Along the Betwa – Part 4: Chitanpur to Kumhaupur

[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=”3608″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]We woke up the next morning to rays of weak sunlight. It was cold outside, and we warmed ourselves with cups of chai while watching goats wandering in and out of the pradhan’s house. The goats were dressed in old pants and shirts to protect them from the chill and looked, unbecomingly, like old men. One was chewing at Suresh’s shirt while he absentmindedly sipped his tea. A man on a bicycle laden with plastic toys noisily entered the village, and Suresh sent off his three-year-old child to buy a balloon. Another bicycle with a dhol (a double-headed drum instrument) followed soon after, calling to people who needed their aadhar cards updated. The village was now awake, and we continued on our journey.

After some inspection of the surrounding area on Google Maps, we decided to head to a village called Kumhaupur. It was a reasonable distance away and located close to the river. The landscape was undulating, and we had to circumvent fences that enclosed farms by climbing up to higher altitudes. Without our realizing it, burrs had buried into our clothes and bags. We spent an hour picking them off one by one. The path back down was steep and slightly treacherous, and we flung our bags to the bottom before descending ourselves. In the process, we lost the can of pepper spray we had with us. Eager to reach Kumhaupur, we pushed on without trying to find it – a decision we would regret later.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3602″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”The world of Sand”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]At some point, we had to take a break. We settled down at the edge of a cliff to watch the river flowing beneath us. On the opposite bank, we saw tractors and trucks, lining up to collect sand from the river. We had passed many pits on our side of the river too, as well as a massive contraption of pipes and motors that was sucking sand out of the riverbed. A man with bloodshot eyes, who was manning the contraption, stared at us hostilely as we passed.

Sand mining is a lucrative business in India. Indian cities are swelling rapidly and the demand for sand, which is a key ingredient in cement, is booming. India is second only to China in the amount of sand that it mines. While a small fraction of sand mining is legal, the majority of operations is run by the mafia. Rivers are being mercilessly stripped of their sand, leading to degraded groundwater reserves, poorer water quality, and sinking water tables. These effects hit the water scarce region of Bundelkhand especially hard. Sand mining also causes riverbank erosion and decreased biodiversity.

Between us and Kumhaupur was a small highway town called Pauthiya, which we reached by mid-afternoon. As soon as we entered, we were struck by the hostility with which people looked at us. As we were walking down the main road, cars stopped to watch us pass; one driver even reversed his car to get a closer look at us. The strangeness of our clothes, backpacks, cameras and demeanor were drawing unfriendly stares. Although we did not know for certain that this was an unsafe place, fear crept up within us as daylight fell.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3607″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The clear signs of sand-mining that we observed on our way made us even more wary. A farmer we talked to before reaching Pauthiya spoke to us with a clear distress in his voice about the thugs that ran the mining operations.

We made a quick stop at a small grocery store tucked in a tin and bamboo structure, where we bought some basic supplies like water and few locally made chips. Sitting on a small bench outside the shop, we tried to figure out the route ahead. With the help of the shopkeepers we found out that there were local marshal vans that could take us quickly to the next village.

We made our way back to the highway, and stood there, tense, waiting for a marshal, while people stared. One soon stopped, and though it was already crowded, we squeezed ourselves in. It cost us 30 rupees to travel four kilometers. We got off in a town called Lalpura, and from there walked a few more kilometers to reach Kumhaupur. The walk to Kumhaupur was along a small single lane road made of mud and gravel, with fields spread out on either side. Once we entered the village a few people sitting by the road directed us to the pradhan’s house.

We still had not shaken off the fear we felt in Pauthiya, and when we reached the pradhan’s house in Kumhaupur, our breath caught in our throats. An iron gate, bolted and locked, towered in front of us, and we could see hints of a sprawling compound that lay behind it. Compared to the small mud-houses houses of the rest of the village, this building was a fortress. Fissures of fear ran through us. Faced with no other option, we knocked timidly at the gate, wondering if anyone would hear us.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3603″][vc_custom_heading text=”Sand Castles”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]A man opened the gate and, eying us warily, asked us what our business was. We told him we were looking for a place to stay for the night. He told us to wait for a moment while he called for someone else. We could now see what lay behind the gate: a Scorpio, the most powerful SUV model in India, and a Royal Enfield, one of the country’s most expensive motorcycles. Parked neatly alongside them was a tractor with a huge mound of sand. Everything seemed to point to the possibility that the pradhan was involved in sand mining operations.

As quickly as we could, we hid our camera and binoculars. We did not want to give anyone reason to be suspicious of us. The man who had met us at the gate came back and gestured for us to follow him. He introduced himself as the pradhan’s brother, and asked us to sit on a few chairs he had set out in the middle of the courtyard. We waited there stiffly, sweating, avoiding each other’s eyes but wondering how we could escape if we needed to.

The massive courtyard we were sitting in was not paved. It was walled in by different structures on three sides and by a cowshed on the fourth, near which a single lonely tree grew. The structures all served different purposes. One, placed right at the entrance of the courtyard, was a guest room that was also used for meetings. The structure on our right was a mud house used to store grains and animal fodder. The building right in front of us, painted blue, served as the primary living space for the family.

The pradhan eventually walked out of it. He had just been woken up from a nap and was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Surveying us suspiciously, he pulled up a chair and sat down next to us. “What are you doing here?,” he asked us roughly. His name, he told us, was Kuldeep Thakur.

Trying to keep our voices steady, we told him that we were just students, interested in architecture by the river. While planning our trip, we decided to get fake IDs that declared us to be students from an architecture school in Mumbai. It was a precaution we took in case we were to ever get into any kind of trouble. Own our IDs from MIT were in English, but the ones we printed out in Mumbai were in Hindi and made our status as students clear. They came in handy now: when we gave Kuldeep our fake IDs, he seemed a little mollified.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Some other men who had been standing around in the courtyard started a fire. It was getting chilly, and the way one passed the time here was to sit down around a bonfire and share stories. This would also become our way of life for these few days along the river. Kuldeep sat on a chair, as did we, but everyone else sat on the ground. He later told us it was a conscious decision to create an unequal power dynamic; they needed to know who was in charge.

Kuldeep leaned back, now more relaxed after having gained some confidence in our credibility; he had his men by his side and we seemed to pose no threat. He started telling us stories of his youth – tales that involved guns, threats, and influence. He boasted about his power and invulnerability. We egged him on and tried to look suitably impressed. At some point, he answered a phone call, and from his discussion of “digging” and “pits”, it seemed possible that he was directing a sand mining operation.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3604″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1591192387961{background-color: #f2f2f2 !important;}”]“During the course of our conversation, Kuldeep told us that he was planning to build another house inside his fortress. As architects, he mused, could we give him some advice?

Responding to Kuldeep’s request, I arranged some bricks in a structure on the ground and rattled off some sentences on strength and structure. I even offered to draft a floor plan for them. Kuldeep looked suitably impressed, and asked us to follow him to the guest room.

Once we sat down, Kuldeep settled himself next to me and thrust a notebook into my hand. “Draw me the floor plan,” he ordered. The pradhan’s brother came in and sat down on my other side. Sandwiched between two people who might be members of the sand mafia, I started drawing rapidly.

I produced a plan that that Kuldeep seemed to be quite enthusiastic about; it included a “private angan” (courtyard) that would allow him and his men to converse without the fear of being overheard. Satisfied, he stood up to leave, and his brother, like a tardy shadow, stood up too. Ordering a few mattresses to be placed in the room, Kuldeep bid us goodnight and left.

I breathed a sigh and relief when the door closed behind him. Were we safe now? Would we be alright?”  - Shail Joshi[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3605″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]As the night wore on, the stars above beckoned us, and we climbed to the roof of the guesthouse. It was a clear and beautiful night, and we could feel the adrenaline of the day draining from our systems. Neither of us had seen a sky so studded with stars in a long time. We were in a different world from Bombay, we thought, with danger, fear and beauty all woven together. We sat in silence for a time, then descended back to our rooms. We had another long day ahead, and needed some sleep.[/vc_column_text][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]

Leave a Reply