Walking the talk: The Environmentalist who Travels on Foot in India
Parindey: Siddharth Agarwal
Alivelihood: Environmental Activist, Media Professional, and Educator
Region: Kolkata, West Bengal
“Walking has the capacity to disarm someone you are meeting. And that allows for a very fluid, very fluent conversation, with whoever you are meeting, and all the layers of separation that we generally have on meeting someone new, walking enabled the removal of all these layers, in a very direct, intimate conversation, in a very quick amount of time”, argues Siddharth Agarwal, in his documentary “Moving Upstream: Ganga”. One is forced to think how a mundane form of movement like walking can effectively dismantle complex societal power dynamics. This is an intriguing story of an IITian who started his journey in the social sector on foot, walking by rivers in India, to understand and document the predicament of communities who reside beside waterbodies. An aerospace engineering graduate from IIT Kharagpur, Siddharth has been on many long walks in the Indian subcontinent. Most notably, his six-month-long walk from river Ganga in West Bengal to Gangotri in Uttarakhand. Moving Upstream: Ganga is based on this 3000-kilometre-long slow travel experience. From downstream to upstream, Siddharth’s movement encapsulates not only the stories of diverse individuals who live by the river but also the trajectory of Ganga as a waterbody and the kind of impact it has endured because of human interventions in varied capacities.
Based in Kolkata, Siddharth founded the Veditum India Foundation, a not-for-profit research and media organisation working at the intersection of social, environmental, and cultural issues. According to him, the idea behind this initiative is to facilitate the production of grassroots research wherein the emphasis is on originality based on lived experiences of people and their communities. “Seeing and learning about injustices that exist and knowing one’s limitation can be rather frustrating. I have had an incredibly steep curve of learning knowledge about the environment and people’s lives first-hand which is very different from the idea of a progressive India or the world’s largest democracy. It feels like a joke sometimes hearing these notions about India that are farfetched from reality. It makes me feel schizophrenic about reality”, asserts Siddharth who founded Veditum intending to form publicly accessible records. As part of this initiative, he has spent significant time in the field to understand the complexities associated with ground realities, document diverse viewpoints, and maintain an archive on this. For instance, if one takes the example of the issues concerning rivers in India, what one knows based on literature and what one perceives while being near rivers are two distinct vantage points. Using unique and innovative techniques, Veditum brings forth stories of ordinary Indian people and the larger environment they are a part of.
At present, as part of Veditum, Siddharth is primarily working on issues concerning rivers in India. The larger vision behind the documentation that he does is his mission that calls for collective action which may influence policy-level change. “I have always felt strongly about issues concerning the environment and social justice. Even when I did not fully understand what these meant. It was during college that I was motivated to go out and learn more about these issues. Over the years, what I have learnt, has informed my present viewpoint”, says Siddharth who believes to be on a learning journey. Veditum is primarily working on four major projects, i.e., a) the Moving Upstream project series that engages with India’s river ecosystems and riparian communities, b) a fellowship designed for young professionals to experience and document the same, c) city water walks campaigns to understand urban water commons and where water in urban cities come from, and d) an environmental accountability project under which the focus is to monitor and evaluate floods and their impact in Bihar.
Through the Moving Upstream fellowship experience, which is an extension of the original Ganga project, Veditum offers youth to engage, document, and endeavour on a journey about knowing waterways in India. This fellowship is co-hosted by Veditum alongside the National Geographic Society’s ‘Out of Eden Walk’ initiative. As part of the Eden Walk endeavour, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek is walking across the world in the footsteps of our ancestors who discovered the world on foot, starting from Africa. Thus far, as part of this fellowship for over three years, fourteen Moving Upstream fellows have walked thousands of kilometres along River Betwa and Sindh in India. The stories by the fellowship participants were published on platforms such as the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI) and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP), amongst other forums. Furthermore, in an individual capacity, Siddharth has completed other river walks in India such as Ken and is currently walking along River Mahakali in Uttarakhand, as part of the Moving Upstream project series.
Aside from the long river walks, due to Veditum’s efforts, various individuals and groups have successfully documented urban water bodies in their own cities. With on-ground exercises already undertaken in Mumbai, Chennai, and Ahmedabad, there are plans of expanding this idea to other cities in India. The primary idea behind the ‘City Water Walk’ initiative is to understand the origin of the water that one drinks in urban spaces – where it comes from, how clean it may be, and to maintain a public record of the damages being inflicted upon water bodies in cities. “All this work that we do at Veditum is for evidence creation. The negation of reality happens only because there is not enough evidence for the public, aside from official records. Maintaining robust public records by enterprising citizens can address this kind of negation. If someone’s land is taken by force, it should be documented. Without this documentation, rampant corruption or illegality takes place”, argues Siddharth whose initial journey was driven by the idea of exploration and meeting people with whom otherwise he would not have interacted in unfamiliar landscapes. Walking as a tool enables one to break away from pre-existing societal power dynamics that one implicitly adheres to. It allows one to place oneself in unknown geography at ease and observe the local circumstances. Siddharth believes social progress and harmony can take place if individuals reach out to each other and lend an ear.
As part of their environmental accountability project, Siddharth has collaborated with Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a public charitable trust working on issues concerning water distress in the Eastern part of India, to monitor floods and their overarching impact in Bihar. In recent years, states in East and Northeast India have witnessed alarming floods resulting in widespread ecological damage and loss of livelihood. The Sundarbans in West Bengal, for instance, were significantly hit by four major cyclones in the span of three years – Fani (2019), Bulbul (2019), Amphan (2020), and Yaas (2021). The Bihar Floods 2021 project, initiated by Veditum, is an attempt to monitor the flood situation in Bihar and its official state responses. This project acts as a repository of flood-related information and governance. Siddharth hopes to build more on this learning experience and expand the environmental accountability project on other major issues such as illegal river sand mining and deforestation by partnering with other like-minded individuals. “The work that we produce, be it writing articles, making films, contributing to magazines, or delivering talks is to engage with diverse groups of people and make information on pressing issues such as climate change more accessible. Our work can effectively be utilised by researchers, climate activists, journalists, or even a concerned citizen”, echoes Siddharth who believes it is the least he can do as a co-citizen of this country.
In addition to his work at Veditum, Siddharth is also part of various other forums such as the India Rivers Forum, Rights of Rivers South Asia (RORSA), and India Youth Water Network (IYWN). He believes in fostering partnerships and using innovative methods for the collective good. He has contributed in myriad ways, from communication, research, and design, to photo and video documentation, on varied issues being raised on these platforms. He hopes to encourage and support more young individuals in India to participate or collaborate in knowing the ecosystems that they are a part of. In doing so, he promotes walking as a method to witness one’s surroundings and be actively present in the world. This quest came with many challenges. For instance, during the Ganga journey, Siddharth was asked questions like, “do you have permission to walk here?”, or “why are you walking here?”. Instead of considering this as a difficulty, Siddharth used such an opportunity to interact with diverse individuals and embraced some of the long-lasting human connections he formed in the process. Something he cherishes as these connections are organic and without intermediaries, which is the first step towards understanding individuals or communities different from one’s own. In conclusion, based on Siddharth’s journey, one could see how it is possible to talk about social and ecological issues, suggest meaningful changes based on ground realities and lived experiences of people, and at the same time advocate for policy reforms. One may be keen on referring to this unique practice as walking the talk as opposed to mere talk.
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