Guest Post. Flowing through the Teesta: My river expedition

Guest Post. Flowing through the Teesta: My river expedition

Nov 19, 2023

Nilanjan Mistry

The following article written by Nilanjan Mistry is the first guest blog on our website. In the guest posts, people we meet during our journey share their stories and experiences. The texts reflect the views of the authors.

About Nilanjan:

In 1978, Nilanjan Mistry was born in a village near the Teesta basin. Beyond his role as an economics teacher, he is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for writing, photography, travel, and exploration. Embracing a bohemian spirit, Nilanjan seeks to understand the world through the unique perspective of marginalized communities. One of Nilanjan's noteworthy works is the book 'Teestabathan,' a narrative documentation that explores the extinct culture of the Teesta River basin. Through his writing, Nilanjan endeavours to illuminate the richness of a culture that might otherwise be forgotten with the passage of time.

Nilanjan Mistry

Flowing through the Teesta: My river expedition

My father worked as a primary school teacher at 'Teestachar Sri Krishna Primary School' when I was very young, around the time I was in the fifth grade. Occasionally, I would accompany him to his school, which was situated on the banks of the Teesta River. The school had a balcony from where you could catch a glimpse of the meandering river Teesta.

While my father dedicated his time to teaching his students, my attention would often wander to the picturesque view of the Teesta. I would gaze at the serene, blue-green waters of the river, watch people going about their daily activities, observe boats gliding along the water's surface, and even see cattle peacefully grazing by the riverside. Just like them, I longed to experience the river myself, to take a boat ride and explore its beauty.

My father would make my dream come true by taking me on a boat trip along the Teesta. It was during these moments that my deep affection for the Teesta River began to take root.

The school, 'Teestachar Sri Krishna Primary School,' still exists today, but it has had to change its location several times due to the shifting course of the Teesta River. The school has essentially become a nomad, adapting to the river's movements. Its current location is within a densely populated area, and the once-visible Teesta River from the school's balcony has disappeared from view, replaced by a massive dam constructed to safeguard the local community.

In my discussion today, I aim to keep things general, focusing on the everyday people who directly or indirectly rely on the Teesta River. I won't delve into the complexities of the Teesta's history, geography, changes in its course over time, hydropower development, or the transboundary disputes related to the river. We are all aware that the Teesta is an international river, and detailed information on these topics can be readily found through online searches or by asking the right questions.

Instead, I'll draw from my personal experiences during my journey along the Teesta River basin to highlight the more tangible aspects of its significance to the people who call this region home.

A few words about the centuries-old Bathan culture of the Teesta River Basin:

The time-honoured Bathan culture, which had flourished along the Teesta riverbed for centuries, has faded into obscurity. Bathan was the cherished home of the Maishalbandhu (buffalo herders) and their loyal buffalo companions. Buffaloes roamed freely beneath the open sky, while the young buffalo calves found shelter indoors. Once, the Teesta riverbed was a very different landscape, teeming with abundant grasslands. As one journeyed upstream from the valley, numerous Bathan settlements sprang up in various parts of the Teesta riverbed, typically established at the end of the monsoon season. When the monsoon returned, the Maishalbondhu would disassemble their Bathan and journey to Bhatidesh (downstream valley) with their buffalo herds.

Today, the Teesta riverbed no longer provides a haven for buffalo grazing. The various species of grass that used to be the beloved food of buffaloes are now scarce in the Teesta riverbed. Instead, the land is now cultivated with crops. This leaves us with a pressing question: where will the buffaloes graze, and what will they eat? Consequently, the Teesta riverbed, once a sanctuary for numerous buffalo herds, has lost its former vitality.

The owners of the Bathan have been forced to sell off their buffaloes and pursue alternative professions. Meanwhile, the Maishalbondhu find themselves in dire straits. They have been unable to transition to other occupations for a prolonged period, and today, only a few of them remain. These surviving Maishalbondhu struggle to secure even two handfuls of food. Moreover, they lack the necessary documentation to access Government benefits, despite having lived along the riverbanks for five to six decades.

As a result, feeling defeated by the challenges of life, they express their frustration with an anguished tone, saying, "The buffalo carries a curse.” They fear that the riverbed, once touched by the tears of buffaloes, will continue to deteriorate, preventing any further cultivation. In their sombre vision, the entire landscape will eventually transform into another Teesta, a stark departure from its once-thriving ecosystem.

The People of the Teesta: Narratives from Communities

Having journeyed through the Teesta River basin for an extended period, I've engaged in countless conversations with the residents, endeavouring to grasp their deep-seated passion, love, and reverence for the river Teesta. The statements I present here, one by one, reveal a collective sentiment that paints a vivid picture of the hydro-sociology surrounding the Teesta. It's worth noting that the realm of hydro-sociology is far-reaching and multifaceted.

However, let me say at the very end; Lalsadhu, sadly, is no longer with us; he passed away a year ago. As for his wife, her whereabouts remain a mystery, known to no one. Nevertheless, Lalsadhu's poignant words linger in my memory. He once expressed, "In this world, we have no one—no son, no daughter, no brothers, no sisters, no land, no possessions. We possess nothing except for this humble hut. We spend our days begging on the streets, returning to this riverbed every evening. This riverbed is our sole abode, and I constructed this modest hut with immense dedication. Mother Teesta has been incredibly kind, exceedingly kind."

“We yearn for the river Teesta to sustain us. We depend on the Teesta for our cattle and buffalo. The Teesta brings peace to our minds and is essential for our survival. Without the Teesta, we would cease to exist. It has provided us with everything we need. It is undeniably true that Mother Teesta inundates our homes each year, sweeping away our cattle and decimating our crops. Yet, we harbor no resentment towards Mother Teesta. She may take everything, but she returns it with interest. Year after year, we may lose our possessions, but when we come to sit by her banks, the Teesta's gentle breeze caresses our bodies, and all our sorrows melt away. To us, the Teesta is no monster, no demon; she is our mother, our cherished deity.”
“No matter how much Mother Teesta may frighten us, we never abandon the riverbed. The floodwaters don't scare us away. When the riverbed sinks, we hold each other's hands and survive as one united community. We don't differentiate between Hindus and Muslims here; we cook and share meals from a single pot. During floods, we navigate on logs, boats, or 'vuras,' which are thermocol boats providing easy transportation. Sometimes, we find shelter over our shebang, and if anyone is in danger, ten of us leap to their rescue. In this remote area, we rely on each other completely. If we perish, we do so together; if we endure, we do so as a united front. Those who inhabit the Teesta Riverbed never succumb to its waters. This unwavering faith binds us to the river Teesta.”
“In Teesta, there is no fear. Fear resides in your city. Here, we slumber with our doors ajar, undisturbed by bothersome dogs that stand guard. We require no fans, beds, or pillows; the Teesta's gentle breeze lulls us to sleep. The only sounds here are those of water, wind, and birds. However, the constant presence of tractors has become a vexation, introducing peril into our lives.”
“Two decades ago, the Teesta Riverbed presented a vastly different landscape compared to its current state. During that time, people relied on simple tools to clear weeds, cultivate the land, and plough with the assistance of oxen. Fast forward to the present day, and the Teesta Riverbed has undergone a significant transformation, now featuring the use of tractors. The entire region, apart from the direct course of the Teesta, has been dedicated to agriculture, shrouding the precise location of the riverbanks in mystery. The enigma of the Teesta's shores remains a well-guarded secret, known only to the river herself.”
“Within the Teesta Riverbed, a mere handful of small-scale farmers, who are economically disadvantaged, struggle to make ends meet. In recent times, outsiders have begun to pour into the region for cultivation, investing substantial sums of money. While there are inherent risks, the potential rewards, if aided by the Teesta, are substantial. Nowadays, the Teesta Riverbed accommodates the cultivation of nearly every conceivable crop, with the exceptions being jute and tea. Vast expanses of land are dedicated to the growth of potatoes, peanuts, maize, and rice. Interestingly, the Government seems to lack a precise record of these activities.”
“Watermelon holds a significant place in the cultivation of the Teesta Riverbed. Farmers from distant regions arrive to partake in watermelon farming, often establishing temporary residences amidst the Teesta for approximately six months, living collectively. This type of farming demands a substantial labour force, typically sourced from villages surrounding the Teesta. The cultivation of watermelons relies heavily on the use of chemical fertilizers, although it carries considerable risk. During heavy rainfall or the release of excess water from the nearest Barrage, the watermelon fields may be submerged, leading to significant financial losses for the farmers. Nevertheless, this doesn't deter watermelon cultivation in the Teesta Riverbed, as it generates billions of rupees in trade during a single season. Watermelons from this area are even exported to foreign countries.”
“During the partition of 1947 and the liberation war of 1971, numerous individuals from East Bengal who had been displaced found refuge in the Teesta Riverbed. They transformed barren land into fertile fields, cultivating crops to sustain themselves. The Indian Government also resettled many refugees from camps in this region, with 'Teestachar Krishi Colony' being one of the settlements born out of these efforts.
In reality, the elderly individuals who arrived from East Bengal during that specific period are no longer residing in the Teesta Riverbed. Today, many locals have claimed the river land, often selling it at a reduced price to external commercial farmers. Those who are currently engaged in extensive farming and reaping substantial profits are relatively new to the area. Farming in the Teesta Riverbed now signifies more than just survival; it has evolved into a short-term migration pattern for agricultural pursuits in the Teesta River basin.”
"We endure four months of toil and embrace eight months of contentment. Here, we have rice, fish, and abundant crops; that's why we choose to remain. During the seasons of potato, peanuts, and corn, the entire vicinity bustles with activity. Thousands of people enter the Teesta at the crack of dawn and return in the evening. Not everyone possesses land, so they come here to engage in agricultural labour. Women and children earn modest wages, while men toil diligently with plows and spades."
"We have been residing in the Teesta for the past three decades. Our life is akin to that of nomads. Since we live on the river land, there is no one to scrutinize our existence here. However, we relish a profound sense of freedom, far more liberating than you might imagine."
“We are fishermen, and our livelihood relies on the Teesta River. In the past, the Teesta was abundant with fish, but today, these once-plentiful species have become scarce. To find fish, we must venture further upstream, often fishing throughout the night and returning home the following morning. Over time, the fish population has dwindled, and many species have vanished from the Teesta, never to return.
Illegitimate cultivation is encroaching upon the Teesta Riverbed, with the unauthorized use of harmful pesticides contaminating the water and contributing to the decline of fish. Some unscrupulous individuals are even resorting to poisoning the water for fishing purposes, despite our protests. These actions are further eroding the Teesta's fish population, turning those responsible into criminals.
It is imperative for the government to identify and penalize these culprits, but the sheer size of the river presents monitoring challenges. If awareness is not raised and action taken, the Teesta's fish may face complete extinction, leaving us in an uncertain future.”
“Upstream of the Teesta River, flanked by the Baikunthapur and Apalchand forests on its right and left banks, is a habitat for a variety of wild animals. At present, elephants are venturing into the Teesta Riverbed because there is a scarcity of food in the forests. They find their favourite foods—corn, paddy, and bananas—in the Teesta grasslands. On the other hand, local farmers are establishing homes for agriculture within the Teesta Riverbed, where they reside. This coexistence inevitably gives rise to human-elephant conflicts.
Recently, tragic incidents occurred where elephants trampled two farmers to death. According to local residents, farmers have resorted to using tractors to drive the elephants away from their crop fields, inadvertently separating them from their herds. This, in turn, has exacerbated the elephants' aggression.
The forest department has repeatedly issued warnings against cultivating crops in the riverbed, but the farmers have largely disregarded these directives. Consequently, the elephants remain entrenched in the riverbed, creating a distressing situation in the Teesta Riverbed. It is a situation that leaves us with a disheartening uncertainty, fearing that more lives may be lost in the future due to this ongoing conflict.”
“Animal husbandry is the primary source of livelihood for many residents in the Teesta basin area, with millions of cows and buffaloes depending on the river. In the past, the Teesta Riverbed offered abundant grazing land for these animals, but it has significantly diminished due to extensive crop cultivation within the Teesta River basin. As a result, the preferred grazing areas for cattle have been lost, and the grasslands are being detrimentally affected by chemical applications. In some instances, even elephant grasses have been intentionally set on fire to clear space for crop cultivation, causing a considerable disruption to the biodiversity of the Teesta River. These factors have collectively contributed to the disappearance of the centuries-old Bathan culture associated with the river Teesta.”
“The behaviour of pasture dogs has undergone a significant shift over time. This change became noticeable after the establishment of the city's dumping ground in close proximity to the Teesta. Unfortunately, this alteration has become a source of distress for us. On a daily basis, groups of dogs are attacking and killing goats, chickens, and even calves. The dogs have become increasingly carnivorous, likely influenced by the consumption of a variety of spicy foods and meat discarded in the dumping ground”.
“Despite the arrival of migratory birds to the Teesta basin during winter, their numbers have noticeably decreased compared to the past. Unfortunately, a concerning trend has emerged, with a significant number of birds succumbing to death. The root cause lies in the ingestion of poisoned grains within the Teesta basin itself. These birds come in search of food, driven by their natural migratory instincts. However, the continuous consumption of toxic grains jeopardizes their well-being and threatens the overall sustainability of their migration. If this perilous pattern persists, it forebodes a troubling future where the arrival of these migratory birds may cease altogether—a disconcerting signal in the delicate balance of nature.”
“Many individuals in the region make a living by gathering floating and submerged wood from the Teesta. During the monsoon season, an abundance of wood flows down the river, and nearby village residents risk their lives to collect these valuable resources. Annually, the Teesta River carries varying amounts of wood, with some years witnessing a higher influx than others. Originating from the mountains, the river transports substantial logs, trees, and tree trunks downstream. Additionally, a significant volume of wood lies concealed beneath the Teesta's silt, and when the sediment shifts, these submerged woods resurface. Over time, the submerged wood takes on a dark hue. The annual arrival of millions of tons of wood creates an economic opportunity for communities on both banks of the Teesta, offering an additional source of income.”
“Hogla (elephant grass) and Kash (kans grass) used to blanket the Teesta Riverbed entirely. While they still grow, their presence has significantly diminished. Many people earn their livelihood by harvesting and selling these hogla and kans in the market. They are widely used to cover house shades, create fences, and make mats, and they also play a role in various decorations during festive seasons.”
"The Joyee bridge was a necessity, but it led to the loss of our jobs as sailors. Since our childhood, the river and boats have been our life. We don't know how to part with the Teesta. There are no docks in the Teesta now; only a few crossings for agricultural purposes. We are uncertain about the fate of the Teesta; if you obstruct it to this extent, will the river survive? The river should be allowed to flow naturally, reclaiming its role as a playground. The Teesta's water levels are rising day by day, and without appropriate measures, even the towns you have built may face destruction."

The discussions brought up issues pertaining to the river Teesta:

During my discussions with local residents, it has become evident that the Teesta River Basin, especially in the plains, is confronted by an array of pressing issues. Here, I present a selection of these concerns:

  1. Water pollution stemming from the overuse of pesticides in the riverbed.

  2. Excessive cropping within the Teesta Riverbed.

  3. Deliberate poisoning of the water for fishing.

  4. Loss of rich biodiversity.

  5. The alarming decline in fish populations.

  6. Damage to dams due to various activities.

  7. Unregulated extraction of sand and stones.

  8. Pervasive intrusion of tractors into the Teesta Riverbed.

  9. Establishment of dumping grounds near the Teesta.

  10. Ongoing elevation of the Teesta River bed.

  11. Substantial reduction in grazing land.

  12. Igniting grasses to clear land.

  13. Environmental disturbances masked as tourism initiatives.

  14. Degradation of green cover.

  15. Escalating human-wildlife conflicts.

  16. Reduction in the population of migratory birds.

My approach to finding a solution:

My journey through the Teesta basin has spanned a significant duration, taking me from the river's source to its entry into Bangladesh. Over this extensive exploration, I have witnessed the myriad challenges that the Teesta faces today. It pains me to see the state of the Teesta, a river that seems to be crying out for help.

Before concluding my discussion, I would like to address some crucial aspects. Teesta isn't merely a river binding us in unity; it is a flowing embodiment of diverse cultures. For many, it serves as the sole source of livelihood. However, the march of civilization has ushered in a consumerist mindset, transforming the Teesta basin from a sanctuary for marginalized communities into a hub for profit-seeking endeavours. Unfortunately, the state of the Teesta River is far from optimal today. Our custodianship of Teesta has fallen short, and we have not ensured its rights as ecological citizens.

The challenges facing the Teesta River today don't have quick fixes. I believe a combination of heightened awareness and strategic, scientifically-backed actions by the Government is the key to restoring Teesta to its rightful state. It's time for us to acknowledge the pressing issues and collectively work towards reclaiming the vitality and balance that the Teesta River deserves.