Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, Prayagraj, India, 2013

Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos

Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Ganges, Prayagraj, India, 2013

In 1981, Sunil Amrith tells us in Unruly Waters, the historian Bernard Bailyn drew a distinction between what he called “manifest” processes in history, by which he meant those that were apparent to people at the time they happened, and “latent” processes, whose occurrence—and hence significance—were only discerned later. In an example of the latter, Bailyn wrote that “no one in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake colonies knew that population growth was slowing in Britain…in ways that contracted the flow of white indentured servants to the colonies; the planters only knew that they found themselves relying…on the labor of black slaves.”

Linking English fertility to slavery in Virginia became straightforward with the rise of population studies in the twentieth century, but latent history is more complicated when it involves the interaction of humanity with elements of the natural world. Unruly Waters is about India’s water, the men (almost exclusively) who entered the historical record by trying to control it, and the many millions of largely unnamed people whose destinies have been determined by it. The period Amrith concentrates on runs from the British Raj to the present day, during which climate went from being a mysterious force whose unreliable character might be summarized with a laconic phrase like “the monsoon rains failed” to atmospheric processes whose effects could be mitigated or exacerbated by political decisions.

All the while, as the laissez-faire policies of British rule gave way to the economic planning of independent India, as factories and power stations were built, forests leveled, and tube wells sunk, nature—vengeful, unforgiving; the human epithets return with irresistible force—was generating a response of its own. As early as 1958, scientists were warning of the consequences of turning the Indian Ocean into a “dump for the waste products of industrial civilization,” and in particular wondering about its influence on “climatic change, especially in absorbing the carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned.”

We often reach for martial vocabulary when trying to describe nature, calling droughts and cyclones our enemy, and yet this isn’t a struggle that nature knows it’s waging. It’s about us, our hunger, our fertility, our longevity, our greed. To anyone who surveys the Ganges from one of the industrial towns along its course—Moradabad, for example, or Kanpur—humankind can seem peculiarly negligent of its own long-term interests. The exposed banks run with factory effluents while pigs snuffle untreated sewage and India’s poorest people pan for metal in the toxic shallows. Partially cremated corpses and devotional sculptures that have been committed to the waters drift downstream alongside vast quantities of plastic and the odd dead dog. In the plangent words of Sudipta Sen, a history professor at the University of California at Davis and the author of Ganges, the river has become endowed with a twofold character: “one as the immaculate and eternal deity of the flowing waters, the other as a mundane river, repository of accumulated human misdeeds.”

As Sen points out in one of the happy paradoxes that punctuate his book, all rivers are human fabrications. The Ganges is judged to begin high in the Himalayas near the Chinese border, at a glacier to which pilgrims drag themselves in order to win divine favor and, ultimately, release from the karmic cycle of death and rebirth. It comes to an end 1,500 miles further east, where it and its tributaries—the biggest is the Brahmaputra, which comes down from the Tibetan plateau before meeting the Ganges in what is now Bangladesh—wash up against the tidal bores of the Bay of Bengal. In between these points lies the Ganges basin, more than 600,000 square miles of tributaries, canals, “tanks” (artificial ponds), dams, and tube wells that supply water for irrigation, industry, and domestic use to half a billion people across twenty-nine major cities, including Delhi and Calcutta. In places the sediment deposited by the rivers is miles deep, a reserve of fertility that has long fed the fields and paddies of North India. Without the Ganges, writes Sen, “one could hardly imagine the destinies of the people who have lived by the slopes of her descent, her fertile basin, or her expansive delta, over 2,000 years.”

The divine character of the Nile, in the form of Hapi, or Osiris, or Anubis, bearer of floods, became ancient history long ago. One of the things that differentiates the Ganges from most of the world’s other great rivers, Sen writes, is its continued sacred status; its waters, “as most Hindus believe,” have the power to “cleanse…every kind of sin known to humankind.” This “as most Hindus believe,” while airy and unsubstantiated, starts to seem eminently plausible when you consider that between January and March of this year an almost unimaginable 240 million people were reported to have attended the Kumbh Mela, an astrologically determined bathing ritual at the confluence of the Ganges and its biggest upstream tributary, the Yamuna.


That same phrase also reminds us of the dominance of an assertive Hindu faith in today’s India. Sen is as concerned with religious stories as he is with historical, political, and ecological ones. Ganges is the kind of book one can’t imagine being written by the secular materialists who dominated Indian scholarly circles in the early decades after independence—historians like Bipin Chandra, for example, for whom Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s left-leaning first prime minister, was an inspiration. But for Sen it is impossible to understand the Ganges without appreciating the elevated status that India’s “popular imagination” affords the story of its birth.

After some convoluted events involving the wrath of the gods and the torment of souls, Ganga, or Haimavati, daughter of the mountains,

assumed the natural form of the river Ganges, fell from the skies with thundering force onto Shiva’s head, and rushed into the various coils of his copious and matted locks. This was a mighty labyrinth from which she could not escape, and she splashed about in his curls for a number of years. Shiva…eventually released the river into a pool called Bindu, from where her waters rushed down to earth in a fearsome roar.

This story is related in the epic Ramayana, which is thought to have been composed sometime between the fifth century BC and the third century AD; versions also appear in other ancient texts such as the Puranas and the Mahabharata. In order to illustrate the river’s emotional reach, Sen points to the exquisite rock-cut relief showing the fall of the Ganges that was carved in the seventh century AD at Mahabalipuram, well over one thousand miles south of the basin. Then there are the Hindus who travel to the Ganges to die, the expatriates who request that relatives visiting them in Leicester or New Jersey bring them a bottle of Ganga jal, and the farmers who sprinkle the same water on their fields to ensure a good harvest. The river is by no means confined by the landscape it flows through or the plains it irrigates.

During the late Pleistocene, when these plains were carpeted with open grassland, inhabited by predators such as the “short-faced” giant hyena and the saber-toothed tiger, they may not have been a congenial habitat for early hominids, but as the climate grew more humid and the flora more abundant, the domestication of rice and the transition to iron tools gave rise to numerous kingdoms whose agrarian surpluses allowed them to maintain armies, feed priests, and produce sophisticated pottery—a civilization of Mahajanapadas, or “great settlements.” The Mauryas, based in Pataliputra (modern-day Patna), united the city-states under a single emperor, the greatest of whom, Asoka, renounced violence following a particularly bloody military victory in 261 BC and spent the rest of his reign promoting Buddhism. A map of the major pillar inscriptions that Asoka erected in the empire’s heartland would roughly trace the parameters of the Ganges floodplain; and the royal proclamation that Sen reproduces gives a vivid idea of the profusion of animals with which the emperor undertook to coexist:

I have declared that the following animals were not to be killed. Parrots, mynas…ruddy geese, wild geese…pigeons, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish…the pupata [dolphins] of the Ganges, skates, tortoises, and porcupines, squirrels, twelve-antler stags, bulls which have been set free, household animals and vermin, rhinoceroses, white pigeons, domestic pigeons, and all quadrupeds which are not useful or edible.

There are moments in the course of Sen’s narrative, as he heads into subjects like Buddhist iconoclasm and the number of temples that were destroyed by Muslim invaders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (material from twenty-seven went into the Qutb mosque in Delhi), when the river recedes into the background, becoming an accessory to a superbly wide-ranging history of plains culture and settlement. But amid the accounts of successive states and empires, Sen constantly reminds us that the engagement between the basin and its inhabitants was changing.

By the arrival of the first European settlers in India, around 1500, the floodplain had become home to “one of the most vibrant and dense peasant societies in the world,” and the growth of its inhabited area was “comparable…to the great expansion of peasant society along the lower Yangtze in China.” Over the previous thousand years or so, “an entire social strata [sic] of primary tillers of the land seems to have been established…emerging from a breakdown and reconstitution of smaller hunter-gatherer, tribal, and pastoral societies of antiquity.” These Gonds, Gujars, Jats, and Meos, politically significant groups even now, “extended the frontiers of village India, cleared the lands, dug canals, tilled the soil, and brought their harvests to the weekly markets…ultimately tipping the ecological balance between land and human labor before the advent of fossil fuels and industrial production.”


India’s population is thought to have grown from around 150 million in 1600 to 200 million in 1800. (The country was so fertile, providing such plentiful supplies of cotton, opium, indigo, and saltpeter, that according to one estimate it absorbed 20 percent of the world’s silver over the same period.) That the Ganges basin contained lots of people was strikingly apparent to Reginald Heber, bishop of Calcutta, who passed through in 1824–1825. “In the space of little more than 200 miles,” he wrote, “I have passed six towns, none of them less populous than Chester, two…more so than Birmingham; and one, Benares, more peopled than any city in Europe, except London and Paris! And this besides villages innumerable.”

By 1968, when the biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote his Malthusian jeremiad The Population Bomb, with its famously appalled opening description of a “stinking hot night” in Delhi (“people, people, people, people”), India’s population had risen to 500 million. It is now well over 1.3 billion and, as Victor Mallet, a former India correspondent for the Financial Times, writes in River of Life, River of Death, the United Nations expects it to peak after 2050 at more than 1.7 billion, by which time India will have long overtaken China to become the most populous nation on earth. For Hindu nationalist supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more coreligionists means stronger defenses against the country’s Muslim minority (currently estimated at 200 million, and rising significantly faster even than the Hindus, largely because relatively fewer Muslims are middle-class and taken by the ideal of having one or two children). For producers and retailers, more Indians means more consumers. Population control is not high on the government’s agenda.

According to Arunabha Ghosh, an environmental researcher quoted by Mallet, in 1951 the average Indian had access annually to 5,200 cubic meters of water. The figure today is 1,400 cubic meters, and will probably fall below 1,000 cubic meters—the UN’s definition of “water scarcity”—at some point in the next few decades. Compounding the problem of lower summer rainfall (down by around 7 percent since 1950, in part because of a “brown cloud” of radiation-absorbent aerosols over the Ganges Plain), India’s water table is in freefall thanks to an increase in the number of tube wells—from a few tens of thousands in the 1960s to more than 20 million today. Other contributors to India’s seasonal dearth of water are canal leaks, the continued sowing of thirsty crops such as rice and sugar cane, and the government’s fear of the public’s reaction should it stop providing free electricity and subsidized diesel to hundreds of millions of farmers for their pumps. At 17,000 per year, the suicide rate among Indian farmers is high enough.

Measures that would help, such as restoring old tanks and village storage systems, plugging canal leaks, and recycling water on a larger scale, are less glamorous than the government’s preferred policy of using private finance to build dams. Scores of them are planned for the Indian Himalayas despite the fact that their effectiveness is likely to be compromised, initially by precipitous glacier melt due to climate change, and, in a few decades’ time, by an expected decline in the dry-season flow. According to Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of an advocacy group called the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, the government has done nothing substantial to ease the crisis; “in terms of programmes, policy, and practices, there’s absolutely no change” from the old formula of waste, voter-appeasement, and what one Indian dam expert has called the “magic spell of gigantism.” The country’s water problems look set to deepen “with each successive drought,” Mallet suggests, with “entire blocks of land abandoned by their populations for lack of supply—something that already happens in the dry-season months when millions of rural Indians become temporary water refugees seeking work in the towns.”

Who is the world for? Me and you? Or all its organisms in perpetuity, as the dominant species abstains from further wanton destruction, exercising foresight and restraint? These are the questions that latent history tells us we should be asking as India’s population grows with extraordinary speed and the country’s water stocks are spoiled or depleted. But rather than attend to this failed symbiosis of humanity and the environment, the historians of South Asia have spent the past thirty years in the cities writing about identity and freedom. “There is much that we have missed,” laments Amrith. Modi’s “rising India” won’t thank him for pointing out that the country is endangered by something so arbitrary, so indifferent to the joys of Hindu nationalism and unshackled markets, as the weather. The very notion of the country’s being in thrall to an increasingly unreliable monsoon season seems to perpetuate “a colonial idea of India’s irredeemable backwardness.”

Parsimony was the reaction of the country’s imperial administrators when the rains failed in 1877; at least five million people went on to die of starvation and disease. One reason for the high death toll was that the authorities in Calcutta distributed food less liberally than they had done during an earlier famine, in Bihar, in 1874. On that occasion, they were lambasted by The Economist, champion of laissez-faire, for encouraging Indians to believe that it was the “duty of the Government to keep them alive.” In 1903 the Bengali intellectual Romesh Chander Dutt wrote that while drought was the cause of famines that had taken some 15 million Indian lives over the previous half-century, the victims had already been enfeebled by “chronic poverty” caused by taxation aimed at financing the “most expensive foreign government on earth.”

For all the cynicism of the imperial apparatus, the desire of some colonial officials to help ordinary Indians, along with Britain’s view of India as a supplier of raw materials, created a strong incentive to reduce risk and to regularize yields. India’s post-independence mania for hydraulic engineering can be traced to the seven-hundred-mile Ganges Canal, built in 1854 with the aim of watering some of the land between the Ganges and the Yamuna. Between 1885 and 1940, the British irrigated around 13 million acres of western Punjab, attracting a million voluntary migrants and inaugurating a “revolution in the production of wheat, cotton, and sugar.” But notwithstanding the government’s attempts to break free of the monsoon, this mysterious force continued to determine India’s well-being—it was the country’s “real finance minister,” as a later Indian president would put it.

Monsoon science was developed by an international group of enthusiasts, among them Henry Blanford, who in 1875 became the first director of the Indian Meteorological Office; Father José Algul, a Spanish Jesuit who headed the Manila Observatory and stayed on after the American invasion of 1898; and Charles Todd, the chief meteorologist of South Australia. After comparing his and Blanford’s data, Todd concluded that “severe droughts occur as a rule simultaneously” over India and Australia, while Algul, who believed that “there is no tropical storm which is developed or felt in the sea or on the coasts of China which has not exercised some influence upon this Archipelago [of the Philippines],” used the telegraph to warn China of approaching storms. After analyzing records from India and beyond, Gilbert Walker, who took over Blanford’s old job in 1904, postulated a great oscillation of atmospheric pressure between the Indian and Pacific Oceans—the meteorological phenomenon that became known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation.

By World War II, many in India believed that the measures the British had developed in the 1880s to identify scarcity and prescribe countermeasures, along with expanded railways and irrigation, had consigned famine to distant memory. Then in 1942, following the loss of 15 percent of the country’s rice supply as a result of Japan’s occupation of Burma, a cyclone hit Bengal that, in tandem with Winston Churchill’s insistence that Indian rice be exported to feed troops fighting elsewhere, led to devastating food shortages.

The Bengal Famine killed at least two million people and foreclosed any possible return to laissez-faire policies after India gained independence in 1947. The next major famine (again in Bihar) didn’t strike until 1967, when Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was prime minister. Overcoming her reluctance to approach the US as a supplicant, she accepted food aid from the Johnson administration and stimulated employment through public works. The eventual toll of a few thousand deaths was small in comparison with the carnage of Bengal in 1942 and Bihar in 1874.

The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 was a hydraulic absurdity. India’s border with West Pakistan severed the canals of Punjab from their headworks, while the Bengal border with East Pakistan (which seceded in 1971 and became Bangladesh) sliced through the Ganges and Brahmaputra. Decent-minded engineers “muddled through”: India’s Meteorological Department transferred around a quarter of its equipment to the new Pakistan Meteorological Service. But for the politicians, water was already a big stick, as India showed in 1948 when it briefly blocked a waterway into Pakistan and residents of Lahore “saw the canal that bisected their city empty of water…a visceral sign of Pakistan’s vulnerability.”

Under Nehruvian Socialism, the state supported food prices, controlled distribution, promoted double cropping, and redistributed land. Dam-building demonstrated India’s resolve to remake nature, mega-projects such as the Bhakra Nangal in Punjab standing, as one visitor observed, for something “India could not build, and did not will, before she became a nation.” The diverse nature of the project’s workforce, drawn from India’s many linguistic and religious groups, was presented as evidence for a binding national purpose. Figures for kilowatts generated and projected, hectares irrigated, gallons of water stored, and tons of concrete poured filled propaganda films and pamphlets; “large numbers were a form of rapture.” Water in India had a political function similar to oil in the Middle East. In both cases, control of a natural resource, and the material benefits expected to accrue, were expressions of modernity and the sovereign will.

Emerging from the imperial shadow, India chose its own role models. In 1954 the chairman of the country’s Central Water Commission, Kanwar Sain, spent two months inspecting the water projects of Mao’s China and returned with a simple mantra: “scale, speed, and control.” Nehru, who was fascinated by and a little scared of China, didn’t relish Sain’s assessment that “at present China is behind India in every field, but…may be ahead of India in 10–15 years.”

In the 1950s big projects in the People’s Republic depended on Soviet expertise; nowadays, Chinese engineers and banks are essential to the dam-building of India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan. The final carve-up of the Himalayas is underway. Between them, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan have planned some four hundred large dams that would make the Himalayan rivers the most heavily dammed in the world. Inevitably, the brunt of the dams’ impact will fall on the rural poor as they lose their homes and livelihoods and in many cases join the drift to the cities, where they will meet more extensive environmental degradation. With access to air conditioners and purifiers, filtered water and disinfected food, India’s middle classes can to some extent sidestep the poisons that occur in urban India as a matter of course. Not so these “refugees from water development projects”—40 million since independence—whose fate “too often goes unrecorded.”

Amrith’s magnificent work is infused by two ironic truths. The first is that, for all the efforts of political administrators to deal with the climate within the boundaries of the nation-state, they treat these boundaries with imperious disdain—a reality that Henry Blanford and José Algul learned more than one hundred years ago. The second is that if nature ever obeyed the rule of “constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles” that was adumbrated for it by the French historian Fernand Braudel, it does so no longer: “Over the last two hundred years nature has been altered by human intervention to such a profound extent that that stability and ‘constant repetition’ cannot be assumed.” As these three important books show, it is a maverick we would do well to befriend.