Studying a river

Despite being perceived as eternal, the Ganga has changed massively

A new book by an American architect maps the history of the river from its source in the Himalayas down to the ancient city of Varanasi.

Comprising maps, satellite photographs and pictures of specific parts of the river over solar cycles, Anthony Acciavatti’s 400-page The Ganges Water Machine shows a deep understanding of the river basin in its upper half. It is a strong critique of the narrow prism through which policymakers have viewed the river over a century and a half.

Anthony Acciavatti teaches urban design at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University in New York City. He is also a founding partner of Somatic Collaborative and Manifest: A Journal of American Architecture and Urbanism.

Can you tell us what made you so interested in the Ganges that you devoted 10 years to this project?
It was a combination of factors actually. I had lived in New Orleans and Rome, two cities that are intimately connected to rivers, so I was interested in that relationship of cities and rivers. When I applied for a [J William] Fulbright fellowship I was constrained to applying to only one country. The Ganges is one of the few rivers that largely flows in one country. I also realised that it had not been mapped in 60 years. I was also fascinated by the fact that the Gangetic plain is one of the most densely populated and agriculturally productive regions on earth. I was curious to understand how this worked.

 You have chosen a curious name for your book. Why Ganges Water Machine?
This was the name of a paper written in 1975 by Roger Revelle and V Lakshminarayana in Science, although they did not use the term in the rest of the paper. But they were basically visualising the river and the groundwater as one “machine”. The Ganges is one of the most engineered rivers in the world. Beginning from 1854, the work done on the river has been relentless. It has the longest canal system in the world, stretching upwards of 12,000 kilometres. By the 1870s, people were already referring to it as a system, like a steam engine. This has not changed post-independence. It is a hyper-inhabited region, and has millions of tubewells alongside it.

There is this belief that the river is eternal, never-changing, because of the sacred beliefs associated with it, but the reality is that it has changed massively over the last century and a half.

You mention 1854, and that brings us to the impact of the British in India. There is a section in your book titled Drain where you discuss this topic. Could you elaborate?
The chapter looks at how key Indian commentators showed how the British empire was an imperial drain on the Indian economy. One of the ways that this happened was because of the focus on railways rather than canals. In fact, as I write in my book, British liberals like the journalist William Digby showed how the focus on railways actually drove prices up during the famine of 1876-'77. Initially, the British government subsidised the canals, so that the makers made a 5% profit. Local labour and others also profited. The import of technology for railways changed all that. The canals were no longer subsidised, and local needs suffered.

Do you see the relevance of focusing on infrastructure today?
Yes, very much so. There is often this focus on large, engineering solutions that will use infrastructure to impose order on the landscape, and the people living there. This technology is often sourced from abroad and provides little financial benefit to the people living there. Moreover, large projects imposed from above often do not work in the way that they are intended to, or have other consequences if they do not align with local conditions. For example, the creation of long canals has also led to seepages, creating perfect breeding ground for disease-bearing mosquitoes. Many people do not see the Ganges as a flow of water, but only see the area that they are familiar with, which is part of their sacred geography.

How do you hope that your book will help?
This is an important moment when it comes to the Ganges. The World Bank has just extended a $1.5 billion loan to the Indian government to clean the Ganges. We can continue to work in a narrow manner, but it might be more useful if we look at the geography of the Ganges as a laminated geography.

Could you explain what you mean by that?
The landscape is not mono-functional. It is not merely about farming or shops. It is about both of these things, and more, but we treat them as separate. So a canal is built and agriculture will align along the canal, but shops will align along a major road, such as the Grand Trunk Road. We should be thinking of all that together, otherwise we will only be solving part of a problem, and possibly creating counter-productive results.

Will you remain engaged in this region?
I would like to. This began as a one-year Fulbright fellowship. I did not expect it to turn into a 10-year project.

The Ganga at Sangam, Allahabad, over a year. (Image by Anthony Acciavatti)

This article was originally published on

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.