Technology, History, and Place

Category: Tribal India (Page 1 of 2)


The streams of Shillong

Four years ago, when I was researching my dissertation, I spent a week in Shillong, capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya and formerly capital of Assam. Shillong is located at an elevation of 4,900 feet in the Khasi Hills, a part of the Meghalaya Plateau that rises between the flatlands of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the south and Assam to the north.

I spent time in Shillong because it is close to a dam I was studying, Umiam Dam. I was primarily studying the dam from a technological perspective, but since I was writing my dissertation, I wanted to consider it from every possible angle. This led me to think about the dam from an environmental perspective, which in turn got me thinking about the streams of Shillong.

Umiam Dam impounds a reservoir with a surface area of about four square miles, named alternately Umiam Lake or Barapani Lake. (Umiam is a Khasi word meaning “Weeping River”; Barapani is Hindi for “Big Water.”) The reservoir receives drainage from a catchment area of 85.5 square miles in the Khasi highlands. The city of Shillong is located within this catchment area.

I spent some of my week in Shillong walking around the city, trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. Two rivers flow through Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshyrpi, both joined on their way by innumerable smaller tributaries and drains. I made it a point to see both rivers.

The Umkhrah River is on the northern edge of the city. I had vague memories of walking by it on my first visit to Shillong, five years earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, and I didn’t even know its name. On this visit, I spent plenty of time walking along the river.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

The Umshyrpi River to the south is separated from the Umkhrah by a ridge atop which the main bazaars and government buildings are located.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi on the south side of Shillong.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi River on the south side of Shillong.

The Umshyrpi proper.

The Umshyrpi proper.

West of Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshirpi join to form the Roro River, which subsequently flows into the Umiam River.

Both the Umkhrah and the Umshyrpi are quite polluted, and this pollution washes down into Umiam Lake. You might have noticed trash in some of my pictures of the rivers. What you can’t see in the pictures, but is there, is untreated sewage. The town’s hilly geography and patchwork of tribal lands have mitigated against the construction of a municipal sanitary sewer. Septic tanks collect sewage from homes and businesses, and municipal workers or contractors carry the waste away in trucks for treatment. But when tanks leak or overflow, the sewage finds its way into the Umshyrpi or Umkhrah Rivers, and thence into Umiam Lake.

Apart from Shillong, another significant source of pollution for Umiam Lake is the practice of jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation, which removes vegetation cover on hillsides and thus leads to erosion.

A central government study of the lake in the early 1980s concluded that the water was of class C quality, which meant that it would need to be both conventionally treated and disinfected before being used as a potable water source.

Umiam Lake is a beautiful place, as it is ringed by misty, pine-forested hills. But knowing what I knew about the seemingly intractable problems of water pollution in the lake, I didn’t go into the lake much past my ankles.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

Black Friday, one decade later

Ten years ago today, on Friday, September 30, 2005, protest demonstrations in the Garo Hills of northeast India turned tragic when police forces of the central government fired their guns at the protesters. In the towns of Tura and Williamnagar, the police firings killed a dozen teenaged students. Ever since, this event has been known as Black Friday. To commemorate the unjust death of the protesters, people across the Garo Hills declare a general strike every September 30, closing schools and businesses for the day. (For more on Black Friday and its background, please see my post from three years ago.)

I first went to the Garo Hills six years ago, in 2009. The problems of political and economic marginalization, which underlay the September 2005 protests, were still very much in evidence in 2009. One positive aspect of the Garo Hills’ then-current political situation was that the area was at peace. In other parts of northeast India, minority groups had responded to their own marginalization by forming insurgencies to wage war against the Indian government. Six years ago, there were organized insurgencies in the Garo Hills, but they were not particularly active. For the most part, the Garo Hills were self-policing. Police authority was not much in evidence, because it wasn’t necessary.

Early in 2015, I returned to the Garo Hills, and I was disappointed to see that the security situation had deteriorated in the past five years. Insurgencies had stepped up their activities, declaring villages to be their territory. They extort, threaten, and sometimes even hurt and kill anyone with wealth or political power who does not support them. In response, the state and central governments have stepped up police presence in the Garo Hills. Armed officers patrol the weekly markets and accompany night buses driving into the hills.

Ten years after Black Friday, the political situation of the Garo Hills has only gotten worse. I do not know the best way for the people of the Garo Hills to make themselves healthy and prosperous, but I do know that threatening, kidnapping, or killing those with power is not the way forward.

Digging out

BAJENGDOBA, MEGHALAYA, INDIA – On September 22 of last year, the Garo Hills of northeast India were ravaged by the worst floods in memory. Monsoon storms triggered flash floods in many of the region’s river valleys. The flooding and related landslides took the lives of around seventy residents of the hills, in addition to causing extensive property damage.

The Garo Hills have a special significance for me, because I spent a year living and teaching here between college and graduate school, from 2009 to 2010. When reports of the floods began to circulate in the days and weeks following September 22, I was horrified to think about such a catastrophe occurring to a place and to people I know and love. Now, in January 2015, I am fortunate to have the chance to visit the Garo Hills again and see the flood damage and subsequent recovery for myself.

The school where I taught, Riverside Adventist Academy, is located in the district worst-affected by the floods, North Garo Hills. On the morning of September 22, the Jinari River entered the school campus by opening a new channel leading right into the cafeteria and big boys’ and girls’ hostels (dormitories). The river toppled sections of the compound walls and brought branches and logs sweeping into campus.

Before the walls fell, the hostel students evacuated to the top floor of the classroom building as the rushing flood water rose above their knees. Three small boys lost their footing and were swept away by the current, but remarkably they were caught in the branches of a banyan tree on the edge of campus. Not a single student from Riverside school was lost in the flood, but one teacher drowned after helping many students to safety. His name was Rituraj Phukan, and he was 31 years old.

It has been almost four months since the floods, and I am happy to see that the school is recovering well. The broken sections of the compound wall have been replaced by temporary fencing. Teachers and non-teaching staff have spent weeks painstakingly cleaning the campus – shoveling mud out of the buildings, righting and re-rooting trees toppled by the water, and clearing away logs that washed onto campus. I am impressed by how beautiful the campus looks now, with graceful gulmohur trees casting their shade onto the walkways. Apart from the broken compound walls and an ugly landslide gash on a nearby hillside, there are few obvious signs that this place was inundated by a deluge just four months ago.

Riverside school will reopen on-schedule for the 2015 academic year in early February. The school and the surrounding community have begun to recover from the floods, but despite appearances, the recovery is far from complete. Damage to buildings and other infrastructure in the Garo Hills (such as the school compound’s walls) will take time to repair. Harder to quantify – and likely harder to repair – will be the human toll of the floods. From my conversations with teachers and students who were at Riverside on September 22, it is clear to me that the floods were a deeply traumatic experience. Many witnesses expressed shock that such a disaster could happen. One student told me that she still feels like it was all a dream. I have noticed more gray hair in the Garo Hills than I remember seeing five years ago. I wonder if the stress of having their homeland inundated is causing the population of the Garo Hills to go prematurely gray.

Even these emotional wounds will heal some day. The families that lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers to the flooding and landslides will also eventually learn to live without the deceased. This will take years, but I am certain it will happen. I am also certain, though, that the great Meghalaya floods of 2014 will never be forgotten, as long as victims and witnesses of the floods are alive to tell their stories.

(This post continues coverage of the Meghalaya floods, which I started in this post.)

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