murky waters

As the Siang river in Arunachal turns black, China is the usual suspect. But is it really to blame?

With no clear answers in two whole months, experts say the Indian government needs to be more transparent about its rivers.

The Siang river, Arunachal Pradesh’s primary water source, has turned black in the past two months, baffling residents. The Siang is the main tributary of the Brahmaputra river that connects to the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is called in Tibet, where it originates.

According to a report prepared by the state’s public health engineering department, the turbidity level of the Siang’s waters is several times higher than the permissible limit. Bimal Welly, an executive engineer in the department, said a sample he tested on November 27 showed a Nephelometric Turbidity Unit – a measure of the concentration of suspended particulates in a liquid – of 425. Permissible turbidity for potable water is 5.

“We checked after we got reports of fish dying and even buffaloes who consumed the water dying,” said Welly. “We have been consistently checking the last two weeks and the turbidity has more or less remained constant. We have sent samples for further chemical analysis at the North East Regional Institute of Science and Technology in Itanagar.”

The engineer said an accurate diagnosis of what has led to the high turbidity levels is possible only after the chemical analysis, the result of which is expected soon. A recent report submitted by the State Water Quality Testing Laboratory in Itanagar confirmed that the waters of the Siang are now unfit for human consumption. The turbidity level of the water, according to his report, stood at 482 NTU.

China or earthquake (or neither)?

In the meantime, speculation of possible reasons for the river turning black is mounting. Officials and residents believe China may have something to do with it. This suspicion stems from a widely cited news report about the Chinese government’s purported plan to build a tunnel to divert water from the Yarlung Tsangpo in southern Tibet to the parched Taklamakan desert area in the province of Xinjiang. Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu has reportedly asked the Central government to take the matter up with Beijing.

However, the Chinese government has denied it has any such plans, calling the report false.

On Monday, Union Minister of State for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Arjun Ram Meghwal said it could be a natural occurrence. He said a preliminary study conducted by the Central Water Commission – responsible for the control, conservation and utilisation of water resources in the country – seemed to suggest the Siang’s waters had turned black after an earthquake in Tibet. An earthquake of magnitude 6.3 had struck the Nyingchi region of Tibet on November 18.

But people living in the Siang valley are convinced there is a “Chinese hand” in the river turning black. “We have got reliable reports in social media that the Chinese are building a tunnel,” said Tasik Pangkam, general secretary of the Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum. “This is the first time such a thing is happening, so this can’t be a natural process.”

The murky waters of the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh where the level of suspended particulates is way above the permissible limit. (Credit: YouTube)
The murky waters of the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh where the level of suspended particulates is way above the permissible limit. (Credit: YouTube)

Not enough information

Experts say there is not enough information yet to ascertain the reasons behind the phenomenon. Tage Rupa, a geomorphologist at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University, said the reasons could well be local. “Arunachal is seeing hectic highway construction, so maybe it’s just that,” Rupa said. “A lot of the construction is close to the river, so it’s possible it’s just run-off from construction sites.”

Rupa said only the river’s discharge volume could help geologists say with certainty if indeed Chinese construction was to blame. “If there’s construction really happening on the Chinese side, the discharge volume is likely to decrease, so that should be checked,” he explained.

Data, however, is not easy to come by. In India, flow data of rivers in the Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra basins is treated as classified and comes under the Official Secrets Act, often hampering research.

Wilful ignorance?

But with even the waters of the Brahmaputra downstream in Assam starting to turn turbid, criticism of the Union government’s apparent failure to identify the problem is growing. “It is highly disturbing that for days together we have not been able to ascertain what the cause is,” said environmentalist Dulal Chandra Goswami, who has studied the Brahmaputra extensively. “It shows how vulnerable people in the downstream are because of the whims of our politicians.”

Goswami said the current atmosphere of suspense and confusion was symptomatic of the government’s failure to govern an international river like the Brahmaputra. “Ideally, this was a phone call away, but then the basin partners just don’t interact,” he said. “When they do, they argue. This is just no way to handle an international river. This current crisis exposes that there is no framework to negotiate and solve problems so far as the Brahmaputra is concerned.”

Others contend this is the result of wilful ignorance on the part of the government, considering that the Indian state has claimed in the past that it has an extensive surveillance mechanism to monitor any hydraulic interventions on the Yarlung Tsangpo. Back in 2011, the Ministry of Space had said in response to a question in the Lok Sabha that it had satellite images of construction activities along the “entire course of river Brahmaputra”. The reply stated, “Government keeps a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s national interest and takes all necessary measures to safeguard it.”

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, a senior research fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati who is working on riverine matters in the North East, asked, “What is preventing the Ministry of Water Resources and the Central Water Commission from coming up with a strong clarification and clearing the air once and for all? Or do conspiracy theories help push Delhi’s agenda of big dams – if the Chinese are building, we must too?”

Rahman said it was time Delhi stopped holding back information on such matters that affect the lives and livelihoods of people in the region. “We need to develop institutionalised responses to crises like these instead of deploying the dams, dredging and China bogeys all the time,” he added. “There ought to be more transparency in information flow from the central agencies.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.