Towards a Humanistic Pedagogy of Water in the Geography Curriculum in India

Scroll this

This is the sixth post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.

In March 2016, I was visiting Jaleshwar in the Odisha district of India as a part of my PhD fieldwork. My fellow researchers were interacting with the local villagers who live very close to the Subarnarekha river. Every year they face the brunt of the floods yet continue to live in the area. We were given a free boat ride across the river, which has lost its significance and importance with time because they are no longer economically dependent on the river. On this very field trip, I contracted a stomach bug from the water I was drinking. It is ironic that a place so close to the river does not have safe potable drinking water. Jaleshwar is a place which has water in excess yet the water is not suitable for drinking purpose. It is only during the floods that the river reminds the villagers of its presence: the many eroded banks submerge agricultural land and houses.

As an educator teaching Geography at an undergraduate college, translating this field experience and the connection between the river and the people is challenging. The challenge arises because the curriculum in Indian universities and colleges is primarily technical, with no exposure to the human aspects of interacting with waterscapes. This technocratic orientation is also pervasive within the government bureaucracy. During the course of my research on the waterscapes of the Subarnarekha river, I had the opportunity to interact with a few members of the Irrigation Department of the West Bengal Government (India). The hydraulic engineers I interacted with were equipped to deal with bank erosion from the view of structural engineering. However, they ignored the softer interventions and the communities of flora, fauna, and human beings thriving along the banks of the river. The ecological losses and trickling backlashes of hard engineering techniques are irreparable and may end up causing more harm than expected.

In this essay, I foreground the importance of a more holistic approach to water pedagogy in the Geography curriculum of colleges and universities in India. Since the curriculum is designed around quantitative philosophy of Geography, as geography teachers, we are losing out on communicating what the study of geography in India can bring to a humanistic understanding of water. What drives me to write this essay is that a humanities approach to the research and pedagogy of river studies is largely missing in India. The curriculum in the higher education institutions does not have much space for experimentation. As a result, the multifaceted pedagogy that the study of water demands cannot always be executed. Drawing on my own experiences of fieldwork and experience of teaching at the undergraduate level in India, I show how Geography has an added advantage of answering water-related issues effectively through merging the fields of techno-centric learning with qualitative understanding of water.

In my education, water-related studies have kept shifting in and out of my focus. But it is only when I started majoring in Geography in college that I realized that water is an important aspect that requires attention. I was fortunate to have taken up fluvial geomorphology (the study of river process and form) as my topic of research for my Master’s degree. I continued exploring river research through my MPhil and Doctoral studies. The idea of dealing with and visualizing rivers from a techno-oriented perspective gave me a very lopsided idea about how to study rivers.

As I have written earlier, as a component, water and its various aspects is usually taught from the point of view of hydrologists and engineers. It is only when ecological attributes are brought in, that the river slowly starts taking a shape as a vestibule of life. Studies directly revolving around water in school and university textbooks and syllabus lack the importance that it is rightly due. Not all high school textbooks have water as a thematic part of the syllabus.  For example, water is taught as a small unit in the sciences, which is part of a larger discipline such as physics, chemistry or geography. It never transcends and becomes interdisciplinary, blurring the boundaries and unifying the different disciplines, as it should. In most Indian curriculum, water is not treated as an interdisciplinary subject, with very little emphasis on water from the point of view of the liberal arts. For instance, cartographic visualizations of rivers, lakes, ponds and even wells takes precedence over understanding how cartographic mapping can be biased or the impacts of processes of mapping on communities. The various physical parameters are measured and documented to understand the shift in a particular river’s course from a mechanical point of view. Water loses some of its life when viewed in such a lifeless manner.

Jaleshwar, Odisha, 2016, Photo by the author.

My experiences teaching Geography at two colleges have exposed me to  some academic branches which deal with water: Fluvial Geomorphology, Hydrology, Climatology, and Oceanography. The syllabi are very technical and basic (which is important), following textbooks that are required for foundational knowledge.  However, what is lacking in the curriculum is the investment of time and energy in field visits and analysis. Field visits centering around the water bodies mostly deal with measurements of various parameters. The hydrological and social interfaces need to be explored when looking at rivers as a whole.

During my doctoral research, I realized how important it was to interact with the local villagers who lived on the banks of the rivers to establish how they would be interacting with rivers. The plight of villagers every year is best understood through their stories. This interaction is in many cases lost and not represented through data. The physical and societal impacts require investigation in order to get a comprehensive understanding of flooding phenomena. A data centric approach to a medium as diverse and fluid as water needs a better treatment in academia, taught from a holistic viewpoint of various disciplines.

Water pedagogies can be made more engaging in the classrooms. In my experience I have tried to bring in examples in the classroom from my experience in field work so that students can relate. For example, in my experience, flood frequency calculations can be better explained with how an interlocutor in the field would explain the yearly flood limit in comparison to 50/100 year flood tracer.1 More importantly, recently, I have been advocating for internships in water sectors (both Governmental as well as NGOs) that can help students gain exposure to action-based research. For instance, action-based research can take the form of documentation of ghats through creative and multi-modal forms such as sketch walks, street plays and other mediums that can help bridge gaps between technical aspects of water studies and more creative ways of intervention to preserve water related heritage such as ghats. The Living Waters Museum recently collaborated with schools at various schools in Kolkata to engage students in this kind of work. I hope that such links become more effective in the future. As academics, we have much to learn about programming from museum professionals.

Water pedagogies need a more holistic and comprehensive understanding with a thrust on a multidisciplinary approach. With time we are experiencing an interest in water studies, trying to fill in the gaps of declining river health/water deficiencies with policy-level interventions. As a result, the recent years have seen a general shift in India, in the teaching of water studies. Different universities  have opened courses that have a multi-disciplinary approach. With time we expect that water is viewed not only as a physical entity, but more research becomes focused on looking at its true potential. As I recall snippets from conversations with a Hydraulic Engineer who was working in the Subarnarekha River, who stated that it was important to bridge gaps between the sciences and social sciences. Water could enable to connect the dots, to help us to take the leap and embrace a more open-minded learning platform.


1. Flood tracer indicates a major flooding event reaching a certain magnitude, whose recurrence time is 50 years or 100 years

Feature image: Chandrabali, Odisha the mouth of the River Subarnarekha, 2016. Photo by the author.
The following two tabs change content below.

Debika Banerji

Debika Banerji is a researcher and a lecturer in geography. She did her M.Phil. from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has completed her doctoral degree from Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan focussing on riverscapes. She is interested in cultural landscapes, oral histories and memory mapping. She has published a number of articles and book chapters on fluvial landscapes and on Kolkata’s cultural identities. Her recent book 'Mosaics of a Locale- Stories of Bhawanipur' is about mapping the fragments of lost memories of a locality in Kolkata.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.