Along the Betwa – Part 3: Badanpur to Chitanpur

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In late 2018, along with our partners Out of Eden Walk, we floated a call for applications to Veditum’s first Moving Upstream fellowship programme focussed on River Betwa. The objective – to walk along stretches of the Betwa and document the river and life around it. Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi were two of the four fellows selected for the program.

They started from Hamirpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, where the Betwa merges with the Yamuna. Then, they traveled onwards to Bandhouli, close to the confluence of the Betwa and Dhasan rivers. The entire journey, around 130 kilometers, was carried out on foot. Joshi and Singh depended on villages along the way for food and accommodation.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_single_image image=”3588″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]After spending a comfortable night at the forestry office in Badanpur, we woke up early the next day. We were unsure about the distance to the next village and wanted to start walking as soon as possible. After saying our goodbyes to the DFO, we groggily started trudging back towards the river.

At the riverbank, we stopped to talk to some farmers – two men, Durgadin and Vinod, and a woman, Pooja. They were growing lauki (bottle gourd), karela (bitter gourd), channa (chickpea), pumpkin, tomatoes and onions, as well as mustard and wheat. These crops, grown on small farms throughout the region, dotted the barren landscape with patches of bright green and yellow.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3581″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]During zaiid, or summer crop season, these farmers get Rs 5-6 for a kilogram of vegetables. The other crops they grow fetch just Rs 1-2 per kilo. For the last ten years it has not been raining enough, they complained. They were irrigating their vegetables with buckets of water drawn from the river, although they used a pump that drew river water for other crops planted further up the bank. Installing a borewell to draw groundwater costs at least Rs. 1.5 lakh (approximately $2000), a price far beyond their means.

The land that they use, Vinod said, is leased from the government. “Besides that, the government has not given us anything,” he said, “nor does it listen to our problems.” MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme), the central government run program that guarantees at least a hundred days of work a year, does not function. “We just get 10-20 days of work a year, at just 175 Rs per day,” Durgadin said. “We have to bribe officials if we want to work longer.” Instead of relying on MNREGA, Durgadin and Vinod move to the cities for manual wage labor-work from the onset of the kharif season (monsoon crop).

They stay close to the riverbank for easy access to their farms and water. Being relatively near Hamirpur, they send their children to whatever private school they can afford; the government schools are of such poor quality they fear that their children will not get a good education. When someone falls sick, they go to a private hospital. Although there is a government hospital in Hamirpur, it lacks many essential resources and almost always has to refer patients to another hospital in Kanpur.

Just like Durgadin, Vinod and Pooja, many of the villagers we met on the way have a complicated relationship with the state. By failing to provide them with basic facilities, the government forces villagers to rely on grants, subsidies, or intermittent handouts. If these do not suffice, they have to pay for private services.

After talking with them for a little while longer, we started walking again. The northern bank that we were on was sandy and sparse. We passed through some grasslands and vast empty lands dotted with small farms. After looking at Google Maps, we confirmed that the southern bank had more habitation and decided to try and cross to the other side.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3583″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”River Crossing”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]A couple of hours later we met a couple, Geeta and Deshraj, living right on the riverbank. Theirs was a typical kuccha house of wattle and daub, with a roof made of straw and bamboo. Their kitchen was attached to the house as a separate construction, but lacked a roof. Managing the house must have been difficult because of the erratic rains and ever-changing water line of the river. Seeing a boat tied up close to their house, we asked Geeta and Deshraj if they could help us cross the river. They readily agreed, and sent their two children to row us to the other side.

The children looked to be around 10 and 14, yet neither was going to school. The older boy had his hair dyed maroon, and looked away without answering when we asked him about his color choice. Silently and skilfully, they rowed us over to the other side of the river. We arrived in less than ten minutes. The water was calm and the color of sage.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3582″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]On the other side of the river we met a group of women who were waiting to cross. Seeing us, the two younger women hid their faces with their sarees, though the third woman, who was much older, did not. Her face was tough and weathered, possibly an outcome of having spent an entire lifetime dealing with the harsh Bundelkhand climate, and her eyes were penetrating. She told us that the husbands of the other two women had gone to find a ride to cross the river.

Once the men came back to get their wives, we started walking again through the expansive landscape, following the curve of the river to our right. Soon we ran into a group of herdsmen taking their goats to graze. Garbed in monotonous attire, save for their bright orange gamchas (a cotton cloth), they approached us with grins on their faces. Like everyone else we had met until then, our river walk baffled them. One of them exclaimed- “You all must be brave!”- and we chuckled.

When we inquired about the agrarian crisis in Bundelkhand, they shrugged and said, “This is normal here. The state only comes for votes and promises but are not willing to solve our issues.” After asking their permission, we clicked a few candid pictures. They then requested us to click a ‘full body photo’ of them with the river in the background.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3584″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Chitanpur”][vc_empty_space height=”16 px”][vc_column_text]Walking through some more mustard fields and abandoned sand pits, we soon arrived in a village called Chitanpur, in Sahejna. Small and fairly isolated, it was not labeled on any map. Our first stop was the primary school, where people crowded around us and peppered us with questions. We asked them to direct us to the village’s pradhan (the elected head of local self-governing constitutional bodies called Gram Sabha). Although it was a woman, we were instead taken to her husband, who seemed to be the person in power. We learned that this was a common phenomenon in many villages, where constitutionally mandated positions such as seats reserved for women were reduced to placeholders for more powerful people.

Suresh, the village pradhan’s husband, was a small man with a gentle smile. We chatted amicably in front of his house, while small children ran around us. Facing us was an open ground where cows, goats and sheep munched on fodder. On the wall of his house were a series of rules, written in red paint, regarding the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) program.

“The Swachh Bharat program made a significant improvement to the village,” Suresh said. “Earlier, women had to wake up early and defecate on the roads of the village, because going out into the fields would not be safe. Now, they are using the public toilets that were built and the roads are clean.” We assumed that the women had faced the risk of sexual harassment, as has been documented extensively in reports on outdoor defecation, although we thought it was impolite to ask directly. However, men still defecate outdoors, and we saw piles of excrement littering the outskirts of the village. “Mentalities are hard to change,” Suresh said.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3587″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1590586315382{background-color: #f2f2f2 !important;}”]“The village was a spatial collage of modern and traditional houses. Most new houses were made of brick or concrete and were more durable to changes in the weather. Their design no longer followed patterns of vernacular architecture, where the courtyard is usually the epicenter of the house.

Those who still had vernacular houses spent a lot of time on constant maintenance, which the adult women of the house were generally in charge of. Cow dung, used as a substitute for plaster, would have to be layered on the walls every couple of months. This would keep the interior of the house warm during cold winters and cold during scorching hot summers- something that pukka houses are not able to do.” - Shail Joshi [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Suresh also praised the government for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) program (Prime Minister’s Housing Program – earlier called Indira Awas Yojana), a government initiative to provide affordable housing to the country’s poor. Many houses in the village were under construction with PMAY funds. PMAY only supported the buildings of pukka, or concrete houses, which Suresh believed was a good thing. “Because our population is constantly increasing, we can always add a floor to our house when our kids get married. But that is not the case with vernacular architecture. Moreover, we have to spend a lot of energy in constantly maintaining kuccha houses.”

When he was younger, Suresh worked in Daman, an industrial town on the western coast of India, in the construction industry. He had to leave his village, he said, because there were no more jobs in the region. There are only two things one could do here: farming or sand-mining. Farming was unprofitable and unpredictable. Sand mining was dangerous and harmful to the river.

Yet some villagers believed that the drying of the river due to sand mining and the lack of rain was a blessing in disguise. Anjana, a bright twenty-year-old who had studied until the 8th standard, told us that the village had suffered from immense floods just a few decades ago. The damage was so bad that the entire village had to be rebuilt. “Now, we do not have to suffer through such events,” she said. “The river is so far away.”

The river indeed looked very far away. The village ended in a small cliff with a sharp drop of about thirty feet. We sat at the edge of it to watch the sunset. The Betwa snaked silently below us, narrow and unimposing. It seemed impossible that its water could have risen to this height to wipe out the entire village. It was no longer the Betwa the people had known for hundreds of years. It seemed to be on its deathbed.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3586″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_separator][vc_column_text]This article is part of a series, describing the journey and observations from the walk undertaken by Radhika Singh & Shail Joshi. New parts of the series will be published on www.veditum.org every Wednesday and Sunday. Series editor: Rathnavel Pandian

This series is also available in a book format. Interested readers/book reviewers/publishers may write to contact@veditum.org for access.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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