Along the Betwa – Part 11 (Final): Korona to Bandhauli

[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=”3862″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Final Field Notes”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]With a slight weight off our backs, we continued walking onward the next morning, tracing a path along the northern edge of the river. The first couple of hours were easy enough; we were refreshed from our night’s sleep and the morning breeze was fresh. As the sun rose, our pace slowed. Our minds had dulled and we had little to say to another. We plodded along, our feet sinking into the sand. At some point, we forgot the name of the village we were walking towards.

Halfway through our walk, the sand turned into grassy fields. We rested under the shade of a tree and surveyed our surroundings. There was little sound. The river was a wisp of hair glittering in the distance. Everything was coloured in shades of green and brown, except for a torn piece of bright red fabric that had been tied around a branch of a tree.

We undid our shoes and flexed our toes. We had walked quite a long way from Hamirpur, where we started. More than a hundred and twenty kilometres, we guessed. People were often taken aback when we told them of what we were trying to do, and we laughingly recollected the dozens of confounded looks we had gotten over the last ten days.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1595745109588{background-color: #d1d1d1 !important;}”]“The mode of walking was nothing short of revelatory. Time had never slowed down for us in this way, used as we were to buses, trains, and cars, where experiences are momentary and places fragment into snippets of sounds, smells, and sights. By walking, we were able to fully take in our surroundings. We were able to observe closely, lean in should we need to, retrace our steps, talk to interesting passers-by. Although we had a destination in mind, it was the journey that mattered more.”[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]We finally made it to Bandhauli, a village on the banks of the Betwa, as the sun was beginning to set. Making our way to the pradhan’s house, we passed a large, triangular lake, surrounded by trees. On its eastern side was a mass of houses, while on its western side lay fields.

There seemed to be many more men than women in this village, a fact that was later confirmed when we checked its census records. The average sex ratio of Bandhauli was 783 women to 1,000 men, lower than the Uttar Pradesh sex ratio of 912. We realized that many of the villages we visitedmight also have a highly skewed sex ratio. Until now, we simply thought that we did not see as many women because they were in their houses, working.

The pradhan was a plump, mustachioed man who, like most of the men we had encountered so far, was chewing on a hunk of supaari (areca nut). As we talked, we could not help but notice the common threads that ran through all the villages we had encountered: The issue of gender, given what we had noticed regarding the sex ratio and the highly patriarchal social dynamics. The prevalence of caste, which was evident in the dismissive manner in which the pradhan talked about lower-caste areas of the village. The presence of great inequality, given the pradhan’s own grand home and the houses of inferior quality that lay all around it.

We also touched upon the agrarian crisis once again – an issue impossible to ignore – as well as the difficulties of rampaging cattle. The problem of employment was discussed too, what with large numbers of people working as marginal laborers or small-time suppliers to the sand mafia. People could not even turn to MNREGA to supplement their low earnings, as they were often left unpaid or not given enough work. In this village, like so many others, hundreds had left for cities in the hope of a better life.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3861″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”A recollection”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]If one looks at reports pertaining to Bundelkhand, such as the Human Development Report drawn up by NITI Aayog, there seems little cause for hope. Around thirty per cent of people live under the poverty line. A dismal economic environment, along with a lack of proper education and health facilities, prevents people from breaking out of the confines of gender, caste, or general poverty. Feudal relations still hold sway. When the government is present, it often only works for the interests of elites.

The environmental problems of the region, including sand mining, loss of green cover and soil degradation, exacerbate people’s vulnerability. Water is getting increasingly hard to obtain, as droughts become more common and groundwater is being rapidly depleted. Rivers are shrinking. Poor implementation of law and order means that the elite men who own land and are from upper castes ensure that water and land is under their control.

The next day, we would be heading to Orrcha, and from there, back to the United States. At MIT, we would continue research on Bundelkhand, trying to understand what the region needed for people’s lives to improve. As we lay our heads on our pillows that night, we could almost hear the clanging of the train and the calls of the chai-walla as we rushed towards urbanity. For now, though, we savored the silence. Our hearts swelled with warmth and gratitude as we lay in the dark and thought about the last ten days.

There was so much we learned, and yet so much more we needed to know. Fellowships such as the one Veditum had given us are a good start, but we realized that one did not really need any organizational support. For anyone with curiosity, initiative, and the ability to take a week off – you can explore the issues close to your heart as well. Print out a map, pack a bag, and just start walking.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading text=”Postscript”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]After returning to MIT, Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi wrote their master’s thesis on the water crisis in Bundelkhand. Entitled Managing the Water Crisis in Bundelkhand, India: A Governance Approach, the thesis analyzes the reasons behind ineffective water governance and implementation at all levels of government, and concludes that over- centralization of planning, crisis-response rather than long-term planning, and a lack of pragmatic planning are key to understanding the current situation. More generally, the disjointed nature of water governance in India has made it difficult for the public sector to carry out cohesive planning approaches. In their thesis, Singh and Joshi suggest reforms that can be adopted, and consider the possible consequences to water management and planning if Bundelkhand were to become a separate state.

For more information on the photobook or the thesis, please write to radhikas@alum.mit.edu or shailj@alum.mit.edu[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3883″][vc_separator][vc_column_text]This article is the final part of a series, describing the journey and observations from the walk undertaken by Radhika Singh & Shail Joshi. One can find the complete series on www.veditum.org. 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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