basin, and I knew: this was going to be it.
My journey was inspired by the book “Empires of the Indus” written by Alice Albania, a brave woman who travelled the Indus river from mouth to source, and explored her history and cultures. But beyond that, I hardly had a plan; I did not know how long the journey would take, whether I would be able to see the whole river, and when I would return home. When I landed in Dhaka at the end of April this year, all I knew was that I wanted to see the Teesta right from her confluence with the Brahmaputra River in Bangladesh all the way up to her source at Tso Lamo in Sikkim, on the Indo-China border.
Yet, there I was travelling in north Bangladesh, first to Rangpur, then to Kurigram, and then, in a speedboat on the Brahmaputra river, to Chilmari.
I stared at the fine silt, crops and houses on the eroded banks of the mighty river, and my head bowed silently at the abundant waters which had nourished this ancient civilisation for hundreds of years. I was looking forward to seeing the Teestamukh, but I also knew that the story of Teesta cannot be complete without the Brahmaputra; if the Brahmaputra was the thick, dark hair of an exotic woman woven into a braid, then the Teesta was a wild lock, freed and fluttering with the breeze.
Given the reports on drying up of the Teesta, I expected to find only a patch of dry land at Teestamukh. I was quite surprised to see water on the other side of the confluence, but quickly discovered that it was very, very shallow; our boat had problems functioning there. That the waters of the Teesta had reduced was undisputable, even though to my peninsular eyes, it still carried a good amount of water.
It was when I began travelling upstream that I started seeing the real conditions of the river. At a temporary settlement in Khitab Khan, the locals told me that every year they lost at least one crop either due to drought, or flood, or both. When crops failed, farmers doubled up as fishermen, and if that didn’t help, they migrated temporarily to cities as far as Cox’s Bazar to eke out a living through small odd jobs. How did they deal with food and water scarcity? “We share everything, including the losses,” they said, and for the first time, I saw the concept of ‘deficit sharing’ i.e. equitable distribution of the scarcity of water and food within the community in action.
Here, the Teesta was a braided river, and in the dry patches of the riverbed, there were crops and settlements. However, the water was very shallow, and large areas were dry.
As I travelled upstream, I could not help but marvel at the verdant beauty of rural north Bangladesh. The lush green fields, petit ponds, beautiful, open sky, lovely weather and small picturesque settlements made it easy to forget the various challenges faced by the area – poverty, malnutrition, high illiteracy rates, natural disasters and climate change, to name a few. It was harvest season, and the rich green, golden and blue hues decorated the landscape with a beauty that was at once rare and ubiquitous.
At the Teesta Bridge, any confusion about the deteriorating conditions of the river vanished. The river was clearly dry, dying. The wide riverbed was a testimony to her once-abundant, fierce waters, which rolled down furiously from the Himalayas. Now, all I saw was a mild remnant of the past, a soft lapping of the modest bundles of water as they hurtled in to where I was coming from.
Further upstream, the river was no different; the seemingly paradoxical combination of lush green fields and a dry, dying river was everywhere. Locals told me that they watered their crops with groundwater. As I inched closer to the Indo-Bangladesh border to the north, paddy and jute fields made way for extensive maize fields. The area was mostly rural, and even the city of Lalmonirhat was really an overgrown town. I did not see any factories or industrial spaces, and I suspected that the service sector wasn’t prominent as well.
The Dalia barrage on the Teesta, located in the Lalmonirhat district of north Bangladesh, had a slightly different story to tell. Upstream of the barrage, there was quite a lot of water despite some dry areas. Downstream, the river was drier. But the west-flowing canal, which provided irrigation to crops in Dinajpur district, was filled to the brim. The entire course downstream flashed in front of my eyes and I was saddened; it was as if her very soul was taken away.
By the time I was at Patgram, just shy of the border, the state and stories of the Teesta settled on my mind like a cloud of gloom. Fresh, green fields which were such a pleasure to the eye were going to be submerged under the fury of floods very soon. Small settlements built of brick and tin which dotted the landscape were soon going to face the wrath of nature, and lives were going to be uprooted, just like every year. Common people, old and young, were going to pick up the broken pieces of their homes and lives and begin living again, with hope and spirit, just like every year. I felt both admiration and sympathy for the common folk; their troubles did not get into the way of their generosity and incredible hospitality. It was with a heavy heart that I left Bangladesh and crossed over to India.
– Gauri Noolkar-Oak (email@example.com)
NOTE: 1. For Part 2 of this photo blog about Journey upstream of Teesta in W Bengal, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/retracing-her-path-2-a-journey-along-the-teesta-river-in-w-bengal/
2. For Photo Blog on Part 3 of this journey in Sikkim, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/retracing-her-path-3-a-journey-along-the-teesta-river-in-sikkim/