Not all who meander are lost: A stirring documentary on the Ganga
A few years ago, Siddharth Agarwal went for a walk. He kept going for 3,000 km, all along the Ganga, collecting intimate stories of trials and tragedies told to him by the people who live by this mighty river.
The result of this six-and-a-half-month trek is a stirring independent film, completed in January, titled Moving Upstream: Ganga. It documents lives still defined by the fate of the river.
Agarwal, who grew up and lives in Kolkata, is an aerospace engineering graduate from IIT-Kharagpur whose interest in storytelling began with his twin passions for cycling and photography. In college, he and a friend cycled from Kolkata to Mumbai, talking to people and collecting stories along the way. But he found that even cycling was too fast a mode of transport if he wanted to connect with strangers.
On a 700-km walk across Rajasthan, he found that connection. His next project would be four times as ambitions — to walk the length of one of the world’s mightiest rivers.
Agarwal set up and runs the Veditum India Foundation, a non-profit organisation focused on environmental research and documentation. He funded his walk and film through three crowdfunding campaigns that raised a total of ₹6 lakh.
“Walking has the capacity to disarm someone you’re meeting,” Agarwal, now 30, says in the film. “All the layers of separation that we generally have on meeting someone new, walking enabled the removal of all these layers.”
Moving Upstream: Ganga shows Agarwal starting his journey in June 2016 at Gangasagar in West Bengal, where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal. He crosses the 2.3-km-wide Farakka barrage (a type of dam) and meets the body of the river, from where he walks all the way to Gangotri, its source. Along the way he walks through parts of West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
“Walking along the Ganga I realised we have a very skewed sense of what a river is supposed to look like. We expect it to be clear and pristine,” Agarwal says. “Because of their ecological profile of how and where they flow, our rivers, by their very nature, are muddy.”
What struck him the most, he adds, was how wide dry riverbeds stretched out beside the river where it had been redirected or dammed for hydroelectric and irrigation projects.
In his film, Agarwal explores how the river is being pulled in all directions, as people vie for more of its valuable natural resource — water. He meets some of those directly affected by the many infrastructure projects, dams, barrages, hydroelectric projects, that dot the course of the sacred Ganga.
Activists and fishing communities speak of how much more difficult it has become to find the hilsa in certain months of the year. Others speak of how the decision to use the course from Haldia in West Bengal to Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh as National Waterways 1, a major route for cargo ships, stands to further endanger the already endangered Gangetic river dolphin, which uses sonar or sound waves to navigate, communicate and hunt.
“In Haridwar, I saw streams of plastic in the river, and sewerage exiting directly into the river,” Agarwal says. “The apathy was the most frustrating.”
Further north, the construction of the Tehri Dam in Uttarakhand has led to displacement and Agarwal meets locals who fought it for years.
All along the route, people were warm and welcoming, happy to lend him a corner to rest his head at night, Agarwal says. They were as curious about him as he was about them. “Once a week I would book a hotel room for myself,” he adds, laughing. “I needed the downtime to not answer questions and to recharge.”
As he approached Gangotri, curiosity turned to respect. Not as many undertake this yatra on foot any more. Villagers spoke of seeing most pilgrims in cars, or helicopters.
Agarwal started the trip with a film crew travelling alongside in a car. At the end of a month, they departed and he walked on alone, shooting his footage with a DSLR and a GoPro. For the last six weeks, on the last leg of the journey to Gangotri, he was joined by Patna filmmaker Shridhar Sudhir, who became the director of the film.
At that stage he was also joined by filmmakers and explorers who heard of his trek. “It was good to also have other people looking at the river with me,” he adds, “because they brought in their perspectives as well.”
Moving Upstream: Ganga will be screened at the SiGNS Film Festival in Kerala and then at a series of festivals across the country.
“An undertaking like this, where Siddharth has walked almost the entire length of the river, is rare and exceptional. Even in field ecology studies, we typically study specific areas and particular stretches. On the other hand, climate science takes into consideration the whole basin, but often does not involve going to the field,” says Nachiket Kelkar, an ecologist with the NGO Wildlife Conservation Trust, who works along the Ganga in Bihar. “What Siddharth has seen and shared is a real lived account of the contemporary Ganga.”