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.
It was a 23-hour journey from Mumbai to Kanpur, the first step of our journey. We were on board the Lokmanyatilak Terminus Gorakhpur Superfast Express, which, despite its name, averaged only 60 km per hour. Weak winter sunlight brightened the dim compartment.
We reached Kanpur, a busy, dusty city, by mid-morning on January 6th, 2019. Our stomachs were growling, and we quickly spotted a dhaba – a small restaurant near the train station that served paneer (cottage cheese) and aloo parathas (Indian bread infused with potatoes). Accompanied with a few cups of tea, we feasted. We did not know when our next meal would be. We also did not know when we would find the next bathroom, so we made do the best we could with the facilities at the railway station.
Our next task was to reach Hamirpur, a town 60 km away at the confluence of the Betwa and Yamuna rivers, where we were to start our walk along the Betwa. We took a rickshaw through noisy streets to the bus station, a dusty enclosure humming with the sound of engines and seeped in the smell of diesel.
Men standing idly next to roadside stalls directed us towards an old, rickety bus that would take us to Hamirpur. The driver, when questioned, did not give us a departure time: “This is a low-income bus,” he elaborated, “and we only leave when the seats are full”. However, the wait was not too long, and after an hour we were on our way.
The bus was missing a few key components. Instead of a handbrake there was a red cloth ball attached to a wire. Whenever the driver wanted to stop, he yanked at it violently until the bus rolled to a halt. Passengers kept boarding, stop after stop, and soon we were a mass of people: crouching, standing, and sitting, all trembling violently along with the movements of the bus.
It was clear we were moving towards the more rural areas of the state. Massive pipes and excavators by the side of the road gave way to fields of bright yellow mustard flowers. Just like every horizontal surface on the bus, the leaves of the roadside trees were coated in dust. We inched along behind a line of trucks that stretched on for kilometres. Below us, small fishing boats floated gently on the green waters of the Yamuna River.
The bus dropped us off at Hamirpur, and, not sure about which direction to take, we started walking towards the river. At some point we realized that we had forgotten to buy toilet paper, and, unwilling to envision the upcoming two weeks without it, doubled back to find a shop that sold some. The hunt was much harder than we had expected, and after visiting five medical shops, we walked away with some tissue paper that felt like plastic.
When we finally made it to the river, we were surprised to see dozens of identical mounds of sand, each four or five feet high, sitting on the banks. This would be our first, and safest, encounter with sand mining on the trip. There was a buzz of movement from the women and children sitting on boats floating on the river, hauling up sand, and the men that packed the sand into piles. Some men stopped to watch us as we made our way to them, and we asked them a few questions.
“We leave these mounds of sand by the banks,” one of the men said, “and people come at night and take them. Each mound fetches us Rs 600 (approximately $8).” We learned that dozens of families were employed in this business, and they did it year-round, even during the monsoon. After all, he said, what other work was there for them to do? While the adults dredged sand, some of their children played games with marbles nearby.
We continued walking towards the closest village, Badanpur. The river was quite narrow here and fairly stagnant. Along the banks were rows of fields, where farmers had grown vegetables and mustard crop. We passed packs of horses and a few isolated buffalo. Once or twice, we spotted blurred figures moving in the distance. The most striking thing we encountered were the many areas that had been mined for sand. Now abandoned, they looked like foundations of stalled construction sites.
Closing in on Badanpur, we started walking away from the riverbank. The village abutted a main road that led to a forestry office, which we decided to head towards. Perhaps we could ask for some food, we thought. The sky was darkening and we were growing hungry. At the last turn of the road, we stumbled onto what seemed to be a magical sight: a feast. Right outside the forestry office, around two-dozen men were seated on long, foldable tables, enjoying pooris (fried wheat bread), aloo ki subzi (potato curry), salad, and boondi (a chickpea based Indian dessert).
As we approached, everyone’s heads turned towards us in unison, curiosity plain on their faces. We must have looked a sight: obvious outsiders, dressed in crumpled, dusty clothes, our hair a mess, carrying huge backpacks. Even then, the group immediately invited us to join them at the table. It seemed to us that the old Sanskrit saying ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (the guest is equal to God) held true.
From what we gathered, the feast was being held as part of Shiv Jayanti celebrations. We were too tired and too full, having stuffed ourselves yet again, to inquire much further. Yet, with darkness fast approaching, and no other feasible accommodation in sight, we wondered if we could find out who was in charge and convince him to let us stay the night. We asked the person we had been chatting with if we could speak to the divisional forest officer (DFO).
We were taken to the DFO’s front courtyard. We sat on the plastic chairs we had been given, and looked around. The house, built in typical government style, had wooden walls of peeling blue paint. The paved courtyard sparingly accommodated some plants and shrubs on its perimeter, while larger trees stood at a distance. The DFO soon emerged from his office, mustached and stout, and sat down with us.
The conversation began with us introducing ourselves and was then followed by a general discussion of Bundelkhand. We talked about the river and the water crisis in the area. “There is a problem with rains here,” the DFO said. “Either there is no rain or there is a deluge. We need steady rain for three months, but that has not happened for the last couple of years. Building borewells for water is very expensive because the groundwater level is very low.” He was of the opinion that the solution to the problem lay in building several small dams and water catchments that would store water in times of water scarcity. This seemed to depart from the general government approach of addressing water problems with large hydro projects.
The unreliability of water contributed heavily to the agrarian crisis in the region, the DFO said. He also mentioned another huge problem in the region: wild cattle. Thousands of cows roam the region, moving from one farm to another, looking for something to eat. They destroy huge swathes of crops in the nightly rampages. Farmers build small bunds around their farms and rope them off with wires, but even that is not enough to stop them.
After an hour or so of chatting, we asked the DFO if it would be possible to stay the night in one of the buildings at the forestry office. The DFO readily agreed and asked a subordinate to show us to our rooms. The exhaustion on our faces must have been evident. The rooms we stayed in were quite large and fairly clean, and we were pleased with our situation. Finding stay for our first night could not have been easier, and we hoped our luck would hold out.
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 Sunday. 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.