[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_single_image image=”3785″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”River Crossing”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]The walk to Basaria, the next village we were stopping at, was tough: it was extremely hot and very sandy, making it difficult to walk. Each step felt like a huge effort. Few farms dotted the barren land, and the river was a third of its usual width. Large sand banks arose within the river itself, on which people were farming. It was not difficult to imagine we were in a desert. During our walk, we came across huge concrete pipes, abandoned in the middle of the desolate landscape. They looked surreal – something out of a dream. Who had brought them here? What purpose did they serve? Why were they left behind?
After a few hours, we took a break next to a small brown cliff, flinging down our bags and settling down in the shade. Out of the corner of our eyes we saw a small man approaching the river. Standing at the edge, he slowly started peeling off his clothes until he was left with only his underwear. Then, wrapping a towel around his waist and clutching his clothes between his hands, he started walking into the river. It took him ten minutes to reach the other side. The river was so shrunken that the maximum depth of the water was just three or four feet.
We decided to cross the river, too. Unlike the man who crossed before us, however, we did not have slippers. We went barefoot. The riverbed was covered in moss and algae, and small rocks that dug into the tender arches of our feet. The current was not strong and we easily walked through the water. It was the only major river that we had seen in India that was seemingly not polluted or too unsafe to wade in, though we later learned that a substantial amount of industrial and urban waste entered the Betwa in its upper stretches. We stopped in the middle of the river, looking down its endless length. The sun glimmered over the water and a cold breeze was blowing. The crisp water provided a respite from the scorching heat. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3782″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]We ran into the pradhan of Basaria while we were walking up to the village. He was on a motorbike, wearing dark sunglasses, sandwiched between two men. One was driving and the other was blasting music on a radio that he held in his hands. We followed him up to his house, passing one crumbling structure after another. Most houses in this village were built of mud and dry brick masonry, with thatched or shingle roofs. Only a few had painted walls. Some houses were long abandoned, and their front doors covered with debris. Through the doorway of an old brick house, we saw a crop-cutting contraption and an old bullock cart that seemed to belong to an earlier century.
In this village, with its small, kuccha houses, the pradhan’s house was a massive structure with an intricate facade. It was the biggest house we had seen during our walk – we learned later that it has forty rooms – and contrasted strongly with the other houses of the village, which were the most decrepit that we had encountered so far. The pradhan took us to his karyalay (working space) a few alleys away, where he conducted business matters. We sat down in plastic chairs, arranged in a circle, and the pradhan began telling us about himself. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3783″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Sand, Men and Bundelkhand”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]Bhola pradhan was the biggest landowner we had met, in the poorest village we encountered. He had 175 bighas (70 acres) of land, an enormous amount relative to everyone else. He also had a car, and told us that he had recently donated 20 lakhs (approximately $26,000) to build a nearby temple. He insisted that we visit the temple, and, rather reluctantly, we agreed. It was garish but well maintained. Although there were no worshipers from the village present, a few priests squatted by the entrance, contentedly puffing on chillums packed with marijuana. Meanwhile, the houses in the village were crumbling. Most were not stable structurally, and few were maintained well. Bhola told us that the entire village had to shift southwards, away from the river, because of the floods a few decades ago.
The pradhan told us that he was engaged in sand mining. “Sixty to seventy per cent of the livelihood for people in this area depend on sand mining,” he told us, “but the nature of sand mining has changed over the last decade or so. Earlier, everyone in the village would be employed and it would fetch us Rs. 10 to 15 thousand ($130-200) a month. Now, however, big, politically-connected corporations from other states are carrying out sand mining.” It seemed like a Catch-22 situation. The people depended on sand mining for income, but the sand mining was decreasing the profitability of their other source of income: agriculture. There was no longer enough groundwater to serve everyone’s irrigation needs.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3781″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]We had dinner in the pradhan’s house. There were no taps or sinks, so we washed our hands in the corner of the living room with a mug. We then walked back to the karyalay, where we rested for a while in the guest room that the pradhan had let us stay in. With more than forty rooms, we wondered, why did not he let us stay in his house? Perhaps it was because he did not know us, or that there were two men in our group, or that he simply was not comfortable with us seeing what was inside.
We then re-joined the pradhan and some of his friends around a bonfire. Some sat on chairs while others squatted on ground to warm up their hands. They made space for us, rearranging positions, and soon our daily conversations started. From unemployment to the general state of the economy, from religion to politics, the conversation moved seamlessly from one topic to another. Even though our daily conversations were becoming rather predictable, the stories of every person we met showed us another slice of life in Bundelkhand. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3784″ 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 firstname.lastname@example.org for access.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]