Tracing origins – Walking along the Ken

When heading out on an adventure like walking along a river, it is standard practice to look at satellite imagery (topographic map prints till very recently) of the area of interest to chart out an informed plan of action. In preparation of our walk along the River Ken, we decided to do the same but couldn’t access a reliable map of the river all the way from source to mouth.

Map of the Ken canal system at the Bariyarpur barrage.

We tried tracing the river on a map using satellite imagery for cues, moving upstream from an established point of identity – Chilla Ghat, the confluence of Ken with Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. However, this exercise proved difficult and led us astray multiple times, especially in the upper catchment area of the river. Only later, while walking along the river did we realise that this was because almost all of Ken’s tributaries have a larger discharge than the Ken itself. Our virtual search for the source of the Ken kept taking us to the source of it’s tributiaries in nearby hills.

Everyday conversations often miss out on the role of tributaries and groundwater as vital components of a river’s health. For example: when ministers make claims such as “We won’t allow any new dams to be built on the Ganga”, citing their supposed commitment to poll promises, citizens end up taking it at face value. However, this particular comment had re-appeared recently at a time when the government is trying to expedite the process for construction of multiple proposed dams in the Ganga basin. This includes the proposed Daudhan dam on the Ken, part of the proposed Ken Betwa River Inter Linking project.

The primary objective of our walk along the River Ken was to document and learn more about the basin, attempting to create a good baseline of information and stories for future studies. Our time on the walk when not making observations along the riverbanks, was spent in villages, immersed in discussions about the people and the river. We discussed old stories, traditions around water, agricultural practices, recent climate patterns, historical narratives and people’s aspirations.  However, when it came to discussions around the proposed Ken-Betwa project that is clearly going to have a direct bearing on riparian communities (if approved), the existent information gap on the topic in these villages was shocking.

In conversation with farmers at Govindpur village, Banda district.

Afternoon lunch breaks during the walk would sometimes mean a gathering of villagers, often largely male, sharing stories with us. While food was generously arranged for our walking party by the villagers, we would engage with them in discussions about the river during these breaks. For most such discussions, the very idea that a project of such scale had been proposed (and  was being rigorously pushed in political corridors), was alien to our friends. The medium of our walk, in many cases, ended up being the first messenger of this information. This is actually supposed to be the duty of the state as part of guidelines laid down for such projects, disseminating correct information to the last person. 

It is also worth mentioning at this stage that we did not choose these groups for discussions. Every afternoon was a random assembly of village folks at a different village, folks who were somehow present at the same location during our time of visit.

 A common observation during these discussions was that a few members actively responded to our questions about the River Inter Linking project, while others were largely curious and wanted to know more. The few who did seem to know anything at all, form a small group called ‘Sayane’, or the ‘smart ones’ in the village who kept themselves abreast with news and happenings through newspapers or visits to nearby towns villages. Even this group while aware of a proposed project were way off the mark when it came to details.

A board at the Bhusour gate of the Panna Tiger Reserve announcing the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project.

Some assumed that the irrigated land would be created in their village (since all that the few newspaper reports mentioned was that ‘Bundelkhand’ will receive x amount of irrigated land, when Bundelkhand is actually comprised of 13 districts between MP and UP). Others assumed that the flow of water would be in both directions (from the Ken to the Betwa and vice versa, according to availability of excess water in the rivers), which is clearly wrong, the plan is for one way transfer of water from Ken to Betwa and main objective is to take it outside Bundelkhand. While some others had the opinion that water was actually going to flow from the Betwa to the Ken, given their understanding of the volume of water in these rivers from their experience. All of these assumptions however, are untrue.

Most villagers speaking in context of the Ken Betwa River Interlinking Project expressed concern about the possible effect of the project on the river’s condition in the summer season. During the summer months, open wells dry up, handpumps and borewells refuse to function, and all other surface water seems to dry up too. Life in these areas stays hinged on the minimum amount of water that remains in the river. The pools of water on the riverbed act as a vital source of drinking water for villagers, and a place for cattle to cool off – an essential everyday activity. After agriculture, cattle rearing remains the second most common occupation in this area, which gives locals an additonal reason of concern. If the project takes the water away, it might be a death knell to their occupation of cattle rearing while also stressing upon their vital resource for drinking.

In these discussions, when someone mentioned ‘protection from disastrous floods’ through the project, it exposed us to a completely new aspect that we had not anticipated. Over a 100 years of living memory in these villages could name 1978, 1992 and 2005 as the major flood years. But they would also talk about how floods in recent years have often left them stranded on higher ground. The blame for the severity of recent floods according to locals fall on new bridges or others construction on the river. Whether that be the bridge over the Yamuna 18kms downstream of Pailani in Uttar Pradesh, the Bridge on Ken at Pandvan or Bridge over Ken at Pipariya or the Railway line being constructed near source of Ken or the aquaduct cum bridge for the Pawai irrigation project now under construction or a new check dam at Mahod Village in Madhya Pradesh.

At almost every major structure on the river that we encountered, villagers narrated a familiar flood story. The lack of understanding of local topography, river hydrology and geomorphology and illogical structural design were key faults as pointed out by locals. These bridges start right at the source, where the river meets it’s first bridge just 500metres downstream and it’s first check dam just 200 metres downstream of it’s origin. The last stretch of our walk in the month of April (2018), in the upper regions of the river were largely through dried stretches of the river course. Here we would regularly come across bridges and check dams, with no water to be found.

We did notice sudden appearances of pools of water in this same dry river channel, sometimes so large in size that it was confusing us. Initially we did not understand this phenomenon, but locals had the understanding and even names for these. These pools are inter-changeably called ‘dabras, dabris or dabrans’, depending upon their size and number. We were told that these pools were being filled by underground springs, a phenomenon we had only read about but never seen so clearly. This was river science in action, the relationship between ground water and rivers playing out in front of our eyes. And yet, for all our amazement, it was everyday knowledge for our friends from the villages around. In some places these springs were venerated, protected so as to allow use of only the over flow from the pools formed by these springs. The situation however is continuously evolving due to changing cropping pattern and demand for higher acreage under cultivation.

With so much that has not yet been studied (what is listed above is not only proverbial tip of the iceberg, the iceberg that remains large unfathomed is even the direct impact of the proposed project or some real options for Bundelkhand) and understood, the decisions being made by the state seem rather rash. Active local participation in project studies and decision making in the area, especially but not limited to large projects, are a key to maintaining balance in an increasingly stressed ecosystem. We hope that our journey and documentation, once compiled and shared, will encourage more people to take up research work in this geography.

An edited version of this article was first published on The Wire. It is based on a walk along the River Ken, part of Veditum’s Moving Upstream project series,  co-organised for River Ken with SANDRP – South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (www.sandrp.in). Read more from the Ken Walk here.

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