Veditum: Meet the Activist who is Documenting India’s Rivers — Siddharth Agarwal

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The rivers of India play an important role in the lives of its people. From nurturing the millions who live on the banks of these rivers to nourishing its religions, these waters are sacred for more reasons than one. Yet, as the world faces unending challenges from the growing climatic imbalances, these rivers face threats unlike any before. One young activist is on a mission to document these Indian rivers with his not-for-profit initiative Veditum (meaning ‘to understand’ in Sanskrit) by walking along the banks of these rivers to comprehend life around these unique ecosystems. His name is Siddharth Agarwal and we got into a conversation with him to understand what he’s learnt along the way. In times when ideas such as the Dibang Valley hydropower project gain headlines for all the wrong reasons, we may find ideas more sustainable amongst those who trudge along the unbeaten path.

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BREAKING STEREOTYPES, NO ROCKET SCIENCE.

With a flowing beard and a happy disposition, Siddharth Agarwal doesn’t seem like your typical jhola-carrying activist stereotype. An IITian who majored in aerospace engineering, he is quite literally a rocket scientist, who later changed tracks to set a new course for himself. “College was very conducive to experimentation. It allowed you to experiment and fail. I was always part of something else that was not part of the course design,” says the young environmentalist recalling his college days.

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“A year before his graduation, my friend Ujjawal at the IIT suggested that we do something crazy to test our limits of physical and mental prowess. And we embarked on a test trip with a plan to bicycle for 75 km, before catching a train to come back. What ended up happening was that we didn’t return on the train, but on our bicycles, and our test trip ended up covering 150 km. It was exhilarating.” And thus began a theme that was to repeat itself many times over — to take a leap of faith.

SHOCK AND AWE

Hailing from a traditional business family (His father runs a small medical shop in Kolkata), the idea of activism was met with an equal measure of disbelief and apprehension. “In their social circles, this was unheard of. Yet, I’d been raised on a diet of Discovery Channel and National Geographic content, and always wanted to be an explorer/ adventurer. I started doing things on a small scale, and my parents were soon taken into confidence. It also helped that I was earning my pocket money doing freelance work and thus didn’t have to depend on them for finances. This really helps when you hail from a middle-class background.” At the end, it was a series of small shocks instead of one large shock for Siddharth to get his way. It helped that he was stubborn. “Looking back, it seems like a long journey, but it was all exploring small things, serially, one by one. Giving time to the process worked for me and my family. You talk about squads, and not many think of their parents as one. Yet they had instilled these values in me as a child, so they have a large part to play in all of this.” Thus found the young IITian his way to pursue a cause of his own choosing.

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SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND, THEN TO BE UNDERSTOOD.

In 2015,  Siddharth founded Veditum — a research and media organisation working at the intersection of social, cultural and environmental issues with a mission to seek a grassroots-level understanding of issues. “Our longer-term vision is to create public archives on important issues such as water management and rivers so that it helps us understand how changes in these ecosystems are impacting us. The goal is further to make government accountable via the documentation of first-hand evidence. At the core of Veditum is grassroots research using modern multimedia tools to create public archives, commit to storytelling and make public systems accountable,” he explains.

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And although he is the only full-time employee at this foundation, there are others who volunteer and help out on project basis. “A lot of my work is crowdfunded, and it keeps my allegiance to the work I do. We cannot compensate people as per industry levels because we don’t make much, but that has not stopped people from contributing their time and effort. People have really risen to the occasion,” he remarks in confidence.

MOVING UPSTREAM

At Veditum, Siddharth has headlined three ambitious projects. Two of them, ‘City Water Walks’ and ‘Walking Back To My Roots’ although initiated, have reached a few roadblocks due to paucity of resources. One, however, named ‘Moving Upstream,’ has the potential to find others with whom the cause finds growing resonance.

The project has really expanded today. The ‘Moving Upstream’ series is an attempt to document the rivers of India, bringing out first-person narratives as well as large-scale data archives on the rivers’ condition and lives of the people of the basin.

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“It had started with my walk along the mighty Ganga. I had always had it in my mind to walk along the river, documenting it. Today it has become an idea where we find more people wanting to walk along the rivers to document them,” he reveals.

Siddharth walked along the Ganga for almost 3,000 km, from the oceans to the mountains, capturing stories of its people. The Ganga basin accounts for 26% of the Indian landmass and serves almost 40% of its population. Ganga remains one of the four greatest rivers of the world. But he didn’t stop there. Soon thereafter, others from Veditum walked along the Betwa River, a tributary of the Yamuna, while Siddharth walked along Ken river in Madhya Pradesh.

“Over the last two years, I worked on a project where I collaborated with a foreign journalist Paul Saolpek who had founded the ‘Out of Eden Walk’ — a 21,000 mile-odyssey and a decade-long experiment in slow journalism. During his trip to India, I walked with him for about 1500 km, and in our discussions decided to get on board with Veditum’s Moving Upstream fellowship programme, which saw the participation of 8 people. As a result, ground-level researches have found their way to online publishing as well as academia, both in India and abroad,” the young activist explains.

“We cannot document everything on a single walk, and the research cannot offer just one person’s bias. Getting others to join in was imperative. We want to repeat the exercise across each of these rivers every 3 years, so that we document the changes periodically. I don’t think all our efforts will bear fruits in just a year, but we’re looking at a 30 year time frame. That’s when our understanding of the social, environmental and cultural changes will draw a better picture,” he ruminates. 

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UNEXPECTED LEARNINGS

Did you know that the Har Ki Pauri ghat in Haridwar where millions of us go worship Ganga is not really the river, it is a canal. The river is completely diverted in Haridwar, and the main stream of the river runs completely dry. And this information is easily available, all it needed was for someone to walk alongside the trail to discover it,” Siddharth reveals. Walking serves as an incredible tool to get the conversations going as Siddharth explains. “People felt disarmed. Instead of traversing on a bicycle, carrying cameras, I realised that people were more forthcoming when I approached them while walking. The unsaid notions of power dynamics completely collapsed. It was a sign that my method of investigation was working and people weren’t intimidated by my presence,” he shares.

As a result, Siddharth was able to discover much of the country through unencumbered lenses. “People were very hospitable and I stayed for almost 6 months living with random strangers who invited me into their homes. They revealed their stories, and took interested in sharing their lives.” Revealing an incident he explains, “During one of my walks during the monsoon, a farmer took me with him to where the water had receded, and showed me the smaller streams and islands that had formed in the rivers. He showed me how beyond the silt, the mud wasn’t too deep, and that was perfect for growing peas.” Flooding although causing much destruction sometimes, is an important reason how lands become fertile. “The biggest crowd funders on my projects have been the kind people who have given me food and space, and shared their stories. On the day that the farmer took me to the river island, I witnessed about 100 sarus cranes. Sarus cranes are the state bird of UP, and an incredible sight awaited me. The best part of the learnings was the serendipity that creeped in every day,” he tells.

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AN URGE TO DOCUMENT ON FILM

For Siddharth, the road to authentic documentation naturally extended itself in the form of a documentary film, which was crowdsourced from day 1. “The film is based on the walk along Ganga, and the whole project is crowdfunded — from buying the equipment, to daily expenses, and paying people who accompanied me on my journey. We still haven’t finished the film, but all those who contributed have been extremely accommodative. The idea behind the film was to amplify the voices of the communities living along the rivers.” A thing that irked Siddharth which he touched upon in his interview was how most news reports only carried the words of the bureaucrats and politicians, but never really the people directly impacted by the rivers. “I wanted to change that. Secondly, it allows the viewers to understand the underlying issues while raising questions of the powers that be. It’s important to set the context and the background.” 

LESSONS FROM THE PAST FOR THE FUTURE

During the interview, we questioned the young environmentalist about his misgivings with regards to the Dibang project. The Etalin Hydroelectric project in the lush Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh has been the eye of the news storm in the last few days with environmental activists and scientists calling out the project that threatens to clear over 270,000 trees. (The Environmental Panel on the project recently deferred its decision on the project citing multiple environmental threats as pointed out by the members of civil society. “Although I’ve been watching all the news on this project from afar, I can’t help but see how much destruction this project has the potential to cause.”

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He says, “When I traversed the banks of Ken river, I was able to make my first-hand observations. The government has this ambitious plan to link all the major rivers in the country, and one of their pet projects under this scheme is to link the Ken river with the Betwa river.” He worries, “They want to make a dam on Ken river and place this in the middle of a tiger reserve— the Panna tiger reserve. This is when at least 20% of the park will get directly submerged, and 50% of the park will be split into two parts and the habitat areas will get fragmented. With 10 years taken in construction with almost 6000 people employed, you can well understand how this could quite easily become catastrophic if mismanaged.”

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“If you look at how the project has been pushed over the years for clearances, you’ll realise how much of it is sham. For eg: “The public hearings, the consultation, the assessment; they all feel like a big scam. We had realised that they are going to divert the water from the river, but it was when we did our walks that we realised how it may affect both the people living above and below the dam site.”

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“We went across almost 60-65 villages along the river and we stayed with the people, walked and broke bread with them. At least 90% people didn’t have a clue about the project. We were the first people who took this information to the people and were the first to talk about it. And people were flabbergasted and shocked on learning about the details of the project. They had questions — How will our springs recharge, how will our crops grow? For people who live under the dam site, this will become a problem. For people who live above the dam site, the government can stop the development happening from the above areas, so that the water can come and stay in that dam.”

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He warns, “This has precedence in India, for eg: the Ken-Betwa project may lead to massive deforestation in Bundelkhand, one of India’s most drought-prone regions. Just the first phase of the project will result in the loss of up to 23 lakh trees.” It is imperative to learn from the mistakes of the past to not commit those in the future. As Siddharth explains, such voices need to get louder with each passing day, as we step towards a more conscious world.

(You can learn more about veditum on the following link www.veditum.org.)

© 2020 Gut & Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.

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