Water History

, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 167–185 | Cite as

‘Majuli in Peril’: Challenging the received wisdom on flood control in Brahmaputra River Basin, Assam (1940–2000)



This paper seeks to provide a framework to understand the politics of flood control and representation of deluge ‘narrative’ by looking at Majuli—one of the largest freshwater river islands in the world, located in the upper Brahmaputra valley in Assam. Policy makers and state planner present simplistic explanation of flood and its resultant impact on the island habitable space, as a ‘techno-managerial’ crisis needing policy redemption through ‘experts’ intervention. I present the phenomenon of flooding as a ‘techno-political’ problem and examine the politics of knowledge production. The paper thus challenges the received wisdom on ecological change promoted by institutions who have been working to save the island from two perceived threats—floods and bank erosion. Through a synoptic survey on state measures to control flood in the Brahamapura River Basin since the 1950s, I will show how the ‘statist ecological discourse’ based on equilibrium and linear models underlined by a ‘command and control’ discourse have dominated policy making on flood mitigation- devaluing other perspectives of ecological change. These new revisionist directions in ecology and science policy discourse bring important insights to understand the phenomena of floods from the multiple pathways of an ecological change paradigm and the ways they are mitigated and perceived.


Flood Indigenous knowledge Equilibrium Command Control Narrative Technomanagerism 


  1. Agrawal A (1995) Dismantling the divide between indigenous and the scientific. Dev Change 26:413–439CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Agrawal A, Shivaramakrishnan K (2000) Agrarian environments: resource, representation and rule in India. Duke University Press, Durham, NCGoogle Scholar
  3. Aisher A (2007) Voices of uncertainty: spirits, humans and forests in Upper Arunachal Pradesh. J South Asian Stud 30(3):479–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Archaeological Survey of India (2005) Majuli island cultural landscape and living tradition: national dossier for inscription in World Heritage Site. Archeological Survey of India, Delhi, p 30Google Scholar
  5. Berry S (1998) Social institution and access to resources in African Agriculture. Africa 59:41–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blackburn S (2008) Himalayan Tribal tales: oral tradition in the Apatani Valley. Brill, Laiden and BostonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blackburn S (2010) The sun rises: the Shaman Chants Ritual exchange and fertility in the Apatani Valley. Brill, Leiden and BostonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Botkin DB (1990) Discordant harmonies: a new ecology for the twenty first century. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Brahmaputa Board (1972) The task force for erosion control and flood management, Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India. Basistha; Guwahati, AssamGoogle Scholar
  10. Brahmaputa Board (1998) A report on the erosion problem of Majuli island (December). Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India. Basistha; Guwahati, AssamGoogle Scholar
  11. Chioc M (2002) The Rhine; an eco-biography, 1815–2000. University of Washington Press, London and SeattleGoogle Scholar
  12. D’souza R (2006) Drowned and dammed: colonial capitalism and flood control in Eastern India (1803–1946). Oxford University Press, New DelhiCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. D’souza R (2007) From natural calamity to natural resource: flood control and the politics of natural limits. In: Baviskar A (ed) Waterscapes: the cultural politics of a natural resource. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, pp 248–280Google Scholar
  14. D’souza R (2009) River as resource and land to own: the great hydraulic transition in Eastern India in Asian environments shaping the world: conceptions of nature and environmental practices. National University of Singapore (Singapore). http://www.nus.edu.sg/dpr/files/abstract/Rohan%20D%27Souza%20paper.pdf
  15. Das D (2006) Structural vulnerability to flood and bank erosion in Majuli Island: The State Policy on flood mitigation in Brahmaputra River Basin. Unpublished M. Phil Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment for the degree in Science Policy at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New DelhiGoogle Scholar
  16. Emilie R (1995) Except Africa: postscript to a special section on development narratives. World Dev 23(6):1066Google Scholar
  17. Ferguson J (1994) The anti-political machine: development, depolitization and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. University of Minnesota Press, MinneopolisGoogle Scholar
  18. Gazetteer of India (1999) Assam state, vol 1, GuwahatiGoogle Scholar
  19. Goswami DC, Das PJ (2003) The Brahmaputra River, India: the eco-hydrological context of water use in one of the worlds most unique river system, special issue on large dams in North-East India-rivers, forest, people and power. Ecol Asia 3(1):9–14Google Scholar
  20. Harvey D (1974) Population, Resource, and the Ideology of Science. Econ Geogr 50:256–277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Harvey D (1993) The nature of environment: the dialectics of social and environmental change. Social Regist 1:1–51Google Scholar
  22. Headland Thomas N (1997) Revisionism in ecological anthropology. Curr Anthropol 38(4):605–630CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hollong C, Meffe G (1996) Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conserv Biol 10:328–337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Karlsson Bengt G (2011) Unruly Hills: nature and the nation in India’s Northeast. Orient Black Swan and Social Science Press, DelhiGoogle Scholar
  25. Kates RW (1971) Natural hazard in human ecological prospective: hypothesis and models. Econ Geogr 47(3):483–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kay J, Scheider E (1995) Embracing complexity: the challenge of the ecosystem approach. In: Westra L, Lemons J (eds) Perspectives in ecological integrity. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, pp 49–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Klingensmith D (2007) One valley and a thousand: dams, nationalism and development. Oxford University Press, DelhiGoogle Scholar
  28. Leach M, Mearns R (1996) Environmental change and policy: challenge received wisdom in Africa. In: Leach M, Mearns R (eds) Lie of the land: challenging received wisdom on the African environment. James Currey, Oxford, pp 1–33Google Scholar
  29. Leach M, Mearns R, Scoones I (1999) Environmental entitlements: dynamics and institution in community based nature resource management. World Dev 27(2):225–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. McIntosh RP (1987) Pluralism in ecology. Ann Rev Ecol Syst 18:321–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Menon M, Vagholikar N, Kohli K (2003) Large dams in Northeast India: river, forest, people and power. Ecol Asia 11(1):1–91Google Scholar
  32. Miller DH (1966) Cultural hydrology: a review. Econ Geogr 42(1):85–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mosse D (1996) The social construction of peoples knowledge in participatory rural development. In: Bastian S, Bastian N (eds) Assessing participation: a debate from South Asia. Konark Publication, DelhiGoogle Scholar
  34. Mosse D (1997) The symbolic making of a common property resource: history, ecology and locality in a tank-irrigation landscape in South India. Dev Change 28:467–504CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mosse D (2003) The rule of water: statecraft, ecology and collective action in South India. Oxford University Press, DelhiGoogle Scholar
  36. Mulvany A (2012) From resilience to reliance: state disruption of traditional flood mitigation strategies. Nar umjet 49(1):23–40Google Scholar
  37. Mulvany A (2013) Policy legend and water policy in the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Water Hist J. doi:10.1007/s12685-013-0081-3 Google Scholar
  38. Nath D (2009) Majuli Island: society, economy and culture. Anshan Publication House in association with MAKIAS, New Delhi, KolkataGoogle Scholar
  39. Norgard R (1994) Progress betrayed: the demise of development and a co-evolutionary revisioning of the future. Rutledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  40. Pottier J (2003) Introduction. In: Pottier J, Bicker A, Sallito P (eds) Negotiating local knowledge: power and identity in development. Pluto Press, London, pp 1–29Google Scholar
  41. Robbins P (1998) Authority and environment: institutional landscape in Rajasthan. India. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 88:410–435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Roy D (2005) Flood: a small matter of history. India Disaster report. Oxford University Press, New DelhiGoogle Scholar
  43. Saikia A (2011) Forests and the ecological history of Assam. Oxford University Press, New DelhiGoogle Scholar
  44. Schroder R, Neumann R (1995) Manifest ecological destinies: local rights and global environmental agendas. Antipode 27:321–324CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Scoons I (1999) New ecology and the social sciences: what prospect for a future engagement? Annu Rev Anthropol 28:479–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sears PB (1957) Natural and cultural aspects of floods. Science 125:806–812CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sharma J (2010) Making garden, erasing jungle: the tea enterprise in colonial Assam. In: Kumar D, Damodaran V, D’Souza R (eds) The British Empire and the natural world: environmental encounters in South Asia. Oxford University Press, New DelhiGoogle Scholar
  48. Singh S (2002) Taming the waters: the political economy of large dams in India. Oxford University Press, New DelhiGoogle Scholar
  49. Sprugel D (1991) Disturbance, equilibrium, and environment variability: what is ‘natural’ vegetation in a changing environment? Biol Conserv 58:1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Suryanarayana Murthy Gsv (2012) World Heritage Nomination Dossier (ASI: Government of India, 2012).Google Scholar
  51. Swayamprakash R (2013) Exportable engineering expertise for ‘development’: a story of large dams in post independence India. Water Hist J. doi:10.1007/s12685-013-0086-y Google Scholar
  52. Thakuria NC (2000) A geographical panorama of Majuli. Majuli Souvenir, pp 8–12Google Scholar
  53. The Independent (2008) World’s Largest River Island washed away under flood waters, London, 7th Feb 2008Google Scholar
  54. The Telegraph (2011) Pottery threat to Majuli riverbank-Potters urged to shift to terracotta, Kolkata, 26th Feb 2011Google Scholar
  55. Wescoat J, James L (1992) Common themes in the work of Gilbert White and John Dewey: a pragmatic approach. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 82(4):593CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Weil B (2006) The rivers come: colonial flood control and knowledge systems in the Indus Basin, 1840s-1930s. Environ Hist 12(1):3–29Google Scholar
  57. World Bank (2007) World Bank strategy report on development, growth and natural resource in Northeast India: the natural resource, water and environment nexus. Sustainable Development Department, Environment & Water Resource Management Unit and DoNER, 2008. Vision 20:20 Northeast Region. DoNER, Government of IndiaGoogle Scholar
  58. White GF (1945) Human adjustment to floods. Chicago: University of Chicago, Department of Geography, Research Paper No. 29Google Scholar
  59. White GF (1964) Choice of adjustment to floods. Chicago: University of Chicago, Department of Geography, Research Paper No. 93Google Scholar
  60. Worster D (1977) Natures economy: a history of ecological ideas. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  61. Zimmerer KS (1994) Human geography and the “new ecology”: the prospect and promise of integration. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 84(1):108–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History, Classics and ArchaeologyBirkbeck, University of LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations