Seeing, feeling and discovering River Betwa and its people

A bounteous monsoon in 2019 has made the Betwa fierce near Orccha even on this hazy winter’s day in December

There was trepidation and a sense of foreboding that usually grips the mind when venturing into the unknown. The first step seemed like a drop in the ocean of a journey that would stretch nearly 270km long.

On the train journey towards Bundelkhand, my loquacious co-passenger from Eastern UP had a word of advice for me when he heard I was going to walk across the region for 14 days and planned to stay with strangers through the journey. He believed that “meek” South Indians will be out-of-place in the badlands of UP.  “It is a poor, dangerous place,” says the co-passenger. “… Harghar mein bandook hain, har gaon mein daku (Every house has a gun, every village has a bandit).”

Nearly a week later, as the chill of the night set into our bones, we sat by a bonfire arranged for by locals at Kiswalwas village. Its flames shadow danced on the off-white coat of Raju the horse who is being prepared for a wedding baaraat. I ask 70-year-old Shivraj Singh about the bandits of Bundelkhand.

“There were dakus (bandits) here a long-time ago. I’ve seen them carrying big guns. But we were not scared. They would not harm villagers. They only went after rich landlords and politicians,” says the diminutive Shivraj.

Before the dams were constructed, the Betwa ebbed and flowed according to the monsoons: swelling to a river of some might during the rains and being a bare trickle between water-eroded boulders in winters and summers. The river could be crossed then on all months except the monsoons. “Bandits would steal from UP and run across the river towards MP which was away from the police jurisdiction. We’d see dozens of these dakus hold their rifles above the water level, while they swam towards the opposite bank,” says Shivraj.

These were tales from a distant past, and bandits had not been seen in decades in the villages along the Betwa. Perhaps, some day, Bundelkhand will shake off the reputation of being the playground of the Phoolan Devis and rifle-touting gangs.

Surely, Bundelkhand was not dangerous, I’d have reported to my train coach co-passenger. Poverty-stricken? Definitely, but perhaps we’ve to focus on why it is so.

A group of Seheriyas warm by a bonfire. The degradation of forests in the UP side forces them to traverse the Betwa daily to find forest produce on the MP side.

Underneath the placid surface

The Betwa is a line of blue flowing around boulders of white like a thread on a tapestry of green of wheat fields. We (I was walking with environmental field researcher Astha Choudhary) were just two mere dots in a landscape gilded by wintery haze.

Walking through long stretches of pervading silence, the mind rests and ruminates on the journey. There were acts of kindness almost every day – ranging from offers of tea and food at homes to people walking with us for hours to guide our way through forests to those who accepted us into their homes with freshly-cooked meals and comfortable cots. The landscape and its people often made you feel humbled and blessed, maybe akin to what the religious feel in their rituals of piety.

After nearly a week, circumstances saw me walk alone through the region. In this era of Whatsapp-fuelled rumours of child trafficking and “illegal immigrants”, I feared I’d be asked to leave villagers when I’d seek a place to stay. Within a day, the warmth of the people had allayed my doubts and concern.

The kindness is unrequited and our offers of paying for our stay were rejected (except when we stayed at temples for the night). “We (Bundelkhandis) may be poor, but we’re rich in our minds. (Bundelkhand toh dhan mein garib, par man main amir” is the commonly heard refrain.

But this is not to romanticize a region characterized by inequality and crushing poverty in equal measure. Bundelkhand’s garibi dictates life here.

In my research before the trip, I’d come across a haunting, dramatic poem (perhaps even exoticized by the colonial rulers) by Letitia Elizabeth Landon who describes a 1835 famine and a mother who’d kill her children for food.

Nearly two centuries on, the region has changed: dams, barrages, crisscrossing irrigation canals, handpumps and motors that lift waters from Betwa and its streams. The cultivation of wheat has brought about a sense of food security. Food famines may be a forgotten part of the region’s history, but poverty and its myriad tentacles have taken grip. There are almost no employment opportunities, while education levels are low. Very few profess a hope for a better future. Bundelkhand’s per capita income is half the national average, and while there is little employment apart from agriculture, the region is often the “worst place to be a farmer.”

Chandrabhan from Jarkhar village says the Betwa has flooded twice this year and he has lost his entire Urad and Soya crop. Frequent flooding of the river has washed away four inches of top soil in the past decade and weakened his crop yield. He blames soil erosion and flooding on sudden releases of water from upstream barrages and dams.

Why is Bundelkhand poor?

River Betwa was our constant companion through 14 days, guiding our daily plans and leading us through wheat fields, denuded hillocks and degrading forests. The monsoons of 2019 had been bounteous, and the river – wherever it broke free from its shackles of dams – flowed with the spirit of someone rushing towards freedom.

Across villages, farmers had lost their monsoons crop of Urad and Soyabean, but hoped for an abundant wheat harvest. Others still waited for reservoir waters, which had risen by 1m additionally compared to previous years, to recede so that they can grow wheat on their submerged land.

In drought or flood, Betwa shapes the lives in this region. Betwa is one of the two main arteries that pumped life into Bundelkhand. Betwa’s fate is their fate.

Both the river and its region cling on to faded glory: Bundelkhand and the Bundela kings who built grand monuments that attracts thousands of tourists; while, Betwa bears remnants of once verdant forests that were home to hundreds of species, including tigers, leopards and swamp deer that seem to have disappeared now.

The Betwa was dammed to follow the command of man. While canals irrigated swathes of agricultural land, farmers replaced crops: replacing low-profit, but rain-fed Jowar (Sorghum) and Makka (Maize) with high-profit, water-intensive wheat and Soyabean. However, the new crops need much more water which the drought-prone Betwa valley could not provide.

Betwa lost its forest, and its water; and in revenge, it exacts greater amounts of soil and top soils from fields each year. The turbulence of the monsoon sees dams force open their gates lest they be overwhelmed by the river. This water gushes down, breaching its banks and taking away soil, crop and house.

But such is the delicate dance of agriculture and rivers across the country. What makes Bundelkhand in particular so poor?

I try to compare with backward regions in South India, where drought and lack of water drove poverty and broke the agrarian economy built on rain-fed crops. Water tables have plummeted to over 1,000 feet and drinking water is a daily struggle. But this part of Bundelkhand had water, and even arid villages had borewells that found water at 200-feet depth.

“It is all because of the Chandelas and Bundelas kings. They looted from us,” says 76-year-old Balachandra at Earo village. After all, it was after their grip loosened that gifts of modern science started reaching his village: handpumps that get water into homes; irrigation canals that brought in wheat and soyabean. “The kings had their aristocrats, while the rest were just poor labour to be worked like cattle,” he says.

Further upstream, at Ranchorji Dham temple near the UP-MP border, wedding preparations had consumed the quiet of the river bank. In their seemingly-never-ending wait for the baarat to arrive, the crowd had started the party: alcohol was sipped on the sly and marijuana smoked in the furtive night.

Raju Sharma, a truck driver who has spent more than 12 years driving across South India, decided to be my guide through this crowd. I ask him what made Bundelkhand’s poverty different from the regions he had travelled to. “Bundelkhand is backward because of caste. Moneyed and landed castes gang up to ensure no other caste can come up. They ensure that they get a steady labour supply borne out of poverty in the region and aren’t worried about factories or development or government schemes,” he says.

Above is an interactive map that allows you to navigate through our walking path, looking at various interactions on the field. Click on ‘Start Exploring’ within the frame to get started.

Caste as a lived reality

For those in nondescript villages along the Betwa, we’d perhaps look like strange creatures who’d fled from a faraway circus. Two tired souls lugging heavy backpacks in T-Shirts and shoes attracted a particular look of curiosity. I’d seen this look in tourist places when locals spot Caucasian foreigners.

Groups would turn synchronously towards us, vehicles would screech to a halt, shepherds would abandon their flock, and those sitting idle or playing cards would suddenly rise and head towards us. The “influential” in the village – usually, a sarpanch or a former sarpanch – would beckon us or send their associate/emissary to call for us. In villages, invariably, a large group would surround us with a bevy of queries. Conversations took on a familiar form:

  • “Where are you going?” (or, its variation, “Are you selling something?”, perhaps as a reference to our bags)
  • Nangte Nangte?” or “Paidal hi paidal?” (by walk, or, literally, bare feet, bare feet)?”
  • “Is it for the government?”, immediately followed by a look of disappointment.
  • “If it is for a private company, you must be getting paid a lot for it?”, immediately followed by incredulity and repeated questions of what our “benefit” was.
  • “What do you do for lunch and stay?” immediately followed by an agreement that Bundelkhandi culture was one steeped in hospitality.
  • And if the conversation continued beyond this, the invariable question was: “Aap kaun se Biradari se ho?” (Which caste do you belong to).

I’d expected to be asked about caste based on the experience of reporters and others travelling in parts of rural North India. But the frequency of the question took me aback. Often, I’d make up caste names in Kannada, leaving them in even more confusion. Some would attempt to resolve this by asking if I was “General or reservation caste”.

It became fairly obvious who asked questions of caste. Brahmins, Thakurs and other forward castes, as well as Yadav landlords usually posed the question fairly quickly. If caste wasn’t mentioned through the conversation, it usually meant we were talking to someone from the dalit or Adivasi communities.

“For the upper castes, their behavior towards you depend on which caste you are. We are so low in this ladder that it doesn’t matter which community you come from. We extend the same kindness to all,” says Lalla Raja, from the Scheduled Caste Ahirwar community who had walked with us for two hours out of fear that we’d lose our way in the denuded forests near his village.

Many narrate stories of discrimination: the pressure to remove dalit mid-day meal workers; a persistent ban on entry of certain castes into a few temples; separate drinking water wells; or, village-level health workers who refused to come into lower caste homes; and, political powerlessness. Things had improved over generations, but fissures of caste were clear.

At one Yadav house where we halted for the night, we were given food in separate vessels and plates because we had talked to a person from a Scheduled Caste community before coming to their house.

Caste is also of an implicit nature, inherent in the ethos of the place. Like many places in India, villages are segregated into mohallas based on castes. Dalit and adivasi houses were more likely to be out of the village or in the fringes.

Lalla Raja (left); Brijban (second from right); Dashrath (right) - While caste-based discrimination persists on a day-on-day basis with separate vessels being offered to them or barring of entry to certain temples or opposition to appointment of a Bahujan cook at the village anganwadi. Without land as their safety net, Brijban is forced to migrate to far-off Gujarat to earn a living during non-sowing seasons.

More-often-than-not, even groups we met were striated by caste. Groups of villagers who would seek us out when we passed through villages would uniformly be of one caste: Yadavs or Lodhis or Thakurs. In the patchwork of wet wheat fields along the banks of the Betwa, we’d encounter more persons from socio-economically backward communities than from forward communities. The labour force were primarily Sahariya (ST), Ahirwars (SC) and Kushwahas (OBC).

At Karonda village, Braj Lal from the Ahirwar community says: “These landholding castes keep us poor. They have all the land, we don’t. They keep us poor so that we are forced to work on their fields. Otherwise, where will they get their labour from?”

Land does seem to play a key role. On average, those from lower castes say they own between 2-5 acre of land. For some Yadavs and Thakurs, it is between 40-500 acres of land.

This inter-play of money and caste spills over to politics. In many villages, Sarpanches are elected on caste, and the general perception is that work is sanctioned according to caste lines. Even in villages where the village head has been elected under a reservation quota, the belief is that the winning candidate works for the landed castes whose approval is necessary to even contest.

“The dalits and adivasis are only “poor” for the political system,” says Challi Raja Yadav, the de-facto Sarpanch of Khanjiya village (his wife is the Sarpanch, but he calls the shots). “They are not too poor to drink alcohol daily or eat chicken. But they are too poor to pay for anything and expect everything for free,” he says with some derision. He owns over 350 acre of land, and the labour are primarily Dalits in the village who are paid Rs. 200 for a day’s wage – which is significantly lower than Madhya Pradesh’s prescribed minimum wage.

Without the back-up of land, many from the backward castes have no choice but to migrate during the summers when the Betwa shrank in size and fields lay fallow. It is an observation, with the caveat that exceptions to the rule do exist, that the landed castes usually spent the summers in their villages – doing “timepass” or “playing cards” as many say – while the lower castes seek daily-wage jobs in factories or fields in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Bhopal. “If you have land, you can afford to sit in the house during summers. They (landed castes) get enough money during the harvest to wait out for a whole season. We can barely make a living during harvest and have to leave our families behind and work in cities,” says Manoj Kumar, from the Sahariya tribal community at Bhagaroopa village.

This migration into the unknown comes with its cost: bondedness and exploitation. When Sujan, a Sahariya at Dhoujiri village, was 15 years old, an agent had promised him Rs. 9,000 a month if he worked in a factory in Gujarat. On arriving there, he was confined, beaten and forced to work from dawn to dusk. The promised money had not come, and five from his village fled the factory in the cover of darkness.

Interestingly, I’d find the forward castes look at the city with some fear and are quick with a tale of their friend’s friend who had terrible experiences there, while the well-traveled dalits and adivasis would find stories of affection about urban centres. “I like the city,” says Bhojbal at Bigha village. “In the city, we can enter any restaurant and no one asks us about our caste.”

A cattle conundrum

Our Bundelkhand journey had started in Orccha, a historic center of the Bundela kings. On this particular day, the town brimmed with activity as tens of thousands of pilgrims had arrived to celebrate the marriage of Ram Lalla. The town is cloaked in motifs of Ram, a precursors to the beliefs that would set the stage for the walk: greeting villagers with “Ram Ram”, only to be greeted back with “Jai Shri Ram” or “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram” as if in an escalating contest; or, sleeping in temples amid the sound of 24 hour Ram Bhajans; or, being woken up at 4 a.m. by the sound of travelling bhajan singers. Phrases from Ramayan would greet us in many villages. There is a belief that faith in the tenets of practiced Hinduism seemed to have strengthened recently.

An example of this is the attitude towards cow slaughter. Cow slaughter was banned five years ago in UP and MP, and villages, fields and forests are overrun with abandoned cattle. The dark of the night is often punctured with torch lights shone by farmers who are forced to sleep in their fields. Crop losses were mounting, but universally, people supported the ban. “Killing cows is against Hindu belief, after all,” they would say. One believed that God created the hard-to-catch Nilgai to raid crops of those who taunted and drove away slow-moving cows.

Ironically, death for the cow now came not by the blade, but by apathy and choice. Just a handful of farmers continued to keep cows. The rest have abandoned their cows and rear buffaloes instead. These give better yield and can be sold to abattoirs.

It is a deepening sense of religious identity that also spurs their regional identity. Bundelkhand, they believe, is where Ram spent considerable time during his exile, where Krishna fought the demon Kala Yaman, and where saint Siddhan Baba was granted a boon by the gods.

For many, the importance of Bundelkhand has faded since its absorption into the administrative boundaries of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Bundelkhand’s place in history will return when it is declared as a separate state – a promise that is forgotten in the intervening time between elections. It is easy to see why they’d believe a Bundelkhand state headquartered at Jhansi will bring in prosperity when compared to being governed by those in Lucknow or Bhopal.

The government is conspicuous by its absence here. I speak only from experience of reporting from “backward districts” of South India. In Bundelkhand, there are no milk procurement centres; nor, are there rural agricultural outreach centres. Cooperative banks and private enterprises were unseen. Schools were few and far between, and high schools virtually non-existent, while just one dilapidated primary health care centre was spotted in the 270km walk.

Swatch Bharat toilets pepper the landscape, some unused and dilapidated, while gas cylinders provided by the Centre are scarcely used. In 14 days there, I was able to access a Swatch Bharat toilet just once; while, no family we stayed with used a gas cylinder to cook.

Prahalad Singh (background) and Ritu Raj (foreground) stand by a newly erected concertina fence at Garholi village. The fences are being put to deal with increasing crop raiding by nilgai and stray cattle.

Seeing and Feeling

I’d taken the fellowship to travel to the region that often featured in descriptions of agrarian distress. Walking for 14 days also gave time to practice slow journalism.

I’d always had an interest in rural reporting, but the reporting was done through the time-tested way: identify a story lead or theme, hire a vehicle, spend time in the village where one fine tunes hunches and preconceived ideas about the story, and once satisfied with the quotes obtained, return to a hotel in the nearest city.

In slow journalism, however, one doesn’t approach a story. The story approaches you. People and places that would’ve zipped by sitting in a car are instead studied and observed. Rambling conversations with villagers lead to a hint of an issue or an observation that then becomes the ice-breaker with the next villager. The nature of conversations change as one spends time with villagers: beginning with our prepared questions, and by the time we huddle by a campfire, which in equal measures held back the winter’s cold as well as filled our lungs with soot, we talked about family, children, culture and identity that reveals a side of agrarian distress or caste or village life that seldom finds space in newspaper daily reporting.

The seemingly infinite time of the long journey allows one to truly “see”, “smell” and “feel.”

The first sunset of the trip was besides the Betwa at Orccha: a fair amount of water, but the river seemed small and rocky. I must confess, I felt a tinge of disappointment by the river itself – an irrational belief that the river which would dominate our plans must somehow provide us with sights of grandeur. In hindsight, that thought was perhaps a remnant of impatience that accompanied previous reporting trips.

The final sunset was a scramble to the steep banks of Padoccha where the Bina and Betwa converge without much fuss. The yellow sun had disappeared, and crimson hues painted the sky. The river was narrower than it was in Orccha, but its distinctive rocks were absent. Betwa flowed like a silk shawl. The winter’s nip made the air feel fresh.  Lilac shadows of the night darkened, but I felt I needed more time by the Betwa. I wanted to etch the scene in my memory, reserve it for posterity because I feared I’d forget its inherent beauty.

The Betwa provides moments of incredible beauty and spaces for self—reflection. It is only by walking along it can one appreciate the river that finds no space in national narratives

Mohit is one of four fellows who went to walk the River Betwa, part of our second Moving Upstream fellowship in collaboration with Out of Eden Walk. To read more about our Moving Upstream project, click here. Mohit tweets at @mohitmrao

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One reply on “Seeing, feeling and discovering River Betwa and its people

  • Siddhant

    A fantastic personal essay. Very sensitive, and observant. However, a bit short.
    In the grad school, we travelled to tribal regions in Odisha for 15 days. The piece I wrote later shared a similar character. I guess the raw appeal of a distant land and unfamiliar communities draw similar emotions in a zealous traveller, out to absorb whatever bits come his way.

    Reply

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