Gleaning stories from River Sindh

Cover photo: A stretch of the Sindh River in Bhind district, Madhya Pradesh.

This article is written by GEN member Poorva Goel, based on her experiences from walking along River Sindh as part of the Veditum India Foundation – Moving Upstream: Sindh Fellowship programme.

Rising in the Malwa Plateau, River Sindh flows through Madhya Pradesh and joins River Yamuna along with Rivers Kunwari, Pahuj and Chambal at Pachnada in Uttar Pradesh. 

In late February 2022, my teammate and I had set out to walk upstream from the Sindh’s mouth at Pachnada to Seondha, aiming to cover ~120km in 15 days. I marked the start and end points on my Survey of India map. Everything was an act of improvisation from here on.

Map showing the path taken by Poorva Noel along River Singh. Made by Poorva Goal with help from Siddharth Agarwal.

The lack of documentation from the region made it difficult to anticipate what lay ahead. We walked into the unknown, planning every hour as it came. Tensions on the ground forced us to reroute a few times- after spending the first couple of days in the Pachnada region along River Yamuna and River Chambal, we walked upstream River Sindh from Pachnada to Hukumpura, then downstream from Seondha to Birona, and finally, the team split up and spent time at different stretches of the river. (refer to map above)

Using the river as my compass, I put one foot in front of the other, trying to pace myself through the overwhelming sources of stimuli. I attempted to strike a balance between being present and recording my observations through quick sketches, written notes and photographs. Often subtle visual cues and patterns would emerge which became clearer as I spent more time along the river. Conversations with people helped set the context and fill the gaps in my understanding.

Time seemed to have slowed down by the river. During the day, we made our way through agricultural fields, scrub forests, sand bars, ravines and hairpin bends. We would aim at reaching a village before nightfall for food and shelter.

Pachnada: where the five rivers meet - (Chambal, Yamuna, Singh, Pahuj and Kunwari)

Pachnada: where the five rivers meet  

At Pachnada, the rare spectacle of five rivers converging exceeded all expectations. The floodplains were lush with mustard and wheat fields, and the scrub slopes were dotted with grazing cattle. Over time, the gentle currents of the Chambal and Yamuna rivers have meandered and unloaded their sediment on the floodplains, creating massive sand deposits over 200 meters wide, locally referred to as ‘morham’. This is where the muggers (Crocodile / Crocodylus palustris) come out to sunbathe. They camouflage so seamlessly with the morham that one might miss them at first!

Numerous bird species at the Sindh-Yamuna confluence, Panchnada, Uttar Pradesh (A quick sketch from the field)

The soft sound of the flowing rivers was subdued by birds chattering, darting and splashing in the water. The loudest was the strong wind that blew over the morham, unhindered by the scant vegetation on it. The lack of vegetation does not mean that these are ‘wastelands’. Besides being a crucial habitat for wildlife, they are also utilised for riverbed farming by the communities along the river.

The Morham looked like a desert with flowing water, just how I would have imagined the River Nile flowing through the Sahara Desert.

The first couple of nights, the former Pachnada Yamuna Nadi Mitra Mandali (YNMM) members generously hosted us at their office. 

Mr Indrabhan Singh Parihar, a former president of the committee, was well-acquainted with the region from years of experience in surveying the Yamuna-Pachnada stretch as part of their river restoration program.

Making marks on my map, Indrabhan Ji highlighted the villages we would cross in the following days and drew up a rough timeline for the same.

Indrabhan Ji described the Yamuna as parivartansheel (in flux) – constantly changing and shaping all else around it. Pointing at the mustard fields, he explained how the river replenishes the floodplains every year. Like their ancestors, they reap the benefits of seasonal flooding in the form of bountiful harvests.

Gajan Singh Parihar carries fodder for his employer’s buffaloes. His pregnant goat follows him through a sea of mustard, belching comically from having overeaten. Bithauli, Uttar Pradesh.

However, last year in August, the region witnessed unusually devastating floods that washed away homes, cattle, agricultural fields, and community forests. Speculations suggest that these unprecedented floods were caused by a combination of climate change effects and mismanagement of the dams on the Sindh. The floods had also destroyed important bridges, making transport and connectivity a challenge.

An elderly goat-herder recalled that she had not witnessed a flood this extreme in the 40 years that she had lived here since her marriage. With sparse compensation for their loss and the lack of media coverage, people feel a sense of neglect from both government and society.

The flood debris has rendered the farmlands uncultivable for the foreseeable future in several villages. Sudha Village, Madhya Pradesh.
Disposed by the flood, a few Sahara Adivasi families continue to live in temporary camps near Sudha village, Madhya Pradesh, six months since the flood.

Co-sculptors of the Landscape: the Rivers and their People

The river cut through the central highlands leaving a texture like a knife through butter. In Lalpura village, a passage through the alluvial ravines led us to the Chambal’s bank. The natural earthy structures reminded me of old fort walls.

The landscape was different shades of ochre. Indrajitji, another volunteer at the YNMM, pointed out the varieties of soil and their respective uses in traditional mud houses- padua mitti (white soil) for putai (coating walls), peeli mitti (yellow soil) for lipai (coating floors) and kankarili mitti (lumpy soil) that is not used for much.

Fleeting glimpses of the river dolphins at the Chambal River, Laulpura village, Uttar Pradesh.

Standing at the Yamuna-Chambal confluence in Pachnada, Indrajeet Ji pointed out that one could distinctly see the clear blue water of the Chambal turning darker as it became one with the visibly muddier Yamuna water, possibly because of the effluent load from further upstream

According to local belief, the infamous game of dice between the Kauravas and the Pandavas had taken place on Chambal’s banks. When Draupadi found out that she had been gambled away by her husbands, she cursed the river for being a silent bystander. Consequently, the Chambal river has remained largely untouched by human activities. I thought it was ironic that an ‘unholy’ or ‘cursed’ river becomes polluted upon contact with the ‘holy’ river, Yamuna

Draupadi’s curse might have saved the Chambal’s water from pollution but not from extractive and destructive developmental activities. Sand mining and the four dams that punctuate its flow pose a major threat to the river’s health. This along with poaching has negatively impacted the population of the soos (Gangetic River Dolphin / Platenista Indica) and gharials (Gharial / Gavialis gangeticus). Indrajit Ji has witnessed the river shrink significantly in width and depth in his lifetime alone.

At the Yamuna-Sindh confluence, River Yamuna’s bank was lined with trash, algae, and carcasses of cattle and several individuals of a migratory bird species that my teammate identified as the Egyptian Vulture. While the cattle had died from a common sickness, the reason behind the death of the Egyptian Vultures was unclear. The locals claimed that they had fallen prey to a poison that the poachers use to catch other birds for meat, such as the chakai-chakwa (Ruddy Shellduck / Tadorna ferruginea) and the bhidwa (described as a black bird by the locals, not seen by us.)

A carcass of an Egyptian Vulture.
A sketch of a dead Egyptian vulture along the Yamuna, Panchnada.

Vilayati Babool (Foreign Babool, Prosopis juliflora), has rapidly taken over much of the ravines. The name vilayati or foreign suggests that it is not a native species. This invasive species however has become an integral part of life here as it is commonly used by the locals for fuelwood and fences.  

Navigating our way through the babool forest was like doing an obstacle course made of barbed wire. We were warned that one prick from its thorns could leave one sore and scratching for days. I see how this invasive species could have negatively impacted biodiversity by hindering the movement of larger mammals. 

Gangs, Guns and Gaumata

Chakkarpura, Uttar Pradesh

Large unsupervised herds of cows straying across the morham or being chased out of a farm by a distressed farmer were a common sight. Farmers complained that the ban on the sale of cows for slaughter has led to an unprecedented rise in their numbers. The holy cow that they have worshipped for generations had become the bane of their existence. Not only does this cow-farmer conflict affect the mental and economic well-being of farmers but subjects old cows to an afterlife of abandonment and neglect post their productive years.

An injured bull; the reason behind the injury is unknown. Near Chhenkor, Madhya Pradesh.
Domesticated buffaloes grazing and lounging along the Sindh, near Madori, Madhya Pradesh.

Cattle rearers now prefer rearing buffalos and goats over cows as the former are more economically viable since the ban. We heard iterations of similar stories from several farmers across the floodplains.

The farms were sealed off with Jhakkars (farm fences) made of thorny branches from vilayati babool and Ber (Indian Jujube / Ziziphus Mauritiana) trees. This was not enough by itself to prevent conflict between animals and farmers. The fields need round-the-clock vigilance. At night, the machans, temporary sheds, would be manned by a solo daily-wage worker, typically from a scheduled caste background, to guard a few acres of farmland owned by an upper caste landowner.

Machans overlooking wheat fields in Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh.

Back on our planned walking route, we found ourselves stuck at the Kunwari-Sindh confluence for there were no means for us to cross the Kunwari. The mallah (a boatman from the Mallah community) had already returned home after cutting Berseem (Eyptian clover / Trifolium alexandrinum) as fodder for his buffalos. He was not going to return for his evening fishing until much later. We sat there waiting for a few hours for the mallah to row past us. When it was almost sunset, the people who accompanied us in our wait invited us to spend the night in their village, Bithauli. 

Everyone around us was a little apprehensive about our journey ahead. Stories of a gang of 40 aatankis or dakus (dacoits) had begun resurfacing in the region we were traversing. Their origin was unclear- some had heard that it was men and women from families of rival gangs while others deduced that it had something to do with the preceding UP elections.

Thanks to WhatsApp and social media, several rumours surrounding dacoits-on-the-run were sailing faster than the wind. We met at least one person in every village who knew someone who had heard that somebody had been recently shot and dragged by dacoits in broad daylight. 

Locals harvesting fodder (Berseem) for their buffalos warn against the dacoits.
Young boys huddled over a smartphone along the Sindh.
News about the dacoits in the local newspaper, Patrika.

Our conspicuous appearance in the bihad (ravines) set off alarm bells among some suspecting inhabitants. We were stopped and surrounded by villagers and eventually reported to the police for further investigation thrice within the first four days of our walk. Our hosts in Bithauli village, who had only known us for a few hours, went out of their way to accompany us to the police station and took complete responsibility for us. We were extremely grateful for their kindness but were also guilt-ridden for the undue anxiety we had caused their family. Getting stuck here was a blessing in disguise as it allowed us to develop a close bond with our hosts. 

Fervid locals gathered around to see us leave in the police van and chanted, (Long live the motherland). Bithauli, Uttar Pradesh

No sooner did the police verify us as non-criminals than the people from the village suspected us to be eloping lovers, a trafficked woman and her tormentor and so on. It was apparent that our presence did not make sense there.

However, some of the younger people in the village were mortified and apologetic on behalf of their elders:

“आप उनकी बात का बुरा मत मानियेगा, यह अनपढ़-ग्रामीण इलाका है – उन्होंने डिस्कवरी चैनल नहीं देखा है , इसलिए उनको समझ नहीं आ रहा है कि आप क्या कर रहे हो.”

“Don’t mind what they say. This is a regressive region. They don’t understand what you do because they haven’t watched Discovery Channel.“

After considering the advice of our host family to return home and weighing our options, we continued our walk the next day. The news of our “capture” had reached the villages further upstream before we did! The people, as anyone would expect, were inquisitive about us and concerned about their safety on account of strangers walking through their village. Once again, we found ourselves in the midst of angry and suspecting locals. 

Even with a plan as broad as ‘moving upstream’, we had to adapt and reroute in the face of roadblocks. And thus, we instead began walking downstream from Seondha, Madhya Pradesh, which had been earlier decided as the endpoint of our walk. We hoped that Madhya Pradesh had not yet caught up to the stories about the notorious gangs. 

Walking downstream, once again we were stopped near Birona village, this time by a group of locals armed with two loaded rifles and around ten sticks and axes. They filmed us as we presented our id cards and emptied the contents of our bags at their demand. Confronted by these instances of fear and apprehension yet again, we decided to approach the walk differently.

An armed local who suspected us of being dacoits; a photograph captured on the sly. Near Birona village, Madhya Pradesh.

Our journey had turned out to be far more adrenaline-pumping, spine-chilling and hair-raising than one could have anticipated. From what I know, the other Moving Upstream fellows that had walked along the different stretches of the Sindh river shortly before us, had not experienced anything as extreme. I suppose we happened to be there at the wrong time. Looking back, I felt surprisingly calm negotiating with the suspicious villagers, perhaps it was a survival instinct. 

Escaping their crosshairs, quite literally, I was slowly catching on to the mental turmoil of it all. Fortunately, I was able to carry on with support from Veditum and a synergy of strangers I met and befriended along the river.

Moving Downstream

On our foot traverse down from Seondha town, Madhya Pradesh, we had been warned to expect sand mining on the river. From a distance, we could see people working with shovels in the sand and immediately inferred that they were sand miners. As we cautiously inched closer, we saw that a family was tending to the saplings of gourds, cucumbers, pumpkin, chillies and coriander. This practice of riverbed farming was locally known as kachuari or kachuaee.

Kachuari near Girwasa, Madhya Pradesh.

Between Seondha and Indurkhi, the river formed massive hairpin bends. The heavy sand deposits in this stretch act as magnets for heaps of sand mining activity. They employ people and heavy machinery to extract, load and displace sand and stone from the riverbed.

In places, the river no longer appears like a flowing channel but puddles of water interspersed among sand ramps and mounds. This disturbance in the river’s flow is visible even from satellite imagery.

Graphic from the District Survey Report for Datia District, Madhya Pradesh.
Sand mining on the Sindh in Bhind District, Madhya Pradesh.

Workers and their machines would come to a standstill as soon as they noticed us walking toward them from a distance. Their fixed, hostile gazes followed us till we were no longer in sight. Climbing up and sliding down sand mounds and trenches (some 12ft high), we loaded and displaced a good amount of sand in our shoes ourselves!

Trucks pregnant with river sand frequently passed through the big small towns; one wonders how much of it is legal. Members of a local NGO in Bhind, explained the nexus of different stakeholders, and the extent and impacts of illegal sand mining on the Sindh. They considered unsustainable sand mining to be among the greatest threats to the Sindh river and its human and non-human ecosystems.

Some believed sand mining to be just another source of livelihood for the locals. However, not only does it exploit the river but also those that are hired for lifting sand manually from the riverbed. 

An extremely quick sketch of sand mining in action, captured on the sly with trembling hands and a pounding heart. Bhind district, Madhya Pradesh.

A local boatsman in Seondha- “I don’t want to do it (sand mining). The tractor owners employ local people to mine the sand. They load tractors manually at night. It’s done illegally. I don’t do it because it involves a lot of violence. Sometimes they don’t pay you on time and sometimes nothing at all. The tractor owner makes 10,000-20,000 rupees a night. We do all the work and he takes the money. You have to fight to get your share for your labour which is something I am not able to do.”

Improvising: Reframing the Approach  

When rerouting and walking downstream did not work, we had to figure out a way to push on without endangering ourselves and others. Our safest bet was to split up, base ourselves out of different small towns and spend time along the river for the remaining field days. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to walk the landscape as planned. It helped to remind myself how lucky we had been to come out of it all unscathed.  

However, the time spent by the river was gratifying in its own way. It was the perfect opportunity to dive deeper into what had piqued my interest during the walk. For instance, besides the more predictable sources of livelihood such as agriculture, cattle rearing and fishing, people’s subsistence was entwined with the river in more ways than I could have conceived before this walk!

As I stood observing pilgrims and passersby at the Narwar-Magroni bridge, I heard a young boy yell from under the bridge, “वह १० रूपए टपका दो !” – Push that tenner off the bridge!

Raju, a seven-year-old boy, collected coins that the pilgrims left at the bridge. He did not want me to know that he doesn’t go to school and instead gleans money and edible offerings by the river. “The financial situation at home and the condition of government schools have made him reluctant to attend school,” admitted an older friend of Raju’s, on his behalf.

I met numerous young boys like Raju along the Sindh who dive into the river to find coins in order to support their families, and returned to their stretch of the river and spent more time with them. I will be expanding on these accounts at a later stage.

Close to Pachnada, two brothers filled up a gunny bag with plastic waste washed ashore by the Yamuna river. They made a living from collecting and selling the plastic to recycling plants in Kanpur. In a day, they walked 40-50 km on their hunt for recyclable plastics, putting our daily target of walking 10km to shame.

In Shivpuri District, the Sahariya Adivasi people harvest river sedges and other Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) for a living. They are especially vulnerable to changes in the river’s ecosystem. The recent floods washed away the social forest in their district, forcing them to walk an extra ~10km to procure NTFPs. In addition to this, they struggle to acquire kutis (huts) and ration cards that they are entitled to under central and state government schemes. Now pushed further into poverty since the flood, some have had to succumb to gleaning grains from the fields they work in. The situation is only going to worsen with floods becoming increasingly intense and frequent due to climate change. 

Degradation of nature and the massive deficit in opportunities for education and employment within the region pushes people to migrate to other states in search of daily wage labour, usually as factory workers or street food hawkers.

Rajendra Manjhi, 18, from the Kevat community is a skilled diver, fisherman and boatsman. He spends time away from home, vending snacks at popular forts in Rajasthan. 

In conversation, Rajendra, who wears many hats to make a living, said that he hoped to find opportunities in his village itself so that he can stay close to the river. I noticed that he always referred to the Sindh as Ganga Maiyya, mother Ganga.  

Walking Woman, Watching Women

Throughout my journey, people around us discouraged me from carrying on the walk as they felt that it was especially unsafe for a young woman out there. Concerns about my safety and feelings of suspicion around my character were expressed with an equal measure of frankness. While I faced uncomfortable questions and situations as a woman researcher, I was constantly reminded of my privilege and freedom in comparison to the women I met on my walk. 

Women from the upper-caste, landowning families were not permitted to step outside the house to protect their respectability, unless it was for a temple visit. Only women from Adivasi communities or lower class and caste backgrounds could be seen outside, given that it was always only for work and never for leisure. 

The purdah for women was indispensable, be it while working in the fields or at home. At certain banks of the river that were associated with temples, young girls and older women enjoyed a marginally greater sense of physical freedom than women who were in the reproductive stages of their lives. 

Marriage of underage girls was not uncommon and the male child was seen as a necessary component of a complete family. All married women customarily sat on the floor whereas only the male members of the family sat on chairs and cane beds, and socialised in the baithak or common room.

After gathering fodder, she returns to tend to her children.

I could not get the name of the lady in the picture above; she wished not to be seen loitering around and rushed back with her bundle of fodder. She insisted on wearing her pardah (veil) around her male relatives who can be seen lounging in the background. 

Finding closure

Every day I looked forward to finding a Ber tree on my walk. The reward of its fruit was just what I needed to replenish the electrolytes that were depleted through walking on those cloudless afternoons in central India. My eyes had grown accustomed to the soothing ochre-blue-green palette and shifting textures of the landscape, and my heart to the undammed kindness of strangers. Despite my blistered feet and sore body, I dreaded tearing myself away from the river and returning to hunching over a desk all day.

Chulchul, who had accompanied me for a part of my walk, offered to shake the bed tree for a quick, midday snack.

During my last hour by the river, I waited in anticipation for a metaphor or an epiphany to strike that would encapsulate the meaning of a river but it didn’t. I thought that perhaps the fragments of that meaning lay right in front of me. The meaning is made in relation to all that interacts with the river. 

The Sindh is a conduit of life- culture, local economies, biodiversity and more. The Sindh, 470km long, forms an essential part of this intricate mesh of several tributaries, rivers and distributaries that have cradled and nurtured life across the northern span of India. A better understanding of the river, its significance and why it must flow freely could keep this channel of life from disappearing out of existence.

A little boy hunting fish, stands atop a tree for a good view of his catch in the Sindh.

Revisiting my notes, sketches and photographs to write this piece I feel grateful to Veditum for this intimate experience with a river. I am looking forward to digging deeper into and engaging with all that I absorbed in this walking study and sharing these humbling encounters with people, places and paradigms along the lesser-known Sindh river.

Poorva is a cartoonist and graphic storyteller who has been working on themes of social and ecological justice and is interested in documenting people, places and paradigms. Poorva took part in the Global Environments Network Summer Academy in 2022 and is a GEN member.

This piece was originally published on Veditum.