Bundelkhand has been struggling with recurring droughts, economic decline and political marginalization for the past few decades. Climate change has exacerbated these issues. Shail Joshi and Radhika Singh embarked on a walk along the Betwa River to document a wide range of perspectives on environmental issues, livelihoods, religion, and inequality in the region. They spoke with women, men, and children about their hopes for the future. By traversing through Bundelkhand on foot, Joshi and Singh were able to slow down and experience their surroundings in a truly unconventional way. This photo essay showcases excerpts from the book ‘Along the Betwa’ which documents a 130 km. long walking journey of Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi through the drought prone region of Bundelkhand in India. This journey was part of the Moving Upstream Fellowship hosted by the Veditum India Foundation and National Geographic's Out of Eden Walk. and the book was published by ORO Editions.
Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh
A Riverwalk Begins
In January 2020, we embarked on a walk down the Betwa River in Bundelkhand. Starting from Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh and covering 130 kilometres, we engaged with a range of communities and ecosystems. The mode of walking was essential to our methodology, as it allowed us to stop, listen and absorb all the details that make rural life what it is. Our goal was to understand the relationship of agrarian communities with the riverine systems they live next to and the impact of extractive and exploitative practices on their lives. This historically significant river, the Betwa, originates in the Vindhya Range in Madhya Pradesh and flows in a northeast direction before veering east and joining the Yamuna river in Uttar Pradesh. Much of the Betwa runs through Bundelkhand, a region that stretches from Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh. Bundelkhand is one of the poorest and most drought-prone areas in the country, with a rapidly sinking ground water level and highly variable rainfall.
Planning Riverine Systems
Besides its historical significance, the Betwa was chosen for the river walk because it is part of a controversial river-linking project. The Ken River in Uttar Pradesh, which the government has described as having a “surplus” of water, will be linked to the Betwa, which has a “deficiency” of water, through a 231 km canal and a series of dams, including a 77-meter high dam on the Ken. This would be the beginning of an astounding 31 river-linking projects planned throughout the country. If it is carried out, the river-linking project will cause enormous environmental damage. Over 9,000 hectares of land will be submerged, of which 6,017 hectares is forest land. Much of this land is situated in the Panna Tiger Reserve where up to 23 lakh (2.3 million) mature trees will be destroyed. Moreover, it is not certain whether the project would actually substantially alleviate water scarcity. Problems such as a growing population and the deforestation of lands that retain water are continuing to exacerbate the water shortage. While climate change has led to a decrease in rainfall over the last few years, sand mining, the planting of water intensive crops, and other development activities have also dried up portions of the river.
Water Crisis Leading to Agrarian Crisis
While people in semi-arid Bundelkhand have traditionally grown pulses, many farmers have switched to growing water-intensive wheat and rice crops. This is because they fetch higher prices on the market. But these water intensive crops have put added pressure on the already low groundwater table. One farmer named Ravi told us “last season, there were two months of continuous rain,” he said. “It washed away all the soil and left us with only rocks. But when we need water, it does not come. I cannot get a tube well, because it will cost Rs 500,000 (approximately $6,500), 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?” 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?
Diminishing Livelihoods and Quality of Life
Sand mining is a lucrative business in India. Indian cities are swelling rapidly and the demand for sand, which is a key ingredient in cement, is booming. India is second only to China in the amount of sand that it mines. While a small fraction of sand mining is legal, the majority of operations are run by the mafia. Rivers are being mercilessly stripped of their sand, leading to degraded groundwater reserves, poorer water quality, and sinking water tables. These effects hit the water scarce region of Bundelkhand especially hard. Sand mining also causes riverbank erosion and decreases biodiversity. Halfway through our walk, we encountered the biggest sand mining operation we had seen so far. At least thirty trucks were lined up on the banks to transport sand. A JCB with its massive metal claw stood right in the middle of the river. After taking a quick burst of photos we hid our cameras and phones and continued walking along the river. The sand mining on the opposite bank continued unabated into the evening.
Short Sighted Regional Planning
One pradhan (elected village representative) told us that he was engaged in sand mining. “Sixty to seventy percent 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 15,000 a month ($130-200). Now, however, big, politically connected corporations from other states are carrying out sand mining.” It seemed like a catch-22 situation. People depended on sand mining for income, but 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.
Land, Food, and Water
Like many other parts of India, the groundwater that makes up the vast majority of water used in irrigation is rapidly depleting. In some districts in Bundelkhand, up to 98 percent of the water used in agriculture is drawn from borewells. With only the more privileged sections of society able to afford borewells, access to groundwater is characterized by high levels of inequality. Many people have to rely on surface water or seasonal rains. In this context, the government falsely claims that the river-linking project will help provide water in drought-prone areas and revitalize agriculture. Rather than promote small-scale and cost-effective solutions that collect, conserve, and utilize water more wisely, officials say that this Rs. 18,000 crore (approximately $235 million) project is a one-stop solution to mitigating agrarian distress in Bundelkhand. During zaiid, or the summer crop season, some farmers get just Rs 5-6 for a kilogram of vegetables. They were growing lauki (bottle gourd), karela (bitter gourd), channa (chickpea), pumpkin, tomatoes, and onions, as well as mustard and wheat. These crops, grown on small farms throughout the region, dotted the barren landscape with patches of bright green and yellow.
Gender and Water Management
Over the duration of the walk, we saw a few families dotted along the banks of the river. If not farming, the families would be using the river banks for washing clothes, bathing, cleaning utensils, or just swimming. We saw some children turning somersaults and splashing water on each other, while their mothers kept one eye on them and the other on the clothes being washed. It was the first time we saw how people lived before hand pumps made it unnecessary to go all the way to the river to bathe and wash. Now, people—especially women—might go weeks without seeing the river that was just a kilometer or so away from them. After talking with a few women, we learned that many of them were, like their husbands, laborers on farms along the river. However, this was not always the situation, as women’s work depended on their caste and economic status in the village. When we asked one of our hosts if she had ever wanted to work outside the house—on the field, perhaps, alongside the men? She gave us a very emphatic “No.” “We like working at home, inside,” she said. “What would we gain by being on the field? Only lower caste women have to work outside—it is a lot more work than just taking care of the house and the children.” Studies conducted in the region affirm that most women working in the fields are from lower castes.
Ancient Architecture by the River
Beyond the agrarian and environmental issues the river and its communities face, the river offered us some moments of respite. Bundelkhand is historic region with its communities and architecture tracing their roots to the 14th century. In a village called Jalalpur, a dozen ancient temples lay facing the river. The most magnificent one was a combination of three structures, the largest of which rose from the foot of the river to about fifty feet in the air. A series of elongated steps led down to the water. Generally, most ancient monuments are planned along a symmetrical axis, but this particular ruin, where the biggest structure was not aligned with the other two, defied those historic norms. Every monsoon the entire temple would be submerged, resting under the water, until the river once again receded to expose its glorious rock-cut exterior. From the temple, we could see a bridge spanning the river connecting the two banks. There was a line of trucks crossing it, carrying mounds of sand. No matter where we were, there was always sand mining. That was the one thing that did not change from one village to the next.
Most villages were a collage of modern and traditional houses. New houses were often made of brick or concrete and were more durable to changes in the weather. Their design no longer followed patterns of vernacular architecture, where the courtyard is the epicenter of the house. Those who still had vernacular houses spent a lot of time on constant maintenance, which the adult women of the house were generally in charge of. Cow dung, used as a substitute for plaster, would have to be layered on the walls every couple of months. This would keep the interior of the house warm during cold winters and cold during scorching hot summers—something that pukka houses are not able to do. Pukka houses made of concrete also consume far greater amounts of water and fine sand, both of which add to the woes of the river due to increased dredging.
Unsustainable Policies Adding to Water Crisis
The turn in village architecture towards using the high water consuming concrete as the fundamental building material was largely due to government policies de-incentivising traditional building methods. For example, The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) program (Prime Minister’s Housing Program—earlier called Indira Awas Yojana), is a government initiative to provide affordable housing to the country’s poor that only supports the building of pukka, or concrete houses, which many believed was a good thing. Many houses in villages were under construction with PMAY funds. “Because our population is constantly increasing, we can always add a floor to our house when our kids get married. But that is not the case with vernacular architecture. Another issue is that we have to spend a lot of energy in constantly maintaining kuccha houses,” one of the pradhans said. This paradoxical situation where the building material would provide stability to rural families was at the same depleting the very resource their lives, outside of their homes, depends on. Unfortunately, such scenarios prevail across the region and the country.
Development and Caste System
The architecture of many villages reflected the historical wealth of its inhabitants; many of the houses were quite grand, with intricate carvings on their entrance arches and cornices. The streets of these villages called to mind those from old Indian bazaars, with each turn bringing new textures, materials, and colors. In most villages the upper and lower castes still use different streets. We encountered such discriminatory segregation of spaces in several villages. The houses belonging to people of lower castes were always on the peripheries, away from public amenities. The caste system is still deeply rooted in Bundelkhand. An elderly man, who we met in one of the villages, was unsure if we would have chai (tea) at his place, given that he belonged to a lower caste. We were simultaneously touched by his kindness and saddened and angered by the fact that he felt lower than us by the structures of caste.
Water and Caste Based Discrimination
It seemed clear to us, however, that pockets of wealth and privilege existed in the region. The pradhans that we had come across were generally wealthier and more privileged than most other people. They were also largely upper caste. We speculated that positions of influence were, more often than not, granted to those who already had the most power. This served to reinforce existing hierarchies within the structure of society. The members of lower caste households would find it much more difficult to find places in the village panchayat (elected council). In many areas in Bundelkhand, access to water is quite limited for lower caste communities. Borewells, even those drilled by the government, are usually controlled by upper castes. Sometimes, people from lower castes are denied the use of handpumps or wells and have to travel much further to find water sources they are allowed to use. When the government sends water tanks to places suffering from drought, Dalit villages are often the last to receive them.
Silence and Reflection
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, and talk to interesting passers-by.
Radhika Singh, an early stage researcher at NEWAVE, focuses on improving water governance and management. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Indian Express. Radhika completed her master in Urban Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Shail Joshi, works with vulnerable communities in building climate resilience globally. He is an architect by training and a passionate photographer. Shail completed his master in Urban Planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.