An Academic’s Tryst with the River Brahmaputra
By Aiyushman Dutta
The Brahmaputra River is the pride and very lifeline of Assam. On the banks of this mighty river, a number of great civilizations flourished and these very banks gave rise to some of the world’s greatest monarchs, emperors, social reformers, artists, et al who have managed to carve a name for themselves in the chronicles of world history. From Ahom emperor Suikapha and saint Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhabdeva to our very own late Bhupen Hazarika, the river has acted as a catalyst to inspire and nurture the hidden talents in these legendary global personalities. While the mighty river has nurtured life to the fullest, it has also played the contrasting role of a mass destroyer as its mighty waves and currents, which erupts in the form of massive floods and erosion, have time and again proved nature’s, especially this particular river’s, superiority over mankind.
In this article, I would like to acquaint our readers with a unique man from Assam who has spent his entire life studying the flow and course of this river. Studying this river and its nature has taken him to various prominent positions across the entire world but wherever he has gone – be it to the farthest reaches of America or down South to South Africa, he has always taken a piece of the river along with him.
I am talking about none other than eminent environmental scientist and engineer Prof Dulal Chandra Goswami, who is nothing short of an authority on the River Brahmaputra. An erudite scholar and academician who holds significant positions in different academic and professional organizations, Dr. Goswami is widely known for his expertise on different issues related to the River Brahmaputra.
A former Colin Mackenzie Chair Professor at Anna University, Chennai in 2004, Prof Dulal Chandra Goswami retired as a head of the Department of Environmental Science at Guwahati University in 2003. He has also been associated with John Hopkins University (USA), Howard University(USA), Berne University (Switzerland), NASA Project (USA), NRSA, Department of Space, India and the founder of the Assam Remote Sensing Application Centre at Guwahati, besides holding a number of other important positions. His area of specialization is Fluvial Geomorphology, Environmental Science and Geoinformatics. His doctoral research was on Fluvial Geomorphology of the Brahmaputra River, Assam, India at Johns Hopkins University, U.S.A.
An academic with more than 150 publications to his credit, he received the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation Grant for research on the Brahmaputra river by the John Hopkins University, USA; a Research Fellowship from East- West Centre Fellowship, USA, to name a few. Not just as an academic, he has also mentored a number of researchers on the dynamics of the River Brahmaputra. Under his research supervision, 25 students have received their doctorate degree while 12 others have received their degree in M. Phil.
Having travelled across the world, Prof Dulal Goswami has been based in Guwahati since 2004 and has been heading a number of government bodies and committees, including as Member, L. C. Jain Committee of the Planning Commission for Economic Development of Assam, 1990, Member, State Wasteland Board, Member, State Wetland Board, Member, Technical Committee, State Land Use Board, Member, Flood Enquiry Committee, Govt. of Assam, 1986 and 1988, to name just a few.
I recently met the distinguished scholar at his residence on the outskirts of Guwahati to know about his family, his work with the River Brahmaputra and his journey to the States and other parts of the world. Following are excerpts.
Q. Please tell us about your childhood and growing up days.
Ans: I was born and brought up in 1943 in North Lakhimpur. While I was born in Silonibari Tea Estate, where my father worked, in the interiors of Lakhimpur town, I spent most of my formative years in our ancestral house in the town. My father’s name was late Keshab Chandra Goswami. The place where I grew up was a bit remote and even though people called it part of Lakhimpur town, it was still pretty rural.
I did my initial schooling in the Lower Primary School of Silonibari TE with children of other tea garden labourers. But later on, my father enrolled my into Lakhimpur High School from where I completed the rest of my schooling. I remember the great earthquake which struck Assam in the 1950s pretty vividly. The road leading to our school had got damaged overnight and that was the first time I got introduced with the vagaries of nature.
After completing my schooling, my father sent me to Shillong to pursue my higher secondary education at St. Edmunds. The journey to Shillong from Lakhimpur proved to be my first major acquaintance with the mighty River Brahmaputra. In those days, we had to cross the river via Jorhat in order to reach the other bank. I was so immensely fascinated by the River Brahmaputra and this fascination with the river has been chartering the course of my life all these years.
Later on, I came to Guwahati to study at Guwahati University where I chose Geology as my major subject. In those days, GU had provisions for classes in Geology, Geography and Anthropology at the undergraduate level and these courses were much sought after by the students. After completing my graduation, I worked for a while as a subject teacher in a high school back home. Once my financial condition improved a bit, I went to Saugor University in Madhya Pradesh to do my M. Tech in Geology. However, the train serves were pretty dismal in those days and I could not make it on time for my admissions. But since I had already reached the University, I did not want to come back. In that place, I met a university lecturer who had earlier visited Assam and who looked at me with sympathetic eyes. He told me to study Geography and I accordingly did my M.Sc in Geography with specialisation in Fluvial Geomorphology and Geoinformatics.
Q. You had worked as a teacher in Cotton College for a brief period of time…
Ans: Yes, after I came back from Madhya Pradesh, I started looking around for a job. Thankfully, there was an application for a post in Cotton College in those days. I applied for the same and was thankfully selected for the job. I spent around five years in Cotton College before I left to join Guwahati University.
Q. You had spent quite a lot of time doing field study of the River Brahmaputra…
Ans: Yes, while in Guwahati University, my interest in studying and knowing about rivers and river systems deepened. I had by then resolved to go abroad for higher studies but wanted to know more about our own river systems before doing so. So whenever I got the chance, I used to venture out to study about the river. During university breaks, I would go to Arunachal Pradesh and spend time in the dried-up river beds, visit government offices to study reports about floods. It was during that time that I started writing articles on the flood problem of Assam in the Assam Tribune.
I wrote letters to foreign universities and began corresponding with Professor M Gordon Wolman of JHU about my interest in the Brahmaputra river. The professor, who later became my guide and mentor, said he knew about the river and offered me a seat to study in their university. The government supported me and although the financial support was very minimum, it helped me reach the United States in 1976. Under Professor M Gordon Wolman’s suggestion, l studied Fluvial Geomorphology in the Dept. of Geography and Environmental Engineering, Whiting School of Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.
Since the government’s financial support was very less, I was finding it difficult to complete my course. At that point of time, my mentor Professor M Gordon Wolman of JHU came to my help once again. Taking due cognizance of the low fellowship amount I received from the State Government, he introduced me to the Rockefeller Foundation, USA and fixed an interview with one of their office bearers in 1977. I considered myself to be very lucky to get this godsend opportunity and accordingly, applied for the interview at Rockefeller Foundation in New York. After a long and exhaustive interview session, the foundation granted me a fellowship to help complete the remainder of my thesis. Till date, I remember the proactive role played by my mentor Professor M Gordon Wolman of Johns Hopkins University who helped me continue my Ph.D. course in the States.
This fellowship helped cover the expenses for my frequent travels back home to Assam for my field work. It was during that period that I collected a lot of data for my thesis. There were very few tools for data collection and it was a laborious exercise. For instance, there were no Xerox machines in those days and I had to write everything down by hand. I had to make a lot of trips up and down to the university during that period. Somehow, in 1982, I managed to receive my Ph.D. degree.
Q. You were also involved in a NASA Project on Himalayan Snowmelt Modeling in Washington D.C…
Ans: Yes, after I received my Ph.D., I was approached by the NASA to conduct a project on Himalayan Snowmelt modelling. Although the project was titled Himalayan Snowmelt Modeling, it was mostly based in the Western Himalayas. That project lasted for almost a year and a half.
Q. So when did you decided to come back to India?
Ans: I must have done seven-eight such projects in the Western Himalayas when I decided that I had enough publications to my name. By that time, our son was also born and I wanted him to grow up in India. At that point of time, I got an invitation from the Indian Space Research Organization to be part of the Remote Sensing Centre in Hyderabad. I did not think twice and accordingly came back. Once I reached India, I was asked to lead a project on erosion caused by the River Brahmaputra in Assam for the Remote Sensing Centre. After that project got over, I had resolved to come back to Assam. Thankfully, during that time, a readership post in Guwahati University fell vacant and I was selected for the job.
Q. You were also the founder of the Assam State Remote Sensing Centre…
Ans: Yes, after I reached Assam, the State government approached me with an offer to start the Assam State Remote Sensing Centre as part of ASTEC. I took up the offer and led a group of young professionals to form the State Remote Sensing Centre. All these were, of course, honorary positions.
Q. As a person who has been actively involved with the dynamics of the River Brahmaputra and who is regarded as an authority on the Brahmaputra basin, do you feel that a solution to the flood and erosion problem which plagues Assam on an annual basis can be achieved in the near future?
Ans: I am very much optimistic that a solution to this grave problem will be found in the future. We have already hit rock bottom and the worst is already over. However, in order to mitigate this problem of flood and erosion, I feel that we need to take a more holistic approach to study the course of the river, right from its origins in China, before we can find a long-lasting solution to the problem.
Thank you sir, for taking out time to talk with us. It has been an enriching experience to know about your work and association with the River Brahmaputra.
(First published in melange, The Sentinel on July 8, 2018)