In late 2018, along with our partners Out of Eden Walk, we floated a call for applications to Veditum’s first Moving Upstream fellowship programme focussed on River Betwa. The objective – to walk along stretches of the Betwa and document the river and life around it. Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi were two of the four fellows selected for the program.
They started from Hamirpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, where the Betwa merges with the Yamuna. Then, they traveled onwards to Bandhouli, close to the confluence of the Betwa and Dhasan rivers. The entire journey, around 130 kilometers, was carried out on foot. Joshi and Singh depended on villages along the way for food and accommodation. This is the start to a series by them, of stories from the walk.
The Betwa originates in the Vindhya Range in Madhya Pradesh and flows in a northeast direction before veering east and joining the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. This river has notable historical significance as it passes through several important cultural sites, such as the Sanchi Stupa, built in the 3rd century BC, the cave temples of Udayagiri, and the Vishnu and Jain temples of Deogarh, Lalitpur, and Orchha, the last of which is a medieval town from the 16th century AD.
Much of the Betwa runs through Bundelkhand, a region that stretches from Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh. Bundelkhand is one of the poorest and most drought-prone areas in the country,  with a rapidly sinking ground water level and highly variable rainfall.  Many of its inhabitants practice agriculture, in addition to herding and fishing.
Besides its historical significance, the Betwa was chosen for the river walk because it is part of a controversial river-linking project. The Ken River in Uttar Pradesh, which the government has described as having a “surplus” of water, will be linked to the Betwa, which has a “deficiency” of water, through a 231 km canal and a series of dams, including a 77-meter high dam on the Ken. This would be the beginning of an astounding thirty-one river-linking projects planned throughout the country. 
One of the stated goals of this river linking project is to address the water shortages of Bundelkhand, where farmers often do not have enough water to irrigate their fields. In addition to the fact that Bundelkhand receives less rainfall than most other parts of India, it is not able to retain it. The water runs off the area’s rocky ground quickly, leaving it as dry as before. 
Other problems such as a growing population and the deforestation of forests lands that retain water have made the water shortage worse. A study by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) noted that Bundelkhand’s droughts are as man-made as naturally induced.  While climate change has led to a decrease in rainfall over the last few years, sand mining and other development activities have further dried up portions of the river. 
The necessity of the river-linking project has not been established successfully. Some experts in drought management believe that building multiple, smaller dams that aid in groundwater recharge is a better solution. Others propose using more sustainable drip irrigation methods instead of flooding whole fields to conserve water. For most of Bundelkhand’s history, people did not use river water for their irrigation purposes. Instead, they built thousands of smaller ponds and tanks to capture rainfall during the monsoon months. 
If it is carried out, the river-linking project will cause enormous environmental damage. Over 9000 hectares of land will be submerged, of which 6017 hectares is forest land. Much of this land is situated in the Panna Tiger Reserve where up to 23 lakh (2.3 million) mature trees will be destroyed. This will lead to a loss of breeding sites for wild animals, disconnection of wildlife corridors and the degradation of the area’s biodiversity. Dozens of villages will be destroyed, displacing thousands of people along both the Ken and Betwa rivers. 
Despite these reservations on the part of environmentalists and social activists, an indifferent government has carried on with its work. It promises the inhabitants of Bundelkhand that the river-linking project will help provide water in drought-prone areas and revitalize agriculture. Rather than promote small-scale and cost-effective solutions that collect, conserve, and utilize water more wisely, officials claim that this Rs. 18,000 crore (approximately $235 million) project is a one-stop solution to mitigating agrarian distress in Bundelkhand. 
Yet it seems that very few people are actually talking to the residents of the region. The maps that the government is using to design the river- linking project are at least two decades old. Most people in Bundelkhand are also generally unaware of the project and what it would entail. The few newspaper articles that exist on the topic rarely go beyond detailing the agrarian distress of the region and reporting on the government’s solution. It is difficult to find people’s voices, opinions, or hopes for the future.
Radhika Singh is a master’s student of urban planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has previously worked as a correspondent for The Indian Express in Mumbai and as a project manager at the research-advocacy organization INHAF in Ahmedabad. She’s interested in planning for sustainable development that protects the country’s fragile ecology and wealth of biodiversity. Her current research focuses on water resource management and land use planning after natural disasters.
“Weeks of preparation had led up to this journey. Until the day before the trip, I was in Bangkok, and Shail, my friend and travel companion, in Mumbai. We had been sending messages frantically to each other: How should we chart our journey? What route should we take? What should we pack? As two city-grown and city-softened students, we were embarking on a trip that neither of us felt fully prepared for.
As an urban planner, I was familiar with water systems and how they were managed in cities. However, I had not engaged much with rivers, which, in urban spaces, are often heavily polluted and generally uninviting. I wanted to learn more about the state of rivers in rural areas and the role they played in people’s lives. I was eager to know whether people thought that the controversial river-linking project would be beneficial to them.
I also liked the idea of walking as the primary mode of traveling. The gentle pace would allow us to slow down and observe our surroundings, as well as stop to talk with people on the way. It would be the best way to understand how people lived in Bundelkhand.
The fact that so little about our journey could be planned made me apprehensive, however. We didn’t know which villages we would be staying at. We didn’t know where we would get meals from. We didn’t know how dangerous the area was, and I didn’t know how I, as a woman, would be received. Yet there was much to be gained from the trip, and I was counting down the days until we could get on the train to Uttar Pradesh.”
Shail Joshi is a master’s student of urban planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a design architect by training and has worked on large scale, low to middle income housing projects in India. Informal settlements, WASH programs and disaster management are his current research topics at MIT. His interest lies at the intersection of water systems and disaster mitigation through policy making. He is a passionate street and portrait photographer whose works have been published in the City Observer and Harvard Design magazine.
“My preparation began much earlier than the commencement of the trip. In 2015, I had the opportunity to live in one of the villages of Uttar Pradesh and our selection for the river walk instantly brought back all the memories of that time.
Walking in an unknown setting engendered a sense of fear in my mind. I had not heard of Veditum or Paul Salopek’s ‘Out of Eden Walk’ until the time we applied. Reading their stories and seeing some of their short videos, I became more confident and informed about the reason for walking, slowing down and engaging with the communities.
I didn’t tell my family initially about this project because of the opposition I faced the last time I was in Uttar Pradesh. I was certain of the questions my parents would expect me to answer: Why do you have to go to a place like Uttar Pradesh? Why walk? Where will you stay and what will you eat?”. I didn’t have answers to many of those questions until the very last day.
Just days before the walk, I started listing everything that I would need if there was no electricity or no toilets or place to sleep at night. These apprehensions influenced my items in the backpack. A portable charger, sleeping bag, medicines, water bottle, torch, a small knife, and clothes that could be worn for days without washing. I was the most anxious while having breakfast, just a few hours before we were about to catch our train to Kanpur. But once we left, my anxiety reduced and we were soon in the train mapping the course of our journey.”
This article is part of a series, describing the journey and observations from the walk undertaken by Radhika Singh & Shail Joshi. New parts of the series will be published on www.veditum.org every Wednesday and Friday. Series editor: Rathnavel Pandian
This series is also available in a book format. Interested readers/book reviewers/publishers may write to [email protected] for access.