India’s pioneering graphic novel River of Stories is all set to be reprinted. Creator Orijit Sen made the revelation in an interview with Eye on Design magazine. Published in 1994, River of Stories was the country’s first-ever graphic novel and deals with the controversial Narmada Bachao Andolan, a civilian movement that protested the displacement of millions of people due to the construction of dams on the Narmada river.

Although the graphic novel went out of print in the late ‘90s, it has enjoyed a cult following in the creative community. So rare are physical copies of River of Stories that fans travel to Sen’s People Tree store in New Delhi to photocopy one of the surviving editions.

River of Stories Creator Orijit Sen (Photo Credit: Orijit Sen / Instagram)

However, a recent resurgence in interest in the novel prompted Sen to finally bring it back into publication. A new edition is set to be launched in December 2020, a year after the novel marked its 25th anniversary.

Black and white, completely hand-lettered and only 62 pages long, River of Stories draws from the lore of the indigenous people (adivasi) who have inhabited the banks of the river Narmada for hundreds of years.

It tells the primordial story of the river’s origin and juxtaposes it with events taking place in the contemporary world that threatened its existence. 

Panel from River of Stories (Photo Credit: Orijit Sen/Scribd)

Sen, a professional designer and cartoonist, was on the ground during the Narmada Andolan in the early ‘90s. He participated in the protests as an artist and activist, and witnessed firsthand the plight of the communities living under the Damocles sword of displacement. River of Stories documents not only Sen’s experiences but also preserves the oral traditions and mythology of a marginalized people. 

In the end, the Narmada Andolan failed to achieve its objectives. Huge swathes of land were deforested, thousands of indigenous people lost their homes and livelihood, an entire ecosystem was devastated.

The spanking new Sardar Sarovar Dam was inaugurated by the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in 2017 in a high-profile event, even as many displaced adivasis and farmers were waiting to be rehabilitated.  

Panel from River of Stories (Photo Credit: Orijit Sen/Scribd)

River of Stories is not just a clever socio-political commentary delivered through an aesthetic medium. Rather, it is “a historical document that represents a crucial moment in time in the Narmada Andolan,” said Sen.

Fans of Sen’s work will be pleased to know that the outspoken and provocative artist is currently working on his next graphic novel. Titled Gokulnagar, Sen describes the story thus: 

“A community of sex workers in a red-light area called Gokulnagar in Maharashtra, who fought to establish their right to practice their profession with dignity, and have now become a force to be reckoned with.”

Panel from Gokulnagar (Photo Credit: Orijit Sen/Instagram)

Today, the themes and issues that River of Stories delved into are more relevant than ever. In March 2020, the Indian government proposed a new draft of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification.

Under the guise of “easing business norms”, it essentially undermines environmental rights by exempting several heavy industries from the EIA procedure. It seeks to dilute the stringency of regulatory processes and reduce punitive action for violations.

What’s more, it makes no mention of climate change and related considerations.

One would think that the powers that be would heed the warning signs, particularly after India ranked 168th out of 180 countries in the Environment Performance Index of 2020. Clearly, an unambiguous and effective EIA is the need of the hour.

The draft EIA has been opposed by environmental activists for the irreversible damage it could do by giving a free pass to industrial and development projects in the country. But instead of working on the many shortcomings of the draft, the government is doubling down on dissent. 

Days after youth activist group Fridays for Future India kicked off a virtual campaign for people to send their concerns regarding the draft EIA to the Union Minister for Environment, their website was blocked. The reason cited by law enforcement authorities was that the content of the website is “objectionable” and “dangerous” to the peace and sovereignty of India.

Panel from River of Stories (Photo Credit: Orijit Sen/Scribd)

In similar moves, the web domains of environmental groups Let India Breathe and There Is No Earth B were made inaccessible. These groups had been campaigning against the EIA notification. Their websites have since been restored.

The current discourse surrounding EIA echoes the concerns raised by River of Stories – sustainability or development, the two dichotomous halves of a whole.

Every year, several states in India’s northeast and south are devastated by floods. In the fall and winter months, the nation’s capital is unable to breathe because of poor AQI (Air Quality Index) and smog.

Drought plays havoc with the lives of millions of farmers, who make up 70 percent of India’s rural population. The government can no longer afford to pay only lip service to its sustainable development goals.