South Asian Women Panel Discussion – Feb 27, 2013

The Program in Women’s & Gender Studies

The South Asia Forum at MIT

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia

Cordially invite you to a panel discussion

South Asian Women Resist Religious Fundamentalism, Imperialism, and The State in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan

with Nusrat Chowdhury, Modhumita Roy, Afiya Zia

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Bldg 4-231 MIT

Afiya S. Zia is a feminist researcher and activist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She is author of ‘Sex Crime in the Islamic Context’, 1994; ‘Watching Them Watching Us’, 2001 (ASR, Pakistan), and has edited a series of books and contributed to scholarly journals. She is currently working on a book titled ‘Faith and Feminism in Pakistan’. She is an active member of Women’s Action Forum – a secular women’s rights organization in Pakistan and is an advisory board member of the Centre for Secular Space (UK).

Nusrat Chowdhury is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Amherst College. Her research focuses on the protest movement against open-pit coal mining and everyday ethical negotiations in a place called Phulbari in northern Bangladesh. The confrontations between the state and the people, the intimacy of corruption and development, and the nature of democratic thought and practice in a country like Bangladesh make Phulbari a fecund site where discourses of political crisis and energy crisis intersect and shape each other.

Modhumita Roy is Associate Professor of English at Tufts University. She works on Anglophone literature of Africa and the Africa Diaspora, South Asian Literature, Literature of Empire, Post-colonial Theory, Feminist Theory, and Literary Theory. Her article, “Some Like it Hot: Gender, Class, and Empire in the Making of Mulligatawny Soup” was awarded the Sophie Coe Memorial Prize by the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, UK. She is currently working on commercial surrogacy in India.

Event Open to Public

Protest held in Harvard Square for Tazreen Garment Factory fire in Bangladesh – Dec 1, 2012

Press Release post-Vigil YouTube videos:

Activists and community members from various parts of the Boston-area took part in a protest vigil at Harvard Square earlier this month. Roughly 35 people attended. The vigil was called by the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia and supported by several social justice groups, including the International Labor Rights Forum.

Protesting the Bangladesh Garment Factory Fire at Harvard Square

by Umang Kumar, Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia (Advocate), Dec-09-12

International Op-ed

As a member of the Alliance for Secular and Democratic South Asia (“Alliance”), a Cambridge, MA-based organization that champions issues in South Asia, the news of the November 24th Tazreen garment factory fire in Dhaka Bangladesh in which 112 workers lost their lives was a rude jolt. It was also a reminder that such things seem sickeningly repetitive. Only in October, the Alliance had organized a panel discussion called “Corruption and Capitalism in Bangladesh and Pakistan,” which dealt with the incident of fire this September that claimed the lives of 300 garment workers in Karachi, Pakistan. In the blurb of that event, we had written that “Such an incident is not an anomaly but the inevitable consequence faced by workers with near non-existent negotiation powers in Bangladesh and Pakistan.” On this occasion, faced with another horrific incident, the Alliance decided to come out to the streets, as it were, to hold a candle-light vigil and protest rally at Harvard Square on Dec 1st.

We were joined in our efforts by representatives from several organizations, notably the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and the Association for India’s Development (AID). We felt it was important to highlight issues of the voicelessness of the garment workers and their exploitation. It was important to protest against the exploitation of the actual creators of the product who, at the bottom of the value chain, make a pittance while the middlemen and the owners skim off the obscene profits.

It was also important to be able to raise our voices against the obscuration that the modern processes of capitalism and supply-chain manufacturing entail which are designed towards obscuration, obfuscation, and shirking and dilution of responsibilities. We, who are from South Asia, cannot forget the case of the Bhopal gas leak in 1984 where even when the Indian-owners of a US multinational was involved and later that corporation was taken over by another US-based corporation, Dow Chemical, the issue of liability has been fractious and has more recently been dragging on in courts for 28 years now, with Dow Chemicals refusing to accept the liabilities of Union Carbide. With the off-shoring of the manufacturing jobs to the lowest bidder, major multinational corporations like Walmart, the GAP and H&M could care less about pay structures and safety measures in the outfits they contract to. So the vigil was a way to articulate and reiterate such forms of deliberate negligence that have fatal consequences for the human beings who are ensnared in such an exploitative system.

We felt it was important to highlight the fact, especially in this holiday season, that the clothes and dresses that we buy from stores that seem to be offering cheap prices – all have very high human costs associated with them. To that end, we had actual items of clothing during the vigil which had messages such as, “Walmart Is Cheap? Ask Bangladeshi Workers,” pinned on them. For us, it was crucial to emphasize the “Cheap=Deadly” equivalence as the more than 1000 deaths in the garment industry in Bangladesh, according to a report by ILRF, bears out – not to mention comparable numbers in other such manufacturing hells in other countries in South Asia and also the world. Marx, of course, elucidated the concept of commodity fetishism which was a fundamental fact of the modern capitalist mode of production, but the transnational nature of outsourcing takes the abstraction of relations between the capitalists and the workers to another level of obscuration, such that the drops of blood after every tragedy never seem to stain the clean shirts of executives in their boardrooms.

Umang Kumar is an activist with the Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia.

The Color of Water – June 16, 2012

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia
and Boston-Chhalphal (Nepal)

invites you to a screening with the director and producer Andrew Majewski of
The Color of Water

The facts about Nepal’s Himalayan water resources, and the case against big dams

Produced by Andrew Majewski, an independent documentary producer, in partnership with Nepali filmmaker Gopal Koirala

Saturday, June 16, 2012
4-231 MIT

This documentary examines the plans to build big dams in Nepal to export hydroelectricity to India It finds that the hidden long term cost is potentially disastrous for both countries. The 45-minute screening will be followed by a discussion on greater regional cooperation for water management throughout South Asia, including the recently revived River Linking Project by India.

Sponsors: Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia
and Boston-Chhalphal ( Nepal )

Stop the Indian River Linking Project!

Join the protest rally at United Nations Headquarters in New York

Supported by Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia

Bangladesh Environment Network

বাংলাদেশ পরিবেশ নেটওয়ার্ক (বেন)

A global network to help Bangladesh protect her environment

Stop Indian River Linking Project!

Join the protest rally at United Nations Headquarter in New York

Venue: Ralph Bunche Park, 1st Avenue, between 42nd and 44th Street

Time: May 25, Friday, 3-4 pm

(Memo to UN Secretary General, Ambassador of India)

On February 27, the Indian Supreme Court directed the Indian Government to start implementing the Indian River Linking Project (IRLP) within 30 days and to complete this estimated $150 billion dollar project by 2016. The Court has even formed an implementation committee for the project. This court directive is similar to a death warrant for Bangladesh.

The Indian River Linking Project’s main purpose is to transfer water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganges Rivers to western and southern India. Since 1974, following the diversion of water from the Ganges River, the Brahmaputra River has been supplying about 70 percent of dry season river water flow in Bangladesh. If now through IRLP India starts diverting Brahmaputra River water and more of the Ganges River water, the remaining rivers of Bangladesh will be pushed towards death.

Both the Ganges and the Brahmaputra are international rivers so that India has no right to divert their water unilaterally. IRLP, therefore, violates the 1997 United Nations Convention on Non-navigational Use of International Watercourses.

In order to build international opinion against IRLP, Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), together with Bangladesh Society, New York, and other Bangladeshi community organizations, is holding a protest rally at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on May 25, Friday at 3-4 pm. Please join this rally and ask others to join it too. Resist IRLP and save Bangladesh rivers and the environment!

Contact: Sayed Fazlur Rahman (347-842-8527); Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed (610-203-9695); AKM Nurul Haque (917-916-3133); Semonty Wahed (718-729-0582); Faiza Fatema (347-586-4612); Urbi Dev (214-497-3201); Mahbubur Rahman (973-689-4164); Ahsanul I. Chowdhury (347-513-8348); Izazul Haque (917-916-3133).

Map of the Indian River Linking Project

Memorandum on The Indian River Linking Project (IRLP)

Supported by Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia

Bangladesh Environment Network

বাংলাদেশ পরিবেশ নেটওয়ার্ক (বেন)

A global network to help Bangladesh protect her environment


  1. On February 27, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to start implementing the Indian River Linking Project (IRLP) within 30 days and complete it by 2016.[1]
  2. The order came as a rude shock after several years’ hiatus during which the IRLP had somewhat receded from the scene. True that IRLP was never completely abandoned by the Indian government, even after the strong protest it generated both inside and outside India in 2002 when proponents of IRLP pushed it through an earlier Supreme Court ruling. This time, however, the court has gone further, forming even a project implementation committee.
  3. According to various sources, IRLP envisages transfer of 334 billion cubic meters of water through the construction of 30 inter-river links, involving 36 big dams, 94 tunnels, and 10,876 kilometers of canals. The project has two parts, namely the Himalayan and the Peninsular (see IRLP map in Figure 1 below), and the estimated cost of the project varies from $150 to 250 billion.[2]
  4. The project is based on the notion that some river basins are “surplus” while others are “deficit,” so that transfer of water from the former to the latter will be beneficial. However, this is a classic example of erroneous and dangerous abstraction based on a very superficial understanding of the nature of the problem.
  5. A closer examination shows that different rivers with different volumes of annual and seasonal discharge and flowing through different terrains are part of the earth’s natural diversity, just as hills and valleys of different elevations. Each river develops a unique ecology (with corresponding flora and fauna) and economy (with corresponding cropping, settlement, and transportation pattern, etc.) and culture. Large-scale diversion of water from one basin to another ultimately harms both, as earlier examples show. For example, diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers led to the death of the Aral Sea and gave rise to new problems of waterlogging and salinity in Kazakhstan (see pictures in Figure 2a and 2b below).
  6. Researchers have expressed doubts about IRLP on grounds of lack of technical, financial, and economic feasibility and viability. They have pointed out further that transfer from another river cannot overcome the perceived scarcity of water if choices with regard to crops, irrigation method, settlement and consumption pattern, etc. are not appropriate.
  7. River intervention projects like IRLP embody the Commercial Approach, which deems river water flowing into the sea a waste.[3] Unfortunately, this approach leads to conflicts among co-riparian regions, states, and countries, because the volume of water is finite. It ultimately harms the river, sometimes causing its death, as has actually happened to several important rivers of the world. The approach is also harmful to the ecology of the river estuary and the marine environment.
  8. Projects like IRLP are, instead of being the product of objective and comprehensive analysis, often the result of a push from vested interests, as represented by the dam construction industry, engineering and consultancy firms, and other agencies and individuals who hope to get a share of the project budget.
  9. Though the Himalayan and Peninsular parts of IRLP are often presented as separate, they are actually connected by several links (see map in Figure 1), and the main purpose of the project is to transfer water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganges Rivers to the south and west of India.
  10. Since 1974, India has been already transferring the Ganges flow away from Bangladesh through its Farakka barrage, causing drastic reduction of the downstream flow and enormous harm to the lower riparian country, Bangladesh (see Figures 3, 4, and 5). India is diverting Teesta flow through her Gajoldoba barrage, the downstream part of the river drying up in Bangladesh (see Figure 6). These and other diversions have led to a drastic reduction in the sediment flow that is the key to Bangladesh’s survival against sea-level rise caused by climate change (see Figure 7). India is putting around Bangladesh a ring of dams, barrages, and other water diversionary and flow control structures, which will choke off all river flow to Bangladesh (see Figure 8).
  11. Due to the diversion already carried out, the Brahmaputra River now serves as the source of about 70 percent of the river water flow of Bangladesh during the dry season. Therefore, diversion of the Brahmaputra flow and added diversion of the Ganges flow and their tributaries through IRLP will lead to the certain death of Bangladesh’s remaining rivers.
  12. Both the Brahmaputra and the Ganges are international rivers. After flowing through India they enter Bangladesh before reaching the Bay of Bengal. Therefore, India does not have the right to transfer unilaterally water from them and their tributaries. IRLP clearly violates the 1997 UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.[4] It contravenes the convention’s Article 7 which forbids countries from taking steps that can cause significant harm to co-riparian countries. IRLP violates the Convention’s Articles 20 and 23 that call for the preservation of ecosystems of the river basin and of the marine environment, respectively. It violates Article 6 that asks countries to take into account co-riparian countries’ social and economic needs, existing and potential use, and size and interests of the population that depend on the river.
  13. There are reports that China is considering diversion of water from Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper reach of the Brahmaputra River lying in Tibet of China. It is highly contradictory on the part of India to oppose Chinese plans to divert the Brahmaputra flow and ask Bangladesh to join her in this opposition, while itself engaging in the diversion of river water away from Bangladesh. The competing diver diversion plans and projects of China and India illustrate the conflicts that the Commercial Approach to rivers generates.
  14. India’s diversion of river water away from Bangladesh has harmed significantly Indo-Bangladesh relationship and has emerged as the most important obstacle to the promotion of cooperation between these two countries in other areas. For example, it has made it difficult for Bangladesh to grant India transit through her territory to India’s northeastern states. IRLP will further damage the Indo-Bangladesh relationship and will make cooperation almost impossible in the future.

Demands and recommendations

  1. In view of the above, Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN), the global network of non-resident Bangladeshis, joined by other Bangladeshi organizations and citizens, and their international friends,
    1. Demands that India stops proceeding further with the river linking project, in so far as it affects international rivers, such as the Brahmaputra and the Ganges and their tributaries. Though we are opposed to the river linking in general, we leave it up to Indian citizens themselves whether they would like linking of rivers that are entirely domestic to India.
    2. Demands that India decommissions Farakka barrage, Gajoldoba barrage, and all other dams and barrages that it has constructed on international rivers and rivers that affect the flows of these international rivers.
    3. Demands that India abandons all under-construction and planned diversionary and unilateral flow control structures on rivers that enter from India to Bangladesh
    4. Recommends that India abandons the current Commercial Approach to rivers and instead adopts the Ecological Approach that discourages intervention in the direction and volume of natural river flow so that rivers can be bonds of friendship among co-riparian neighbors instead of being a source of contention and conflict. The only adoption of the Ecological approach can give India the moral right to oppose China’s plan of diversion of the Brahmanputra flow and to urge Bangladesh to join her in this opposition.
Figure 2a: Gradual shrinkage and death of the Aral Sea caused by the diversion of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers
Figure 2b: Vessels lying on the dried-up bed of the Aral sea
Figure 2b: Vessels lying on the dried-up bed of the Aral sea
Figure 3: Drastic fall in Ganges flow and dried up Padma (Ganges) bed at Harding Bridge in Bangladesh due to India’s Farakka Barrage
Figure 3: Drastic fall in Ganges flow and dried up Padma (Ganges) bed at Harding Bridge in Bangladesh due to India’s Farakka Barrage
Figure 4: Drastic fall in Ganges flow to Bangladesh across all seasons due to India’s Farraka Barrage
Figure 5: Dried up Garai River of Bangladesh due to diversion of Ganges flow by India’s Farraka Barrage
Figure 7: Drastic reduction in sediment flow to Bangladesh due to river intervention structures built by India on shared rivers
Figure 8: India’s ring of dams and barrages around Bangladesh

[1] The Daily Star, February 28, 2012

[2] See M. Firoze Ahmed, Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, and Md. Khalequzzaman (editors), Regional Cooperation on Transboundary Rivers: Impact of the Indian River Linking Project, Dhaka: BAPA, BEN, BEA, IEB, BUET, and DU, 2004, for detailed information on IRLP. 

[3] See Nazrul Islam, “IRLP, or the Ecological Approach to Rivers?” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 17 (April 29), 2006, pp. 1693-1702, for discussion of IRLP and its relation with the Commercial Approach to rivers.

[4] See

The River Linking Project – who pays and who gains

Sunday, May 13, 2012
Room 2-143 (MIT)
77 Mass Ave, Cambridge

The Indian Supreme Court in February of this year ordered the Government of India to implement an ambitious project to link the major rivers of the region in a “time-bound manner”. This $150 billion project is to interconnect rivers to transfer water from where it is deemed in “surplus” to where it is in “deficit”. The benefits of this project are doubtful and the possible harm to the ecology and livelihood of millions in South Asia are not being taken into account.

This project has two parts, the Himalayan and the Peninsular. The Peninsular component involves rivers that are internal to India. The Himalayan part involves the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, international rivers flowing through the lower riparian country, Bangladesh, before reaching the sea. The main aim of the Himalayan part of IRLP is to transfer water from these rivers away from Bangladesh and to western and southern India. (More sources)

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia considers this project ill-advised for a number of reasons which include

  • Large scale artificial transfer of water causes significant harm to the river basins of the source as well as the destination. There are many examples of this, including the well-known case of the Amu Daria and Syr Daria Rivers whose flows were diverted from the Aral Sea and towards Kazakhstan for irrigation purposes and, eventually, led to the death of Aral Sea and increased salinity and waterlogging in Kazakhstan.
  • Ecosystems are part of nature and should be adapted to, not destabilized on such a massive scale
  • Many more essential and valuable results can be obtained with the proposed $150 billion of the project that could benefit the environment as well as address better the goal of greater food self-sufficiency and equality in society.
  • The Brahmaputra River now serves as the source of about 70% of dry season river flow in Bangladesh. By diverting the Brahmaputra flow and by channeling yet more flow from the Ganges River, IRLP will strike a severe blow to the remaining rivers of Bangladesh.
  • Many unknowns can render this project useless, including changes in course of rivers and changes in flow due to climate destabilization

Please join us and members of the community to discuss the project and its implications. There will be brief presentations by members of the Alliance on different aspects of the IRLP, alternatives, and a discussion on what is to be done.

A talk by Aruna Roy – Sunday, April 15, 2012

MIT Bush Room (10-105)
77 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge MA

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia presents
A talk by Aruna Roy

Transparency and Accountability in Governance: Current Challenges in India

Aruna Roy is an Indian political and social activist (and former member of the Indian Administrative Service) who founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (“Worker-and-Peasant Power Union”). She was a prominent force behind the Right to Information (RTI) movement in India, which led to the enactment of the Right to Information Act in 2005. She has also has helped shape the rural jobs program (the MNREGA) and a food-security bill.

Among numerous awards and felicitations, in 2000, she received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, and in 2011, she figured in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Co-sponsored by:

Association for India’s Development (AID)
South Asia Forum at MIT