Romancing the River

We now approach the end of our symposium on Joanne Yao’s The Ideal River.

This last commentary is from Dr Ida Roland Birkvad. Ida is a Fellow in Political Theory in the Department of International Relations at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her research engages with questions related to international political theory, histories of imperialism, and non-Western agency in International Relations.

She previously wrote for us on Judith Butler in Norway.

Two years after laying the foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in 1961, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed that hydroelectric dams were the ‘new temples of India, where I worship’ (Yao 2022, 205). Charting the length of the country’s postcolonial history, this infrastructural project of unprecedented scale and ambition was originally conceived of by Nehru’s deputy, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, in the years immediately following independence. In 2017, more than seventy years later, the network of dams horizontally spanning over half of India’s interior landscape, following the Narmada River from the state of Madhya Pradesh to the coast of Gujarat, was finally completed.

The romantic flourishes of Nehru’s characterisation, tying rivers and their taming to the spiritual realm, constitutes my starting point for this book symposium. In the following, I place Joanne Yao’s luminous charting of the emergence of environmental politics through the erection of 19th century river commissions into conversation with Dalit and anti-caste critiques of the collusion between Romantic thought, elite politics, and Brahmanical supremacy in the context of the Sardar Sarovar Dam development. Indeed, while Yao’s The Ideal River might seemingly focus rather exclusively on the role of Enlightenment rationality in the taming of the river, I argue that her book allows us to glean the dynamic relationship, at times mutually constitutive and at times in mutual contestation, between Enlightenment thought and the role of the other intellectual movement of modern history, namely Romanticism, in environmentalist thought. 

Displacing an astounding 245 villages and submerging 37,555 hectares of land, the Sardar Sarovar Dam has caused immense debate and uproar, intensifying especially from the late 1980s onwards when its erection began on a mass scale (Rao 2022). However, the grandiose nature of the size and scope of the dam was from the outset rivalled only by the resistance movement forming to stop it. Taking shape in the late 1980s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) consisted of a broad coalition of adivasis (India’s indigenous population), farmers, environmentalists, and human rights activists. Organising to both resist the expansion of the dam, as well as to mitigate the consequences for the people whose lives were disturbed and uprooted by it, the NBA constituted one of the largest political resistance movements of its time. Its tactics included rallies, marches, hunger strikes, and perhaps most spectacularly the action of jal samarpan, in which activists stood neck-deep in the river, demonstrating their willingness to drown rather than to leave their lands (ibid.). 

The dam displaced 245 villages and submerged 37,555 hectares of land (source: Getty Images/Stockphoto)

Beyond the anti-dam efforts often spearheaded by grassroots movements led by adivasi communities, the well-known social and political activist Arundhati Roy also contributed to bringing attention to the cause. Having just won the Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things in 1997, Roy’s campaigning attracted an increasingly global audience. In the early 2000s she wrote furiously on the subject, participating in marches and rallies and famously donating her Booker prize money to the NBA. For Roy, the question of the Sardar Sarovar Dam had come to ‘represent far more than the fight for one river’ (Bose 2004, 147). Indeed, from being a struggle ‘over the fate of a river valley it began to raise doubts about an entire political system. What is at issue now is the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its rivers? Its forests? Its fish?’ (ibid.). The case of the Narmada dams, according to Roy, could ultimately provide ‘important lessons about the real costs of modernist fantasies’ (ibid.). 

Roy’s efforts were controversial, also within the resistance movement itself. In a series of speeches, articles and open letters, Gail Omvedt, the prominent American-born anthropologist turned anti-caste and farmers’ activist in the western state of Maharashtra, accused both Roy and the top leadership of the NBA of having become ‘the voice of the eco-romanticists of the world’ (ibid, 150). Dams were not, according to her, an unqualified evil (Omvedt and Kapoor 1999). Indeed, opposing them on principle was socially irresponsible, ignoring the needs of the impoverished populations living along the banks of the river. In their blanket opposition to industrial development, the leadership of the NBA and their urban, middle-class spokespersons were at fault of romanticising the past, trading in reactionary tropes fearful of modernity and progress. Omvedt, who had lived in the village of Kasegaon since the 1970s, shared this view with many Dalits amongst whom she lived and worked. They all seemed to ask: how could social change happen when the movement’s leaders were always looking backward for their political ideals? 

As Yao elucidates so expansively and in such breathtaking historical detail in her book, infrastructural and political projects to tame the river have marred societies for centuries. Indeed, she would probably agree with Roy that this at times Sisyphean effort does indeed constitute a fantasy of modernity, one which, as Yao writes, involved a ‘desire for neatness, predictability, finite boundaries, and a straightened sense of political purpose’ (2022, ix). Despite the scientific rationale that undergirds this fantasy, Yao insists that the intrinsic relationship between the project of taming nature and the emergence of modern environmental politics needs to be understood through its ties to what is called the second scientific revolution. Emerging in the early 19th century, this new scientific revolution proscribed a change in perception where ‘scientific progress combined with Romanticism to create a vision of nature as infinite and mysterious’ (ibid., 21). In other words, the time of the first river commissions described in The Ideal River was as much the era of Romanticism, as it was that of Enlightenment rationality. Returning to the debates over the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, Dalit critics interjected that not only did the middle class and caste privileged leaders romanticise the river, seeing it as something to be worshipped and conserved, rather than utilised and managed, but also that their anti-developmentalism was casteist. In their romantic quest to preserve ‘village life’, Roy and others effaced the hierarchies and structural oppressions existing within Indian rural communities. In the words of writer and journalist Mukul Sharma, 

dominant environmental narratives in India are often infused with nostalgic and romantic accounts of traditional knowledge of water management, emphasising its community-based systems and methods. However, they overlook the fact that (…) they are embedded in deeply structured hierarchies of caste, based on control, power and dominant religious rituals, which are intermeshed in an invisible line of caste presuppositions (2017b).

A more forgiving interpretation of the movement’s romanticisation of the river and its peoples would see them as furthering a politics of strategic essentialism where the mobilisation of certain tropes might allow for a broadening of political support. Beyond the concern for activist strategy, however, the critiques elaborated above clarifies Yao’s illumination of the creative relationship between Enlightenment and Romanticist logics in contemporary environmentalist contestation. This dynamism is further underscored by the strikingly rationalist approach of Dalit and anti-caste thought which advances an overtly Enlightenment infused approach to questions of the environment and industrial modernity. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating the Sardar Sarovar dam in 2017 (source: The Guardian)

For B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, political thinker, and primary architect of the Indian constitution, modernity itself was an ethical project. Indeed, in contrast to his main political adversary, Mohandas Gandhi, who saw the village as India’s exemplary political community, Ambedkar pointed out that cities were in fact places of relative freedom for Dalits. Urban space afforded them anonymity, with the individualising effects of industrial labour standing in stark contrast to the feudal rigidities of rural economies (Teltumbde 2019). In the words of Ambedkar: ‘What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?’ (Gopal 2015). 

Following these insights, we can see how Dalit thought de-naturalises the ostensibly progressive nature of key categories orienting environmentalist politics, namely the village as the ultimate harbinger of ‘local solutions’ and urban industrialisation as the definitive cause of alienation from nature. Indeed, the category of nature itself is key to these critiques. Many Dalit thinkers would claim that the idea of living in accordance with nature is in itself a casteist concept. This is because Brahmanical Hinduism’s non-dualist ontology claims the indivisible link between the physical and the moral realm. Here, caste hierarchy is rationalised as a law of nature, where the individual remains no more than a functional part of an overarching entity, namely caste society. As pointed out by Ambedkar, Hindu society is not a community but rather a collection of castes (Ambedkar 2016, 242). 

In addition to his other political achievements, Ambedkar also became India’s first minister for water resources. This was particularly powerful because of the role that the access, distribution, and management of water plays in the logics and perpetuation of caste hierarchies. In his ministerial role, Ambedkar made the development of irrigation and power, including hydroelectric power, one of his key priorities. New technology and scientific discovery in these fields were according to him ‘key determinants in the struggle against the obscurantism and backwardness of caste Hinduism’ (Sharma 2017a, 150). Large dam constructions, presumably such as the Sardar Damodar Dam project, was to him necessary in order to realise ‘a modern social vision’ (ibid.).  

Yao’s attention to the dynamic relationship between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, often understood to be diametrically opposed in their logics, sets her book apart from more conventional approaches in the discipline of International Relations, and indeed wider social science literatures, which elucidates more straightforward narratives of the collusion between Enlightenment rationality, imperialism, and modern environmental politics. What we learn both from The Ideal River as well as from Dalit thought is that the overplaying of the significance of the role of Enlightenment rationality in this context comes at a cost. Directing our theoretical and political critique solely against this rationale does not only produce analytical blind spots in our analysis of environmental conflict. It can also lead us to unwittingly reproduce essentialist ways of thinking. If the hydroelectric dam is considered the materialisation of only Enlightenment ideas of scientific rationality, then Romantic notions of the sanctity of nature and the unimpeachable status of ‘local communities’ start to appear as forms of anti-hegemonic resistance, rather than as constitutive parts of global relations of dispossession. These points stand, I believe, even after the insight that, in the end, the NBA’s dire projections all seemed to bear out. After its completion, the world’s second-largest concrete gravity dam by volume, encompassing more than three thousand smaller dams across the length of the Narmada River, displaced over two hundred thousand people. A disproportionate amount of the environmental and economic cost of its development fell on the poorest communities living along its banks.


Ambedkar, B. R. 2016. Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition. Edited by S. Anand. London: Verso.

Bose, Pablo S. 2004. “Critics and Experts, Activists and Academics: Intellectuals in the Fight for Social and Ecological Justice in the Narmada Valley, India.” International Review of Social History 49.

Gopal, Vikram. 2015. “Ambedkar’s Assertion Still Rings True: What Is a Village but a Sink of Localism, a Den of Ignorance and Narrow Mindedness.” Caravan Magazine, April 2015.

Omvedt, Gail, and Ashish Kapoor. 1999. “Big Dams in India: Necessities or Threats?” Critical Asian Studies 31 (4): 45–58. 

Rao, Rahul. 2022. “Statue of Impunity: Monumentalisation under Modi.” Caravan Magazine, May 2022.

Sharma, Mukul. 2017a. “Ambedkar and Environmental Thought.” In Caste and Nature: Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics.

———. 2017b. “Observing Water Day on Ambedkar’s Birthday Is a Hollow Exercise If His Legacy on Water Is Ignored.” Scroll India, April 2017.

Teltumbde, Anand. 2019. Republic of Caste: Thinking  Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva.  New Delhi: Navayana.Yao, Joanne. 2022. The Ideal River: How Control of Nature Shaped the International Order. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


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