[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=”3657″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Safe Spaces & Stories”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]Our day in Kumhaupur started with a sharp tapping on the window. Rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we could see the outline of purple sunbirds against the glass. It was a pleasant way to wake up, but our fear rapidly returned. We still did not know whether the village pradhan, Kuldeep, was involved in sand mining and whether he posed a threat to our safety. We looked at each other and silently agreed to leave as soon as possible. A friend of ours, Abhishek Singh, was going to join us that day. With one more person with us, we felt marginally safer.
We reached our next stop – a village called Douhal. It was a few kilometres from the river, but we had a contact there through Veditum and wanted to go somewhere we knew to be secure. Douhal was a village of around 2,000 to 3,000 people, but half of the houses lay empty. People had migrated to cities in search of work, and many never came back. Open drains cut through the road and trash littered the ground. Wells were lying unused; ever since hand pumps were brought to the village, they had become obsolete.
We were visiting Ravi Shukla, a Brahmin with a topknot, who had a large, two-story house in Douhal. We sat in the baramda, a room dedicated for meetings and guests. As usual, a barrage of men approached us, curious about who we were and what we were doing there. Ravi fed us sweets – gulab jamun and boondi – when we arrived, while assuring us that more food would come soon. An hour later we were eating aloo, besan ki subzi, and chana ki patthi subzi (chickpea based curries) with roti. We were relieved to be eating roti again after days of poori; after the first day, we realized that pooris were being made especially for us – honored city guests – and had to insist that we only wanted regular food.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3652″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Ravi showed us some of the houses in the village. They were old and beautiful, painted in stunning shades of sea-green and blue. It was not hard to imagine that we were in an ancient beach town, sunlit and forgotten. ‘Ram-Sita’ was written on the front gates of many houses. The architecture of Douhal reflected the wealth of its inhabitants; many of the houses were quite grand, with intricate carvings on their entrance arches and cornices.
The streets of the village called to mind those from old Indian bazaars, with each turn bringing new textures, materials, and colors. Ravi told us that upper and lower castes still used different streets. We encountered such discriminatory segregation of spaces in most villages. The houses belonging to people of lower castes were always on the peripheries, away from public amenities.
In one house, we were shown the storage systems that the villagers used. On one end of the house’s angan was a hole, covered with a disk and sealed with mud. Every season, it would be broken open so that recently harvested grain could be stored in it. The mud casing protected the storage room from pests and air, which could spoil their crop. Jewellery and other valuables would also be stored there.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3654″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Caste, Land & Water “][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]Ravi then took us back to his own house, where he casually pulled out a locally made gun and showed it to us. “Everyone around here has one,” he told us. When we asked if he ever used it, he laughed and nodded. “It helps to settle arguments,” he said.
He then took us upstairs to the roof of his house, where we settled down to have a chat. Agrarian distress was the main topic of our discussion. “Last season, there were two months of continuous rain,” he said. “It washed away all the soil and left us with rock. But when we need water, it does not come. I cannot get a tube well, because it will cost 5 lakhs (approximately $6500), and even then, I do not know if water will come. Sometimes after all that effort, you only get two inches of water. With that amount can a farmer water his fields or just take a bath?”[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3653″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Ravi went on to talk about what the government had been doing for farmers. “When Mayawati was in power, she built mandis (market places) for contractors, but not even one per cent of them are being used. Akhilesh has done some work to improve connectivity. During Congress’ time, Bundelkhand got good packages from the government. But now, with Yogi in power, the government is simply not doing anything. The only reason anyone has paid any attention to Bundelkhand is sand mining.”
When we asked him why he did not simply leave like so many other people in the village, he looked surprised. “How can I leave?,” he said. “I am a Brahmin, so I cannot do manual work. Besides, how can I abandon all my property here? I have this house, as well as 100 bighas (1 bigha is approximately equal to 0.4 acres) of land.” Even with so much land, why was he still struggling, we asked him. “It is because of the interest I have to pay on the loans I take out from the bank,” he said. “The bank charges me a 12.5% rate of interest. Debt keeps increasing due to compound interest. Bank managers fleece us, raising the rate of interest even higher – they get their commission and trap farmers in a cycle of debt.”
We then asked him about loan waivers, and suggested that this may be part of the solution. Ravi shook his head. “Loan waivers are wrong. We will be weaker because of them. First of all, it is bad for the economy, and second of all, it creates a vicious cycle. We take out bigger and bigger loans thinking that some government down the line will waive our loan. Instead, banks should just make loans more responsive to our needs, giving us lower interest rates and more time to repay them.”[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3655″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Ravi thought that river-linking was a good idea. “If they link the Ken and Betwa,” he mused, “that would create a new canal between them. That would provide more water to farmers in the region. In fact, the solution to the water crisis should be that the government builds canals from the river to our fields.” When we brought up the fact that people would be displaced in the process of river-linking, Ravi shrugged. “That is inevitable,” he said. As usual, like many other conversations, this one ended rather dismally.
The night was fast approaching and Ravi had to return to his duties. We stayed put on the terrace for some more time, discussing what Ravi had told us. It seemed like a hopeless situation for the farmers in Bundelkhand. Debt was mounting. Agriculture was failing. The water table was collapsing. In the last fifteen to twenty years, the Betwa had shrunk to a fraction of its size, according to Ravi.
It struck us that the villages we were visiting were probably the luckier ones in Bundelkhand – at least they were relatively close to what was left of the Betwa. What about all the other villages scattered throughout the region, far away from any source of water? How did they secure water for drinking and irrigation purposes? How much were they suffering? A 2016 survey conducted by Swaraj Abhiyan, a socio-political organization, showed that only 18% of villages in MP had an adequate number of hand-pumps; this number decreased to just 5% in UP-Bundelkhand.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3656″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Unlike Ravi, we were unconvinced about the benefits of a river- linking project. The real cause of the shrinking of the river was catchment degradation, over-extraction of groundwater, and the lifting of sand from its banks. Even if the Betwa received extra water from the Ken, there was no stopping the further decline of the river. We had also heard that the Ken was shrinking too. If that was the case, what would happen to the farmers that depended on the Ken? Most troubling was that no one we talked to had been consulted about the project. Misinformation ran wild, and nobody seemed to know what exactly was going on or what was going to happen.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3651″ 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 email@example.com for access.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]