Moving Upstream: Betwa – Her people and their stories

Meeting the River

‘Day 1, 11 January: It’s 1 pm and we get our first sighting of the river. We have finally reached the banks of the Betwa. The sun is high in the sky, making its presence felt and the air smells like an afternoon meant for a siesta. We pause and rehydrate ourselves. The river looks a scintillating blue beneath the afternoon sun. We meet several people along the way – village women brooming their courtyards, farmers pausing from their day-long work, herdsmen tending to their animals, youngsters sitting beneath the shade of trees and chatting lazily.’

En route to Dhasan-Betwa Confluence
En route to Dhasan-Betwa Confluence

My notebook, scrawled with observations and anecdotes from the field, has been worn soft by the journey. Scratches of sand and charcoal illuminate some of its corners, Amrita Pritam, a poet, resting on its blood red cover with a pen in her hand, writing about Waris Shah and the tragedy of partition – ‘Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nuu / Kiton Qabraan Wichon Bol / Tey Ajj Kitaab-e-Ishq Daa / Koi Agla Warka Phol’.

‘3.47 pm: Lunch break now. We have halted at a farmer’s hut in his fields, a little away from the river, but very much by its banks. Muskmelon, watermelon, cucumber and mustard fields. Rajbahadur ji, also a farmer, tells us a story of Lord Rama. Rama walked the same route we are following now, he says.’

I do not know about this story of Rama and the journey he took or why. Popular stories often have disputed origins. Then they linger, travel and transform, changing shapes along the way. Stories have a way of attaining a life larger than truth itself. Rivers too, flow similarly; they change course when they deem it right. Sweeping away villages, houses, livestock, people, memories. Rivers have a way of attaining a shape larger than life itself.

I remember the tea Rajbahadur ji made for us. Tea before a meal, always – that must be Bundelkhand’s covert rule. With raw milk and generous doses of sugar. It keeps them going from field to field at night, keeping them alert while they fend off the troublesome nilgais and abandoned cattle that attack the crops and ruin them. It also fuels storytelling, especially in the winters when the weather allows one to sit, to pause, to reflect and remember. “How terribly hot Bundelkhand becomes in the summers!” he tells us, when we mention about the afternoon heat. “But the melons are ripe by then, and you can smell their sweetness everywhere.” I was seriously craving for a bite of Bundelkhand’s headily sweet musk melon.

We talk about the river. We talk about our journey. “Humko laga aap bhatak gaye honge. Raaste se hoke bus pakadke aramse se nikal ja sakte hain” (I thought you must have lost your way. You could have gone to the main road and easily taken a bus to reach your destination)

“Nahi, hume nadi nadi hi chalna hain” (No, we will walk along the river).

The farmers chuckled in response.

When asked about the Betwa and the memories they hold of the river from their yesteryears, they told us that not much has changed in the quality of the water in the river, but the jungle has rapidly disappeared. They spoke with a certain sense of nostalgia about the big animals that roamed the jungles when they were young, keeping their livestock in danger. “We had to be alert all the time to keep them safe. Not anymore.”

The Yellow of North Indian winters: Lunch spot on Day 1
Sand Mining and Deforestation: The River Changes

Bundelkhand has a dry and arid topography that makes the summers unbearably hot. Rapid deforestation has robbed the area of its green covers and brought down the density of its jungles. It has not only affected the wildlife population, chasing away ‘large animals’ like cheetahs, lions, and bears. The large-scale felling of trees has also resulted in down sliding of the soil cover, increasing the occurrence of flash floods. Not to mention that the sudden release of waters by the numerous dams and barrages add to the problem. The phenomenon of flash floods and erosion explains the frequent presence of ravines in the area. The pattern of rainfall has also changed over the years, and with it the nature of the river as well as the lifestyle of the people.

Deforestation coupled with persistent sand mining have systematically ruined the biodiversity of the river and altered the landscape. Globally, India ranks second after China in using sand for construction purposes, fuelled by the growth of our metros and the migrants they attract every year. Done unsustainably, sand mining is killing the health of the rivers.

While passing through Sikri on the second day of our walk, we arrived at an operational sand quarry. We were hungry and their tents seemed inviting, but we had to be careful. Borrowing a few tomatoes from the miner’s reserves, we manage to cook a decent lunch.. My knowledge regarding sandmining had so far been based on what I had read; never having witnessed organised mining at this proximity. Most of the truck drivers were young boys who had probably dropped out of school to earn a livelihood, a source of income in a region where neither education nor employment opportunities arrive (“at least it pays regularly”, one guy had said).

The sand feeds big construction activities that take place miles away, while the riverbanks deplete. The villagers get no portion of the resource, locals told us. Well-meaning villagers advised us to avoid the sandmining spots, to take detours and not get into trouble (“they are not to be trusted, they can get dangerous, and you have a woman in your team, be careful”). I was hesitatant about clicking pictures, but we still managed to get a few. The miners do not want to entertain journalists and the villagers we met were pretty clear about that. My partners silently packed even their binoculars, meant for bird watching, inside their bags.

Sand Mining Spot - Sikri
Sand Mining Spot - Sikri
The ‘Great Flood’ of 1983

When we talked about the river with people we met on the way, idled with or shared our meals with, I shared with them stories of the Brahmaputra, about my hometown and the flood-ravaged state of Assam. I spoke of the yearly ‘ritual’ of floods during the monsoons that have only gotten worse with time. I grew up hearing about the disastrous floods of 1988, when the river changed course, inundating houses, roads and everything in its way.

But my earliest memory of heavy floods was in 1998; our school, right on the banks of the river, was halfway under water. There was water up to the staircase of our rented home, the quite ordinary pond in the backyard now swollen and hungry, hyacinths strewn everywhere.

The Betwa too floods every year, although the villages are now safe from the onslaught of the water, having shifting to higher grounds post–1983. The older generations recount how the 1983 floods swept off villages by the banks and drowned everything; villages like Deori were completely submerged under water.

“Humara ek photo le lo, didi”. A farming couple at the fringes of Kahta, who spoke of how the village shifted from the riverbanks to higher grounds post–1983 floods.
“Humara ek photo le lo, didi”. A farming couple at the fringes of Kahta, who spoke of how the village shifted from the riverbanks to higher grounds post–1983 floods.

The people are unaware of the government’s proposal for a river interlinking project. Those who are, assume that it will prove beneficial and solve the problems related to drinking water scarcity and absence of electricity. There’s not much awareness about government-led initiatives or any initiative related to the river or ecology. Social sector interventions in the form of non-profits are also few and far in-between.

Vijay, of Ramnagar Gaon lamented about the condition of his village and the lack of awareness amongst the people. “It is as if everyone lives in a state of perpetual fear or unquestioning submission to the rules of the ‘big people’. The powerful ones come, loot the village resources, and leave.”

All of this was costing them dearly, “Ramnagar especially has been afflicted by severe cases of lung patients amongst those who work in the local stone crushing industry. Several have lost their lives. And it continues to happen every single day. The Betwa has very good quality sand and rocks… And all the powerful people are hungry to take all the resources. The workers of stone blasting do not live long. Some do not continue with the medication. There are not enough options for treatment too. But does anyone stand up to the injustice? No! Our village people consider it as their fate. There is no unity, to organise and mobilise.”

Vijay added, “We will lose the river one day, just like that, because of this endless greed. It is sad but most of all, it’s frustrating.”

What found no mention here was the absence of government intervention. It is the state’s responsibility to regulate & monitor these industries. While the state abdicates its duties, people & the environment continue to be exploited – whether aware or not.

“My son and daughter can swim the Betwa one end to the other even when it is at its fiercest best during the monsoons”, said Komal bhaiyya
Navigating through Inaccessible Landscapes

On the walk, I consistently felt conscious about navigating the landscape as a woman. The outside world is dominated by male presence, hence I invited more curious looks than my male walking partners. Although the fact remains that three people with backpacks on a ‘nadi yatra’ (pilgrimage by the river) was in itself amusing enough for most, even on an uneventful day. Some were visibly impressed. Isn’t spiritual piety understood to be an endangered commodity amongst urban-bred millennials?

I also found myself naturally gravitating towards women and their narratives, chalking out time whenever we rested during the day or at night to interact with the women of the households, or whom we met on the way. I enjoyed sitting with the women as they carried out daily chores – their presence mostly confined to the kitchens – talking about everyday affairs, schooling, education, domestic responsibilities, the weather, the river.

It was the season of harvest and Makar Sankranti – the festival of harvest – celebrated in most parts of India with great pomp and splendour, fell on one of the days during the walk. “It is the only time the entire village visits the river and we take our ritual bath early in the morning”, Kranti didi of Ramnagar village recounted. “In the past, the river used to be full of muggers and gharials, but they are no longer there. We had to be careful when we visited the river as children. Even then, we had a closer relationship with the Betwa. Nowadays we do not spend as much time by the river”.

Kranti didi also mentioned the rowdiness of local boys; she does not let her daughter spend much time outside alone. She was clear that she wouldn’t send her daughter to school after the VIII standard. Higher Secondary education would require the young one to travel out of the village to attend classes. “It isn’t safe for girls out there… So girls in here cannot pursue studies after the VII or VIII standard. If the village had a higher secondary school, then my daughter could have also finished her XI–XII standard”, she said. Kranti didi works as a construction labourer in New Delhi. She leaves for the city after the farming season to make both ends meets.  There are no opportunities of making money in the village.

Kranti didi preparing for her one-pot leafy vegetable dish for the day. “I like it in Delhi, even though the work is hard”, she said. “There are no opportunities in the village.”

I remember Karishma, the youngest daughter of the Pradhan (village headman) of Kamta Village, carrying an uncanny confidence in her gait. She was eager to show me her textbooks the whole time. After we finally wrapped up our dinner, she made her way to our room, eagerly showing me her writing, talking about her favourite subject (Hindi, because the teacher made the lessons very interesting), and even reciting a few poems.

I learned that there was frequent change of teachers in her school, which caused issues in completing the syllabi on time. “Our teachers do not explain the chapters”, she replied when I asked her some questions from the English textbook. The syllabi were definitely content-heavy but it seemed that the teaching was still stuck with the old trope of rote learning. Karishma’s elder sister travels 30 kilometres a day to attend school every day.

They girls and the women of the households perform an insurmountable amount of labour on a daily basis – their days starting as early as 4 in the morning with cleaning the courtyards, the house and the kitchen and preparing the morning meal before the girls set out for school. When I asked the older girls about their plans for higher studies, they replied meekly, “Girls in our village get married after completing the XII standard. No one studies after that. Only my tauji’s daughter studied in college. She even got her MA degree.”

“But I want to study”, Karishma had piped in. Hands in pocket, she had a confidence in her gait, and resolute eyes.

Karishma’s Hindi textbook featuring Mahasweta Devi’s story, ‘The Why-Why Girl’. I imagine a landscape where girls begin to ask more questions, every day.
Going ‘Slow Mo’

It is astonishing how slowing down brings things into notice, and perspective. The 10-day walk allowed a necessary pause from our otherwise fast-paced lives. Our pace determines the stories we tell as it affects the manner in which we record them. Walking inflates time. It took us a while to adjust ourselves to the rhythm we had set out on for the ten days by the river. But once we did, it brought out conversations on things that would have otherwise gone amiss in the daily buzz of things.

My walking partners, the avid bird-watchers that they were, took elaborate pauses to study the landscape and make lists of the birds they saw. I had no binoculars with me and failed to recognise the species or remember their names, but indulging in those moments of pause to try and see what they did so easily, opened my mind to noticing what I ordinarily do not. I saw them, the birds, without name tags though. But I saw.

It set me on my own string of thoughts. Do we as students, scholars, professionals and policy-makers fail to ‘see’ because the structures we have built around us offer no possibilities? To pause, reflect, listen, understand, and empathise? Is that where the gap lies? Between the privileged and the dispossessed, between the urban and the rural, this cerebral, but also physical and fundamental difference of how we relate with time and space?

For the village people of Bundelkhand who live close to the Betwa and depend on it for their survival, the trope of nostalgia of a superior ecological reality remains a constant. A lot of the elderly people, mostly farmers and herdsman we interacted with, recalled times in their adolescence when the jungles were thicker and there was no dearth of fruit-laden trees for the hungry shepherd resting beneath their shade for a quick siesta. “There are no more trees like that. Only the dakkhini (Prosopis Juliflora / Keekar) that has spread like wildfire and invaded our landscape, robbing our livestock of their food. No more muggers resting by the banks.” The changes they recall of the river is always, interestingly, through the landscape and the biodiversity. “The river is pretty much the same… It is as big and it is still as beautiful, and divine.”

Pausing to watch the sun shine red above us. Near the Erach dam.

Walking along the Betwa those ten days was full of revelations. I found warmth and welcome in the remotest of villages and the humblest of abodes. There was fire to warm our tired bodies, and tea and food served with big smiles and even bigger hearts. When you are going on foot, you access a much larger terrain of both landscape and humans.

The odds, of course, can be several: the ubiquitous dakkhini that has spread in Bundelkhand like an epidemic, the sudden change of terrain forcing us to quickly adapt our steps, and the chances of going astray when network fails to work.

But just like that, a shepherd would appear from across the horizon, insisting on leading the way till we felt at ease again. Or a farmer’s call from across the fields to come rest a bit while he filled up our water bottles. On Magh Bihu (Assamese name for Makar Sankranti), we cooked and shared a simple meal of rice and lentils at a farmer’s shed, quietly capturing the essence of the festival — of celebrating the people whose labour makes it possible for us to sustain ourselves. He served us sweets that are typical to Magh Bihu celebrations back home.

Walking slowly, I discovered stories that connect us.

Prerana is one of four fellows who went to walk the River Betwa, part of our first Moving Upstream fellowship in collaboration with Out of Eden Walk. Applications to our next round of fellowships is open till 10th September 2019, please click here to read and apply. To read more about our Moving Upstream project, click here.

This piece can be re-published (CC BY-NC-SA) with a line mentioning “This was originally published on Veditum” and a link back to this page.

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