This article is written by Aoun Hasan, based on his experiences from walking along River Sindh as part of our Moving Upstream: Sindh Fellowship programme. Aoun walked with co-fellow Vaishnavi Suresh.
Cover photo: A stretch of River Sindh near the village Sendhua, Ashoknagar, Madhya Pradesh.
Once you are at the river, you feel like doing everything you had planned, at that very moment.
This is what I felt – a little haste, when we reached the banks of River Sindh at village Khurwar in Badarwas, district Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh. Reaching this point required a lot of effort. Train, buses, motor rides and figuring out items of necessity. Mostly, the weight of our bags made us feel mentally tired before we even started the walk.
As we stepped on to the sands of the river for the journey ahead, all the talk about mining that we had heard so much about and seen throughout our preparations for the Moving Upstream walk along the Sindh, became real.
Our target was to walk some 120 km from Badarwas, a town in Shivpuri district, along the Sindh, crossing Ashoknagar and finally find the source in Vidisha district. The plan was simple: walk during the day and find shelter and food as the day ends.
Not food and shelter, but finding toilets was a challenge
All our preparations focused on the river and our vision for it. But we soon realized that our relatively simple plan had gaps. To be honest, we never really gave it as much thought.
Food and shelter were easy to find, but finding a usable/functional toilet was complicated and convincing people to let us use it was even more challenging. At one point, I felt like I was begging to be able to use a toilet.
Among many of our shelters was a Panchayat Bhawan (Village Council Building) where I inspected a defunct toilet to see if I could clean and use it, but the Sarpanch (village head) strictly instructed me not to use the toilet at all and find open ground instead. In another instance, my walking partner had to use the toilet of a government school which was also almost defunct.
To the river and back
Every time we would walk through villages to meet people, we would look back and miss the river. When we would walk along the river, we would walk with the hope of meeting people to tell us about the place. Farmers and their farming activities became the balance of this seesaw. Through them, we learnt about the river and people—stories of crop failure, new crops, floods, and water distribution.
We would also get food from them. I remember a farmer asked me what all food I was getting, and I told him roti, daal, and sabzi and he, with a laugh, asked are you not getting paratha poori? The very next hour he served us freshly fried poori with sabzi and daal.
Sindh’s plastic distributaries
On the second day of our walk, we saw a tractor carrying a large number of long plastic pipes. We had seen similar pipes in the fields the previous day, and we had somewhat figured out the use of these pipes. Only later did we realize the complex mechanism, usage, and hard work involved with these pipes.
All through our journey, we would meet these invisible artificial distributaries of River Sindh, the plastic encased river running on electricity. An electric motor inside a river pumps water through these pipes, each of which are 20 feet long and 2- 3 inches in diameter. Interestingly, sometimes even 100 feet long pipes are used from the bank to the field (as the first segment).
The price for these 20 feet pipes as shared by farmers ranged between INR 300 to 1000 depending on the quality and diameter of the pipe. We met farmers using this mechanism to pump water as far as 5000 or 6000 feet from the river, which would need 250 to 300 pipes, 20 feet each. We even met a farmer who told us that a distance of 10,000 feet could also be covered through similar pipes. The electricity used is a three-phase connection and is provided for 10 hours at night and day.
Bhanu Singh ji, a farmer of village Bherkedi shared that his young son got an electric shock when trying to switch on the motor pump one night, and fell inside the well. It was Bhanu Singh ji who had treated us with fresh pooris. After serving us food and sharing insights on agriculture and mining, he left for the city to check on his injured son.
On the exact condition of how poorly electricity is provided during late hours of the night, a farmer said, ‘’Kisan ki zindagi keedan makaudan ki hot hai’’. (the life of a farmer is like that of a tiny insect)
At the banks, we saw wires running through trees, bushes, and trenches to provide electricity to pumps from the three-phase transformer. On the other hand, borewells and wells are also run-on electricity. This made me think about the duality of this situation, electricity is produced using water (both coal and hydropower require large amounts of water), and now the same energy is used to distribute water itself.
An agricultural ma(i)ze
Since we had started walking in November, fields were either being tilled, sown, or crops were too small to be noticed. The two most common things we heard from people were “soybean is failing” and “maize yield is great”. One ‘bigha’ (quarter of an acre) of land was failing to produce even half a quintal of soyabean, whereas maize was yielding around ten quintals.
Farmers would reply ‘ka pata’ (who knows) when asked why soybean is failing. On further inquiry, some said soybean requires 3 or 4 cycles of insecticides, whereas other crops survive in just one cycle of insecticides. Thus people are shifting to maize crops.
The other answer was “erratic rainfall and floods make this a difficult situation for the soyabean crop”. That soybean is destroyed if the field remains filled with water for a long time. Under similar conditions, as shared, the maize crops would remain unaffected.
The other major crops that farmers told us about were wheat, pulses like masoor and urad (varieties of lentil), gram, mustard and coriander. Farmers were also sowing potatoes in the upstream regions. A shopkeeper at an agricultural products store at Aron, Guna predicted that soon the same problems plaguing the soybean crop would appear with the maize crop as well.
We had started our walk from a bridge, and right from day one, we crossed many small streams joining the Sindh, a few with a warning sign not to cross when there was water over them. On day three, near the village Nasira, we crossed a stream named Nivari. Locals call such streams ‘Jhuras’ (jhoo-raa). We used a stop dam to cross it, but the water was flowing over the dam. We had to take off our shoes and walk with great care over the slippery algae covered surface as cold water flowed over our feet. We could find this dam and the courage to cross it as two local youngsters Monu and Bhola guided us. They were kind enough to let us use their name as a reference in the next village for food and shelter.
The next day we came across another large stream and spent almost an hour in the bushes and swamps trying to figure out how to cross the stream. There was no bridge or stop dam so we took off our shoes and walked through the water at knee height. Both these experiences of crossing these streams to find our way had lifted our spirits. On the last day at village Barod, I crossed the Sindh on foot. I found a shallow part of the river, but the experience was painful as I had to walk on stones. Two large streams – ‘Chauket’ and ‘Bod’ join the Sindh here. However, a local farmer and a teacher corrected me that these are not Jhuras (jhoo-raa) but small rivers.
On almost all streams, one can find a stop dam with water flowing over it. Sunil Kevat, a local farmer and a YouTuber, pointed out that these dams are just a coverup for corruption. Pradeep Bhagil, a senior farmer of village Mubarakpur, where the famous Kaliyadeh stream meets Sindh, points out that stoppage dams make the river shallow since it stops the flow of mud that the river carries and this keeps accumulating. He also recalls that some 15 – 20 years ago, the river used to be filled with water with great depth and flow around the year. Now it dries up around December. He added that the borewell levels in the last decade have also gone down.
Mubarakpur village is also famous for a saint by the name Pahadi Baba, who has his ashram next to the Kaliyadeh stream. After some initial unease and awkwardness, Baba and his disciples served me a fine lunch; and later, he was even ready to chat with me. He recalled decades back when the place was a dense forest, and water flowed in the stream round the year. When agriculture started, farms came up everywhere, and a large pond near his ashram disappeared.
The missing puzzle
I had closely observed sand mining through satellite images on Google Maps when preparing for the Moving Upstream walk, and Siddharth made us aware and alert about the issue of sand mining. The first place where we started walking was full of sand. A handful of material from the bank would show all small grains of sand.
On that first day, we came across a mining site and met a few workers who were sieving sand. They looked watchful, but we kept pretending to be more interested in the fast-flowing blue waters of the river. We had a light conversation, but when we were leaving one of the workers came running toward us and asked to take our photograph. Sensing that this may somehow be a way to keep a track on us, we took a selfie with him on our phones instead. This somehow worked and we could walk on without being photographed.
We spotted sand mining activities at many other places throughout our walk. At village Renjhaghat I was sleeping outside Lakhan Yadav ji’s place, and I could hear the sounds of large machines coming from afar. I asked Lakhan ji about it, and he told me that these were JCB (poclain machines) and trawlers mining sand. On further inquiry about sand mining in this area, he said ‘do number… chori ki hai’’ (it’s all illegal)
The sand in the river Sindh is sieved manually by labours. The large stones/pebbles are left behind in heaps all over the bank. On my last day of the walk, I went to a place where two large streams met Sindh just next to a village called Barod. I had pictured this meeting for a long time. I looked down from the bridge at the beautiful sight of a calm river and the ground covered with dew, but reality dawned on me only when I went down to have a closer look.
I went down and started walking into the emptiness. This was a huge sand mining site. As I continued to look around, adjusting my steps over large left-over stones/pebbles, things looked a little off, and I felt a strange eeriness. Although no mining activities were happening in front of me, I could hear the sounds of large machines coming from a distance.
All over the bank I could see heaps of pebbles/stones. Crossing the river on foot was a painful experience as I had to walk on the stones left all over the place. A local farmer told me that just the previous day there was a police raid and some sand miners were caught, leading to the lack of activity there. Anywhere I would take a photo or pick up some of the riverbank material there were only stones/pebbles in my hand, and I remembered my first day when my hand was full of sand. There clearly was a missing puzzle of Sand mining in the Sindh River.
The Legend of Sindh: A source without water
Though we could not digitally map the source of the Sindh River using satellite imagery, we were getting information from locals as we walked along the river. A senior farmer shared his experience at the source and how the river is different there. He said “you can cross the river with a jump”. A bus conductor told us about the village where we could see the source and shared the legend of the river and how it was formed.
His story : a brahmin had two daughters in a place where there was drought, but the two sisters would go out to have a bath and get some water for the house. The father was always surprised and decided to follow them one day. He found out that they would scrape some earth and water would appear. When he noticed this, the daughters were bathing. The daughters saw their father and ran away in two different directions, forming the Rivers Sindh and Sakad. They also cursed the place for always being short of water, which all locals believe is true.
On reaching the source of the Sindh at village Gopi Talai, Lateri, district Vidisha, one can see a pond of a decent size. This is the place where the two sisters Sindh and Sakad would apparently get their water, but there is no apparent river originating from the pond. An eighty-year-old local farmer Pyar Singh was generous enough to walk over a kilometre with us through lanes and farms and crossed a barbed wire fence to show us the river’s path. But this path had no surface water visible, and when we finally did see some water, we learnt that it was accumulated rainwater from a recent shower.
Earlier, the pond used to get dry during summers, but now it has been made deeper, and water remains all over the year.
Local farmers use the same mechanism for irrigation as mentioned earlier, but their struggle seems to make the curse of Sindh and Sakad seem true. The main battle for them today is finding groundwater. Kumer Singh a local farmer who welcomed us in his village and later at home with dinner and provided us with a clean toilet told us that his borewell is at a depth of 920 feet and it gives warm water, which is not fit for irrigation. Others shared the same issue of not finding water and borewells not working for long. Kumer Singh, with his many insights, bid goodbye to us by saying ‘’sokhi kheti karte hain hum’’. (we practice dry farming).
As I continued my walk along the last stretch of the Sindh, I realized how this narrow, almost obscure river was flowing beyond its path. Finding the river at times became a task similar to finding a needle in a stack of hay, but its impact was visible through people’s tales based in agricultural practices.
Its legendary old path may have been lost to time, but as I traced it, Sindh showed me many other paths that a river takes. Even when I would walk away from the narrow path of the Sindh, it would not leave me. Sometimes appearing as plastic distributaries and other times in the form of groundwater. With its non-perennial nature, Sindh is without water at times, but its impact and stories flow perennially.
Aoun Hasan is a photographer based in Lucknow, working on environmental and socio-religious cultural themes.
Aoun Hasan is a Veditum fellow who spent time walking along River Sindh, as 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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