This article is written by Aishani Goswami and Rahul Singh, based on their experiences from walking along River Sindh as part of our Moving Upstream: Sindh Fellowship programme
Cover Photo: Sindh river flowing through rocky landscape, upstream of its confluence with Mahuar river
Before starting our 120 kms walk along River Sindh, we tried to familiarise ourselves with the river through news articles, google earth views and hand drawn maps. This helped us build an overall understanding of our walking stretch. But it was just that – a zoomed out view! It was the moving, pausing and occasionally getting lost that gave us a much closer view to the river, its banks, and its adjacent villages. It was through the process of walking that we observed the subtle changes in landscapes of its banks, that we met people and collected their stories.
We have shared different experiences with rivers in our respective hometowns. Rahul spent his early childhood in Bhagalpur, where he had a very close relation with Ganga; whereas Aishani has seen changing associations with Sabarmati in Ahmedabad due to the infrastructural changes made around it. But the walk along the Sindh was a chance for us to know another river closely in a new geography.
By the end of the walk it almost felt as if rivers are like people – the more you spend time with them, the more familiar they become. Over the 12 days we walked more than the planned 120 kms along the river, spent time with Sindh and its people, developing a growing sense of familiarity for the river. For this we are grateful to Veditum for offering the Moving Upstream: Sindh fellowship.
With the zoomed out view built through reading news articles, we knew that 3 or 4 bridges on the Sindh got washed away in the 2021 floods. But it was only when we reached Seondha (सेंवड़ा / स्योंडा changing pronunciations in Bundelkhandi dialect), the starting point of our walk, that we got a closer view.
The very first sight in our walk was an ironic and impactful one. Before we even saw the Sindh, we saw a broken bridge and a board welcoming us to the town of Seondha. This broken bridge could no longer welcome anyone to Seondha, but a much older stone bridge which was fully submerged in the floods still stands and functions. The impacts of the 2021 floods became more palpable through the observed sights and conversations; which were absent from the flood related news articles. After this first sight, we observed and heard several other stories of the 2021 flood damage.
Movement and directions
Originating near Lateri in Vidisha district, the Sindh charts a meandering path, most of its 470 kilometers length spent in Madhya Pradesh and only the final few kilometers spent in Uttar Pradesh, before it meets the Yamuna. The Uttarakhand High Court had declared Ganga and Yamuna rivers as having living status in 2017 (later overruled by the Supreme Court), and Sindh is a contributing river in Ganga’s being, oblivious of the court’s judgement.
Within the Sindh’s catchment area in Madhya Pradesh, some major contributions to it are through its tributaries – Mahuar, Parbati, Pahuj and Kunwari. We walked upstream for about 155 kms along River Sindh (actual walking distance), from Seondha which has cultural and religious significance to Narwar where the Madikhedha and Mohini dams are present.
To get an idea of the riverscapes and villages along the bank of Sindh, we asked locals for directions. They characterized the river banks as डांग (scrubland kind of forest) or बजरी (sand) or खेत (farm lands). Sometimes we would be warned if the path was not walkable, or to be careful of crocodiles or thorny forests.
While referring to the river banks, the villagers would mention जालन and बालन (jaalan or baalan) as ‘this side of the river’ and ‘that side of the river’ respectively. We became familiar with these words of Bundelkhandi dialect. Sunil Batham, a farmer from Seondha introduced these terms to us as he took us in his boat from जालन to बालन. Sunil was helpful beyond the boat ride in Seondha – often calling to ask of our whereabouts and if he could be of any help in our journey.
At another instance, when we got lost in Jiganiya village, we were helped by a villager from Dhorro, which was on the other river bank. He guided and walked with us across the river on foot, carefully taking us through shallow parts in the river, crossing from jaalan to baalan. Sometimes we received more help than just directions, when the locals accompanied us and walked with us for a few kilometers.
Observations through immersive experience
As we walked along the Sindh, our perceptions of time and distance began to change. After 3-4 days of walking, we realized that our orientation of day of the week and date of the month became blurry. In contrast, we grew more aware of the time of the day, wanting to manage our day’s walk within daylight. Observant of the weather, sunlight and changing cloud cover, we were able to estimate time needed to walk any distance based on our walking pace. Some distances which usually seemed far, now became walkable.
The textures of river banks changed subtly as we walked upstream along the Sindh. We walked on sand, in between alluvial ravines, rocks, wet clayey soil, mustard fields, thorny scrubland, and waters of Sindh and Mahuar (its tributary). Agriculture patterns, soil type, groundwater levels changed. We met warm-hearted people who went out of their way to help and accompany us.
There is poverty in some villages along the Sindh with absence of basic infrastructure like well built internal roads, wastewater discharge or cleaning mechanism. The line of communication between governing bodies and villagers is weak and one sided; hence the intended benefits from government schemes are not effectively delivered on ground. Education level is low in villages, and since high schools or colleges are often 10-20 kilometers away from villages, there is a resistance to send girl students for studies, affecting their education. There are also not enough government and private jobs in villages, forcing people to migrate for jobs to nearby towns or industrial cities.
Several settlements have developed and grown near the river banks, and cattle rearing is an important part of local economic systems. We are not sure if there is any standard to measure prosperity in villages of Sindh, but cattle rearing appeared to be an important part of their economic systems supplementing agriculture, especially ensuring cash flow for all. We did not observe a fragmented social relationship between the various social and economic stratas in these villages, and a concern regarding absence of basic amenities and infrastructure in the village was common.
The reality of hygiene and sanitation in villages along the Sindh was in contrast to the loud publicity of Swachh Bharat Mission’s (SBM) success through advertisements and political forums. We saw wastewater from a few villages openly flowing on roads and being discharged to the river. Villagers have become used to such an arrangement of roads becoming open drains for wastewater. We came across places where open defecation was not an unusual practice, which points to the discrepancy in ground reality versus the declarations made of ODF (Open Defecation Free) villages.
Human interactions with river systems
As we walked, we observed small streams and tributaries meeting with Sindh. We also saw canal networks of Sindh and Betwa’s irrigation projects. Sindh river basin is adjacent to Betwa river basin. Betwa’s irrigation project (that covers a command area from Bhandar towards Laar) not only covers the villages falling in Betwa’s basin but also some that are close to Sindh’s bank. Madikheda and Mohini pickup weir are the main dams on River Sindh, and a new one is proposed and clearance is awaited.
Most of our conversations with people about Sindh were dominated by stories of damage by the 2021 floods; and understandably so because a flood of such intensity was not witnessed even by the elders of these riparian villages. They spoke about temporary relocation during floods, fallen houses, farm soil erosion, loss of cattle lives, food grains and fodder, among other losses. The cause as stated by people was the sudden opening of gates of Madikhedha and Mohini pickup reservoir dams.
Across several points over the river’s stretch we saw sand mining taking place. This mining is excessive, done unscientifically and is affecting Sindh’s flow, health, aquatic habitat and ecology. Use of technology in the form of pumps, heavy machinery, tractors, has enabled sand mining to take place at a huge scale and in an organized manner. We cannot comment on the legality of this practice, but its impact on the river, river health and people staying adjacent to the river is huge.
Three concrete bridges were completely destroyed and more were damaged, which raises questions on their construction quality. Yes, the 2021 floods were of high intensity but with sand mining the effects of floods are multiplied, and the risk of loss of lives and property increases as seen with the fallen and damaged bridges.
Symbols of administration and spirituality
Cows are an increasingly important symbol in political and religious discourse. But through our walk, we saw disowned cows grazing whatever food they could get, sometimes entering farms and damaging the crops. In Ratangarh forest, we saw many stray cows, some dying because of the tedious terrain, and some becoming weak because of unavailability of food and fodder.
We saw forts and palaces at different points in our walk, and even heard stories of influence of some royal dynasties. Villagers of Hinotiya described a positive influence and someone from Ratangarh mentioned that some king had uprooted villages in a forest for his personal interest of hunting.
We started our walk from Seondha, which is a place of religious, cultural and historic importance. On the walk, we came across other places of worship, such as Ratangarh Mata’s temple which is visited by many devotees. Villagers in and around Ratangarh believe that no wrong can happen in their area, thanks to Ratan Mata’s influence. Shateshwar temple, located at the confluence of Mahuar (a tributary of Sindh) and Sindh hosts festival celebrations and fairs for nearby villages like Hinotiya. Dhumeshwar temple is a popular Shiv temple at Sindh’s bank; where the temple priest spoke to us about the cultural and spiritual importance of rivers.
We were told about some rituals performed by the villagers of Sund and Saboli in connection with the Sindh. They mentioned that by performing Hanuman Bhagwat, they will ensure protection against destructive floods of such intensity in future. Another religious practice mentioned was Kartik Snan, in which women take a religious dip in Sindh. Done once in 3 years during Diwali and every year on Makar Sankranti (January 14th), men and women take a dip in the Sindh at midnight. With that they also offer rice, lamps made of wheat dough (which fishes can consume) and also distribute fruits, bangles among women. Some people also referred to Sindh as ‘Gangaji’, giving it equal religious importance.
Pause, people and conversations
Wherever we reached by the end of daytime would be our resting point, where we would ask for shelter and food, and at almost all villages we were offered these with love and warmth, for which we are grateful. This allowed for informal evening conversations, exchange of local stories and anecdotes from the different geographic locations we belonged to or traveled to. For the night, Rahul would mostly be accommodated in the outer room of the house where men slept and Aishani would be given space in an inner room with women.
Women, some seen in veils, refrained from talking and some refrained from appearing in front of us guests (Rahul and Aishani together). But in some ways, segregated sleeping spaces allowed for safe space for the women in the house to be friendly, expressive and even playful around Aishani. It was surprising to hear their initial and frank questions around our field work; some of those had concerns of safety and empathetic suggestions for their female guest. Aishani had previously heard these questions from men as well, but sometimes sensed a tone of suspicion and vigil rather than empathy in them.
Her conversations, especially with daughters and daughters-in-law were around education and work opportunities, chances of which were slim within the village. High schools and colleges were not available in the village, for which students have to travel a considerable distance. Girl students suffered the most because often they would not be allowed to travel or relocate, resulting in most girls missing the opportunity to study further and earn their living. A desire to be financially independent was expressed by the younger women. Through some conversations, women clearly expressed their opinions on social and environmental issues around them.
It is not like Aishani does not have questions about her safety when she travels for field work. But these are to be dealt with at personal level by making attempts to ensure certainty and safety (physical and physiological). It is an added task to the field work; these concerns of safety and uncertainty are not discussed – they are either blocked by restricting outdoor work and travel or to be dealt with at a personal level. The walk did stir up some of these concerns for Aishani; but a great help was the way the walk was designed through gender balanced pairing of the fellows. She writes this with hesitation because she also realises her privilege and bubble of social and economic safety. Her concerns and barriers are not comparable to those of the girls and women she met on the walk, but they are valid.
We got a closer understanding of Sindh through the walk from perspectives of the river itself, its people, attempts of taming and changing flow of Sindh and surrounding tributaries, livelihood, climate change, systemic and technical gaps, corruption and spirituality. And yet, we do not know enough. Sindh is older than our species; it has lived, changed, adopted and nurtured lives and ecosystems beyond our understanding. And acknowledging that, we are eager to share more detailed stories of and around Sindh from the bracket of time spent and distance walked with her.
Aishani Goswami and Rahul Singh are fellows who walked along River Sindh for 12 days. This exercise is part of our Moving Upstream Fellowship program that we host in collaboration with Out of Eden Walk. To read more about our Moving Upstream project, click here.
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