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Walking along the Betwa – Moving Upstream

Everyday life along the river.

The walk started at Hamirpur & ended at Orchha. Map displays birding observations by Anup. (Map files from OSM & base layer courtesy Stamen)

The Betwa was a natural succession from walking the Ken river. Part of Veditum’s ‘Moving Upstream’ series of projects which aims to walk along Indian rivers to document & understand them, we initiated a fellowship to expand our perspective. A beautiful collaboration materialised with the Out of Eden Walk as partners for this fellowship to walk along the Betwa.

We stretched ourselves to include more participants, finally sending on field 4 people. The initial design allowed for a maximum of 2 fellows. The two groups walked about 300kms along the Betwa, over a period of 10 days in January 2019. Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi commenced walking from Hamirpur, where Betwa meets river Yamuna. Anup Prakash & Prerana Choudhury started at the confluence of river Dhasan with the Betwa, moving upstream along the river till Orchha. Both groups were joined by friends during the journey. 

Walking for us, as a practice, is an attempt to introduce a fair amount of pause in an otherwise fast paced era. It allows for deep personal reflections as well as an intimate connection with the land and people. These experiments are expected to produce multifold outputs, though never limited to just the physical observations, interviews and other documentation. We’re currently working with our fellows to consolidate and publish what they’ve found. In the mean while, however, sharing some snippets from their journey and a few extracts from their reflections while on the walk.

A river seems like a narrow strip of water but it separates families, villages and sometimes, like in this case, entire districts. And a boatman plays the role of being a stitch, going back and forth, connecting this natural seam. On the eve of Sankranti, the boatman was particularly busy while we used this opportunity to play an oft heard song from childhood about rocking boats, blue skies and a prayer of not drowning.

One can see the river, the people, the power lines stretching across and the dunes of mined river sand, yet again reminding us that perhaps things would be so different and so difficult without the Betwa here. The song is the title song of a Japanese cartoon translated into Hindi in 90s by Doordarshan – Sinbad the Sailor.

Flowing swiftly between personal memories (above) and those of the riparian community, in his note at the end of the walk, Anup – a wildlife biologist, discusses the vanishing, of life and memory:

People seem to remember the great flood of early 1980s. It forms a focal point in their memory of the river. Many villages shifted out from the river side to farther from the banks after that episode. Other memories include the great numbers of crocodiles that people would see everywhere but are now restricted only to some places. People remember how river water, river gravel and the reeds were extracted without limits earlier but are now being controlled by a few people who sell the same but the benefits do not trickle down.

Memories of the river include unfettered travel on boats till about a few decades back. Apparently it was a major transport waterway. But none of the younger (<50 years old) people seem to remember that. A majority of the villages reported that the riversides held good numbers of both leopards and tigers and lots of prey animals that lost out after agriculture boomed and natural growth was taken down. Qualitatively analysed, a lot of happy memories were attached with Betwa and a sense of nostalgia prevails now.

Bluethroat - Luscinia Svecica, one of many birds spotted along the Betwa by Anup

The walk, as slow as it was, made Prerana – a children’s writer & publishing professional, think that it could have been even slower:

I also realise in fact that the walk could have been (even)  slower! In the sense that if it were not for our jobs and lives to get back to, I could have set an even slower pace, perhaps. Some more time mulling over and discussing an issue, some further moments spent with the women of the households, some more pauses indulged in.

That kind of pace also depends in a way on who accompanies you on the walk; different people have different frequencies. It was very enlightening to have therefore spent this trip with two individuals from backgrounds and interest areas totally varied from mine.

Radhika (L) & Shail (R) with their host at Jamouri village.

With a background in sustainability issues & journalism, Radhika writes how walking shaped her perspective – allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the situation:

I had read about all the issues we had encountered during the walk before we had embarked on it- the water crisis, the shrinking of the river, sand mining, the lack of employment, farmer debt, etc. What the walk did for me was put these issues into perspective. From my readings it seemed like the lives of people living in the Bundelkhand area was just one catastrophe after the next. Yet after meeting countless villagers, these issues became much more nuanced.

We were able to learn how the same issues affected villages just a few kilometers apart very differently. I was also struck by how each village’s architecture, water quality, level of poverty, major problems, etc was so singular and incomparable from one area to the next.

Anup & Prerana on the sandy banks of the Betwa.

Life is a cycle, repeating itself everyday with a different flavour – walking and the pace of it only makes this visible. Shail, an architect by training – currently a student of Urban Planning at MIT with Radhika, reflects: 

Every morning, for me, would start with optimism and energy to continue walking and every day would end with a feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness and despair. Hopeless because the villagers were caught in complex web of socio cultural politics which didn’t seem to have a positive outcome, powerless because most discussions generated anger and the want to change things but the issues we were talking about are beyond the scope of one person to change.

Alternatively, the same discussions allowed me to view my own problems with a new perspective, after seeing happy and smiling faces amidst utter poverty and harsh lives. What amazed me was that, many of the villagers still had hope from our political leaders even after being ignored for years. Maybe it was because that’s the only hope they can afford to have.

Everyday life along the river.

These are extracts from the reflections sent in by the fellows at the end of their respective walks. We’re excited about sharing more, and are currently working to bring out a longer series of publications from this experience. Bundled together in the form of notes, images, graphics and maps, it hopes to be more than just a snapshot of the region.

We’re planning for more fellowships under the Moving Upstream banner, and actively looking for interesting collaborations. If you’re interested in collaborating or publishing some of our work, please reach out. Contact: asid@veditum.org.

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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Siddharth Agarwal: @sidagarwal