The First History Lessons: The Flow of Rivers


First History Lessons is a series of books published by the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata (IDSK). Aiming to simplify and explain important ideas of history, the series has been sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS). The books include illustrations drawn by Ranjit Chitrakar, Sirajudaulla Chitrakar – traditional patachitra artists from West Bengal.

This edition was published in November 2023 and elaborates on ‘The Flow of Rivers’. It has been written in Bangla by Debarati Bagchi, a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Weber Forum for South Asian Studies, New Delhi. Arunava Sinha, literary translator and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, has translated the text in English.

This book highlights the changing relationship between rivers and humans – from resources obtained such as fish, to the building of dams on rivers. It also explains how changes in riverways brought during the British era impacts floods and droughts in the present day.

The 62-page document is divided into nine sections: Relationships: Rivers and people (Section 1); The Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta (section 2); Trade through river routes: The story of reaching world markets (section 3); The land and water of Bengal: The story of sand bars and islands (section 4); The land and water of Assam: The story of Chapori (section 5); Rivers and travel: the story of streamers (section 6); Rivers and travel: the story of railway lines (section 7); River dams: The story of water- sharing (section 8); River dams: Gains and losses (section 9).

The book notes that the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta changed its course repeatedly, which impacted the ways in which the British hoped to administer the region. After the Britishers took control over present-day Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, it introduced various taxation laws to extract profits from the lands of the Bengal delta region. But the law was changed four or five times due to formation of new islands and changing courses of rivers.

This book also mentions the British conquest of Assam in 1826 which encouraged agriculture in the land on the riverbank which was called chapori. The British offered to lease the land next to the river for a year to farmers. This was meant to encourage them to settle down in these areas. As the farmers started moving closer to the river, larger harvests and higher taxes were gleaned. The farmers, however, were dangerously closer to the floods. The book notes, “even today we hear of houses beside the river being swept away when the water rises, of many people losing their lives”.

By 1830, a lucrative trade of tea was opened on the slopes of Assam’s hills. It led to the rise of streamers and railways which helped in the transportation of tea and laborers. The construction of railways lines and embankments disturbed the natural flow of rivers. This adversely impacted the environment as many rivers dried up, floods increased and crops damaged.

This book also dwells on the problem of water sharing between India and Pakistan through the story written by Saadat Hasan Manto. There have been conflicts between neighboring countries over their fair share of water from rivers, the book adds, noting, “Who controls the waters of a river? The answer to this question lies in who has more power”.

The book highlights the construction of dams in India like the Hirakud dam on Mahanadi river in Odisha. While the construction of dams helps in flood control and generation of electricity, it also has adverse effects on the environment such as increasing the possibility of landslides. In this context, the book explains the Narmada Bachao movement which started in early 1980s against the construction of a huge dam on the river. The movement went on for decades and demanded for the height of the dam to be lowered, if it is to be constructed at all. The book highlights a battle between justice and development, if “development comes at the cost of distress for a large number of people”.

Focus by Niketa Roy.


Debarati Bagchi

Translator: Arunava Sinha

Illustrators: Ranjit Chitrakar, Sirajudaulla Chitrakar


Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK) and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New Delhi


Nov, 2023