Open wells and society:
The well has been celebrated as a place for social interactions, encouraging people to share their daily lives with each other while they draw water. At times, a sight of relief for the farmer who has toiled hard or the traveller who has covered great distance, and also an assurance in times of emergency as a reliable water supply system. While walking thousands of kilometres along the river Ganga for Veditum’s Moving Upstream project, I hardly found functional wells except for a few blessed localities that had still preserved this age old culture. These were villages that still had alternatives between drinking fluoride/iron affected hand pump water and buying cooled jars of water that promised to be clean. This story is about Semara village in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh where I encountered a rather strange kind of well, with water on the outside.
As a general point regarding the walk, recommendations wouldn’t stop once people learnt that the focus of the walk was on stories of the Ganga and people living near the river. All through my first day of walking in Uttar Pradesh, people kept mentioning that I should visit this village that was facing heavy erosion and had a rather strange looking well (supposed to be the highlight of my visit). I spent the first night on the porch of a shop by the side of the highway, giving me the opportunity to take off early morning for the walk ahead. It was a festival and morning hours saw hundreds of women making their way to shrines of Lord Shiva, carrying utensils full of water from the Ganga. I did not inquire much but simply enjoyed the presence of fellow walkers, often overhearing conversations and giggles attributed to my presence.
After being offered tea on a roadside stall run by an old uncle and assisted by his grandson (On account of his holiday at school – Independence Day). They didn’t let me pay, even serving tea to me in their personal steel glasses when I refused to accept the plastic cups being offered. By the time only the last sip of tea remained, the request to visit and highlight the condition of Semara had come up again, a story supposedly not told in the mainstream media since the erosion started in 1996-97.
The highway is dotted with temporary camps of environmental refugees, and the stench & visuals of early morning defecation by the side of the road was extremely disturbing. How children are supposed to grow up without getting infected in such surroundings is anyone’s guess. About 5kms away from the highway next to the river, families are temporarily residing at the local primary school inside the village. There were a few plastic banners placed near the school in the village that read “Flood Relief Camp”, but looking at the situation it didn’t seem like any official had visited in a long time.
Once conversations with the villagers initiated, they insisted I visit the river bank with them while they slowly narrated the story of their land loss. The village used to stretch out a few hundred metres from the current banks, they said, and now more than 500 residents of this village (about 100 families) were living temporary lives, waiting for help. Out there, in the middle of the river stood an open well showing about 10 feet of it’s total 50 feet that now lay bare (in the summer). In their attempts to gain attention of their assembly and parliamentary leaders, they have often written letters and reached out to the executive directly, barely yielding any result.
‘After years of trying to avail help, in 2002 it arrived in the form of Shri C.P. Thakur of the Bharatiya Janata Party who in his capacity as Union Cabinet Minister of Water Resources made available a package of INR 121 crore for the construction of embankments. What happened next is not much of a surprise, with 3 of the 6 barriers that were built getting washed away in the first rains. The elders had warned against the design of the barriers, but when has public engineering in our country ever taken into consideration the opinions of the locals.’(More citation required) .
In recent times, a new embankment had been made, of gunny bags filled with sand which were then covered with boulders. Locals claim heavy bureaucratic corruption in the implementation of this scheme as well, the results of which they say is visible in this embankments losing it’s strength within a couple of years of construction. Similar questions arise, why would you build an embankment during the monsoons? Now there’s no record of how much material was actually used. The holes in the wall are quite clearly visible today.
The villagers in their protest had boycotted the 2014 Lok Sabha elections  after losing their trust in the false promises made to them for decades. Even the 2017 elections have passed and not much has changed for the villagers, still hanging on to dear life in the name of Goddess Ganga and hoping that she’ll change her mind and change her course. Rivers are known to change their course over long periods of time, but villagers speculate that the changes in the river course here have accelerated/initiated since the construction of the bridge over the Ganga, upstream at Ghazipur. River flow pattern over the past 32 years in graphic below, please toggle around to see changes. (Source: www.earthengine.google.com).
What lies ahead:
While their daily uncertain lives continued, the villagers did not lose a second in being hospitable and arranged for tea and snacks while i listened to their stories. It is in these discussions that they mentioned the possibility of one of the 15 proposed barrages under the National Waterways program on NW-1 (Varanasi – Haldia) being built at their village. The idea had been sold well to them, as a harbinger of opportunities and possibilities (much like in the case of Hydropower projects) and the villagers in their desperate situation had already submitted written notes of willingness to the local administration.
Recent news clippings also highlighted a letter sent by the villagers to Shri Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Highways and Shipping, requesting him to set up the terminal near their village. Similar to the stories that one comes across in case of Hydropower projects, if asked a question as to how would the river’s behaviour and local landscape change or what are the economic opportunities that the locals would be able to avail once (if at all) the terminal is built resulted only in blank responses.
The everyday struggle of the locals is the harsh reality of a river people who have been at the receiving end of dirty politics over the Ganga that has continued for decades now, with little chances of improvement visible in the near future. 3 years have passed since a new government came to power on promises of change and multiple river length journeys have supposedly been undertaken for surveys. It is funny that they should all miss the story of a village which has an open well standing in the middle of nowhere (especially in the dry season), as a monument of the monumental failure that we are as a society. Another question that remains to be asked: If at all the terminal is built after ignoring all advise that suggests against the idea, will their remain a river after that? 
Moving Upstream is our homegrown project, the first edition saw Siddharth Agarwal walking 2500kms along the Ganga from the sea to source. We are working to create a multifaceted experience revolving around the river. For more from the project visit: www.veditum.org/moving-upstream, and follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more frequent updates.
We’re working on expanding our work with Moving Upstream to other rivers of India, if you’re interested in collaborating as an individual (participant/artist/researcher) or as an organisation (partner/sponsor) please reach out to us. Should you wish to re-publish this article, please make sure that we’ve acknowledged. You can find us at: [email protected]