The man who follows India’s rivers on foot

Meet Siddharth Agarwal, who has walked along the Ganga, Ken and Betwa rivers over the years. Now, his observations have made their way into a documentary titled Moving Upstream

Published - February 21, 2021 10:32 am IST - Chennai

By the Ganga when it enters the floodplains downstream of Haridwar

By the Ganga when it enters the floodplains downstream of Haridwar

Siddharth Agarwal has been following India’s rivers on foot for four years. Ask him, and he has many stories to share — about apple trees that are believed to go into slumber when it snows; about fishermen who have to be content with working behind dams instead of across entire rivers; about waters that are flowing less and dwindling more, over the years. These stories have made their way into photo stories, educational events, news reports, articles and even a film.

Says Siddharth over the phone from Kolkata, “My first walk was along the Ganga; I started from Ganga Sagar in West Bengal and went all the way till Gangotri in Uttarakhand. This was in 2016-17; when the river banks were not conducive for walking right alongside, I would walk a little distance away, on a parallel route. But for the most part, I could look at the river while walking.” It was particularly difficult during the monsoon, he recalls, when “the river had grown into the floodplains of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.”

Soon after, he walked along the river Ken that flows through Bundelkhand in Central India. “While the river is said to be 430-odd kilometres long, my route ended up being over 600 kilometres, because it was not possible to walk along the river all the time,” he recalls.

The Ken walk was particularly cumbersome. It took two months and had to be broken into three parts, for monetary and other reasons. So why is Siddharth going through the hassle at all? Because, he says, there are stories along these banks that are inextricably tied to the water itself; stories that are not being told. His walks over the years have put him in touch with myriad communities, and made him bear witness to a number of developmental projects’ impact on the ground. From dying river beds to disrupted livelihoods, Siddharth’s observations and writings have made their way to platforms like the South Asian Network Of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), and are now being told as a documentary, titled Moving Upstream .

Says Siddharth, “We hope to showcase the documentary in schools and colleges soon; it is currently doing the rounds in a few festivals.” The film has been made by Veditum India Foundation, started by Siddharth for the dual purpose of helping others continue such walks. “It’s a media and research organisation,” says Siddharth, “All of our work till now has been crowd-funded.”

To that end, Moving Upstream is also a project that looks at organising more such solo walks. Siddharth points out two reasons for doing so: “One person’s perspective on these issues is not enough. Also, these situations are not static, so I don’t want these walks to be static or one-off either. There is also a sense of urgency, because these landscapes are changing so drastically.”

In some cases, however, the team has managed to go a step further than just documentation. “For example, in the Char Dham project in Uttarakhand, we managed to connect some people on the ground to people who were part of a Supreme Court committee looking into the project,” he recalls.

Moving Upstream also partnered with another organisation to enable a walk along the river Ken, and has now constituted a fellowship that encourages young Indians to walk along rivers. He clarifies, “We are not looking for a particular skill set or background. People from different walks of life can go experience the rivers, and help create an archive of stories.”

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