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Having studied aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, 25-year-old Siddharth Agarwal knows just how far he has moved from his area of study.

If his course was all about the science of flight, the Kolkata boy, now almost four weeks into an audacious walking expedition that will see him go upstream to the Ganga’s very source, has chosen to be, well, grounded.

The idea behind the four-month, 3,000km-long Ganga: Moving Upstream expedition, Agarwal says, is to pick up and interpret stories from the immediate vicinity of the Ganga.

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“I have wanted to know how the river affects people’s lives. I want to know the narrative of people who are worst affected by what we as a community and our government are doing to the river. The changes happening to the river are at a much faster pace than we can understand."

At Sujapur village in Murshidabad—where the river has swallowed vast swathes of land—he stood about 20ft away from the waterline, with nonchalant villagers telling him this land too would be under water in a couple of years. “They have already lost about 300 bighas to flooding and the shifting course of the river. When I ask for a timeline, almost all of them indicate the period post-1975, when the Farakka Barrage Project came up a little upstream," says Agarwal. Recent government plans for the Ganga include the creation of National Waterway 1, between Haldia in West Bengal and Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, with barrages at gaps of every 100km on the river—a controversial proposal that has met with stiff opposition. “It’ll turn the river into small pools," Agarwal says.

Other plans—equally contested—include the 30-river National River Linking Project, under which the Sharda—whose water flows into the Ganga—will be linked to the Yamuna in Haryana before moving to Rajasthan and draining into the Arabian Sea through Sabarmati in Gujarat. Interlinking of rivers is just “a misnomer for stealing rivers", according to conservation biologist and environmentalist Emmanuel Theophilus, who, along with son Zanskar, completed a 2,500km, 87-day journey down the Ganga and its riverine systems in a kayak last year with the aim of studying the health of the river. In March, acute water shortage in the Ganga forced the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation to shut down the power station at Farakka for 10 days, a situation that a BBC report described as “unprecedented." Agarwal was near Farakka a couple of days ago, when I spoke to him last.

Agarwal admits to the strong political undercurrent to his Moving Upstream expedition, but hopes that it will lead to more interactions and conversations on India’s natural resources. “Young people get actively involved when it comes to Facebook Free Basics, but hardly care about what is happening to our rivers. This should change."

Crowd-funded to keep out “corporate vested interests", the Moving Upstream expedition has been able to generate around 3 lakh of its 10 lakh budget so far, with a second round of crowd-funding coming up soon. The project, supported by his Kolkata-based media non-profit Veditum, is being documented on film as well as through photographs and blogs by researcher Ardra Venugopal, photographer Ayan Sil and film-maker Rahul Mitra.

Their plan to go up to Tapovan, beyond Gangotri, in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand, will eventually come together as a documentary film that can be viewed at festivals, private screenings, schools and colleges, the objective being “to create awareness about the Ganga", says Agarwal.

The Ganga: Moving Upstream expedition can be followed at Veditum.org.

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Updated: 01 Jul 2016, 08:07 AM IST
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