when every step taken is a new discovery

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The year was 2014. Siddharth Agarwal, along with a friend set out on a cycling expedition. The journey spanned over a month, from Kharagpur to Mumbai and that too in the peak of the summer season. They called it ‘The Madness Project’. And quite aptly so! They did it to gain an authentic understanding of the issues the communities they met on the way. His next major initiative titled ‘Back to the Roots’, had him walking across Rajasthan in search of stories and cultures from the place his ancestors belong and to shed light on the forgotten traditional art forms, such as Shekawati paintings and architecture. His present undertaking is titled ‘Moving Upstream’. It includes a walk upstream along the banks of the Ganga from Sagar Island in West Bengal to Tapovan in Uttarakhand. This is in order to grasp the socio-economic, ecological and political reality of those communities living alongside the river and to understand the life of the river itself. 

The following interview with Siddharth by Gagana N.V. gives a glimpse into some of the finer aspects of his project.

What triggered the idea for the ‘moving upstream’ project? How did it all begin? 

The trigger cannot be defined as a single event, not even a singular series of events or incidents, but the culmination of multiple streams with each contributing their own parts. A few of the many streams that have led to this:

Orientation towards environmental issues: A long standing belief that started with my parents and teachers teaching lessons about global climate change that I took too literally, followed by personal experiences like observing glacial recession at Gaumukh (on a trek with the International Award for Young People) and binge watching National Geographic and Discovery Channels. 

Past experience from social projects: When I was in school  volunteering for Rang De or trying to design a module for Early Childhood Education in urban slums or walking and cycling across India in an attempt to understand how things in our country work (or do not), exposure to a variety of issues has helped me mature.

Serendipity: In principle, I strongly believe in the idea of serendipity and having said that, it might not appear too strange when I say that every time I am about to complete one project, the next project already starts coming to life within me. From the basic seed idea to the outline and right down to the intricate details, the links start forming organically and take me forward. 

Politics, people and water: A day would not pass without the news carrying reports on government schemes/plans on rivers, lakes and canals, often representing only a singular perspective. This under-representation of the actual stake holders and increased activities around water bodies all across the country was the final and most impactful trigger. It built in me an intense urge  to get the perspectives of the actual stake holders, people who have been and continue to be affected by our actions on water bodies, whether it be a river, lake or ground water.

What were some of the hurdles and how did you deal with them – both in the planning stage and during the walk itself? 

There are a variety of everyday issues that seem trivial now that I look back upon them but weren’t so simple when I was on the ground, walking. Having continuously stayed in urban areas in the months leading up to the walk, my body was accustomed to consuming filtered water and I was worried about access to reliable sources of water while walking and wondered how my body would react to these. I was sure that bottled water was out of the question but I had to prepare myself, and how? I was fortunate enough to be supported by an organisation that gave us bottles capable of filtering all sorts of bacteria when water passes through it’s filters.

A couple of weeks into the project I had an epiphany that if I have put myself in this position to understand the situation of the people as and when they face it, then why not do the same with regards to drinking water. So I slowly phased out my usage of the filter, using it only when the quality of the source seemed highly questionable. What this did was that it made me directly dependent on human contact for drinking water, having to ask the same questions about water safety at 10 places instead of the 2 places I was earlier stopping to ask. By putting myself in the line of action, the depth of research suddenly increased and it also included an empathetic relationship with the people I would meet.

What were some of the discoveries or learning on the way – the things that changed you and anything else?

Every step was a discovery for me simply because I had never travelled this route before, forget travelling on foot. All places except the cities of Varanasi and Kanpur were new and even those didn’t hold very sharp memories.

The play of seasons, beginning from summers in early June when I was in Bengal, progressing to high monsoon in July and August when I was walking through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and continuing to autumn when I was still walking through Uttar Pradesh made me learn how to adjust to different kinds of weather and immediately adapt so that I did not lose out on time or health. I have often been stuck in the middle of nowhere sometimes with water all around me, desperate to get out of the place but my heart would drag me further in where I could learn something more. 

The people, they are warm and welcoming more often than not, but curious they are always. This is a lesson that was shared with me by my dear friend Ujjawal Chauhan while we cycled thousands of kilometers around the country; that if we are receptive and inquisitive enough, there are stories waiting to be heard from storytellers who don’t always have an audience. 

Our people are resilient, strong and understanding, but they are also less informed, less privileged and more vulnerable. It would be unforgivable to not use this opportunity to bring forth their issues, on how they battle falling standards of drinking water, access to affordable health care and education, reliable information sources on policies & schemes and an overall disproportionate resource allocation spectrum where they fall on the leaner side. As we progress as a society towards a more “modernised” and “developed” ethos, it is important that we understand our own strengths, weaknesses and value systems.

What the journey has done is made me more empathetic, helping me form a stronger bond with our fellow countrymen and their stories. The youth should take advantage of the variety of opportunities available for them today to experience the grassroots conditions. Even as you read, we at Veditum India Foundation are working hard to create more such opportunities that engage young minds.

Where is the moving upstream project headed next? 

The belief that good ideas always find an audience is echoed in the many partnerships that have emerged out of this project. Right from collaborations with scientific organisations like Open Water which is helping us run scientific tests on water samples to social organisations like The Initiative with whom we are collaborating to create social impact by focusing on the cottage textile and handloom industry. 

Moving Upstream is a series of projects with the walk along the Ganga being the first in the series through which we intend to learn and better design our future projects. As we speak, we are working on extending this project to other rivers around the country by getting youth to participate in and create a better understanding of our river systems that exist. We are looking for individuals and organisations to help us make this possible through collaborations, partnerships, financial support, and outreach. If any of the readers are interested in our work, they can write to us at contact@veditum.org

I am currently working on collating information from my walk, preparing presentations and doing further research on the aspects that I have come across on this journey. I am also using my time to reflect on how things can be better designed for future chapters of the projects. 

The tendency in most of us is to adhere to the understanding of the world perpetuated through the lenses of mainstream media which more often than not gives us a largely incomplete picture of reality. Siddharth’s efforts so far through all his projects, offers to us an alternative, a more wholesome way of dealing with the problems and disenchantments that we so often encounter in our daily lives.