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A sisterhood built on water

Oct 05, 2009

Decades ago four young women went to Gujarat, a state in western India, to infuse a new life in the government’s welfare schemes but failed in their attempt. They did not give up hopes and continued to engage with local communities to help them solve their water problems.

Bhal: Gujarat's summer of 1981 was a particularly searing one. Indira Gandhi had just been voted back to power in New Delhi and her son, Rajiv Gandhi – enthused by his Amethi win – was urging the bureaucracy to infuse new life into welfare initiatives.

His call energised the Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG), already reputed for innovative thinking on development. Four young women, fresh out of college – Padma Chowgle from Mumbai, intern Penny Czara from the US, Indu Mishra and Nafisa Barot of Ahmedabad were given the task of looking at the government's Block Level Planning scheme.

The scheme had been introduced two years earlier in Dhanduka Taluka in Saurashtra. But could such planning be transformed to mobilise local communities?

The gang of four

The 'gang of four', identified as ASAG's Utthan Development Action Planning Team, set out for Bhal to find an answer. Villages in this huge expanse of flat, saline land, riddled with tidal creeks, were among the poorest in Gujarat. A year later, the Utthan team made a candid assessment. Recalls Penny, "We failed. No one was listening. Local authorities were just not interested in our analysis."

The question for the team then was whether to go home or hang in there and start something of their own. "We decided to stay," remembers Padma, "Perhaps because we were young, adventurous, idealistic – and foolish!"

There was another reason: Devuben. From a local Dalit family, Devuben first watched the four from a distance, wondering if their stamina would last any longer than that of most visitors. Says Devuben, "I was married to a schoolteacher. I would rise at four in the morning to walk two kilometres to fetch as much water as I could carry.

We had nothing. We lived at the mercy of moneylenders. I had started a small-savings effort for the poorest in our community. When Nafisa and her team came and tried to understand our lives and needs, I wondered if at last there was someone who would not forget us like so many others had. I wasn't sure. I began to like what they said and actually did. I decided to work with them. We have been together ever since."

The inspiring figure

Devuben's experience and credibility among Bhal's poor provided the anchor for key decisions of the team. Inspiration also came from the late Professor Ravi J. Matthai, who had stepped down as director of IIM Ahmedabad to begin his own experiment in self-reliance in Jawaja, the poorest region of Rajasthan. A new, local institution emerged: Mahiti-Utthan. It would soon re-create a planning model of its own. More important, it would implement it.

Donations were raised to open a small office in Dhanduka. By 1982, a 'Peoples Learning Centre' commenced work. Seven villages came together to understand the socio-political and ecological dynamics of the region. The provision of safe water emerged as the first, most basic issue for everybody there.

After experimenting with conventional technologies, Mahiti-Utthan decided on a new approach for drinking water. In this drought-prone region with falling water tables and rising salinity, so the need was to harvest rainwater on a scale never attempted before.

Bringing women and engineers together, Mahiti-Utthan developed its own technology in partnership with research institutions, the National Drinking Water Mission (NDWM) and IPCL (Vadodara). Vast surface tanks were lined with plastic to retain rain water. Gourisankar Ghosh, then heading the NDWM, was sceptical when confronted by Nafisa.

"I had heard of her, but couldn't believe what I saw. Here was this disheveled young woman, with torn slippers, covered in dust, jumping out of her vehicle to lecture me on why lined-ponds are a must. I decided that the Mission must help Nafisa and her team, even as I wondered how government systems would respond to anything so radical," says Ghosh.

Official reluctance

Official reluctance was just one of many barriers. There were many other challenges. The biggest of them was the patriarchal mindset that challenged women's rights to control water once it was harvested, as well as their rights over the financial resources they had raised.

The bureaucrats and engineers, obsessed with their high-cost pipelines and other water transfer systems, were reluctant to come on board. Finally, there was the anger of the upper castes over lower-castes doing an important project of their own.

Today, almost three decades later, as India's water resource situation borders on the catastrophic, the lined ponds at Bhal testify to a sustainable solution under full community control. Mahiti is an independent NGO, still led by Devuben, working in Bhal on issues of water and livelihood security.

Utthan has moved to other areas of Saurashtra, north Gujarat and tribal regions to the east. Its team has grown, as has its agenda: From water and livelihoods to human rights and social justice. Sanitation has moved up the ladder, backed by growing evidence worldwide that hygiene awareness and action must accompany, not just follow, water supply, if water is to remain safe for human consumption.

New approach

'Watsan' came to define this new approach: Not just water, not just sanitation, but both together. "Sanitation is a political challenge," observes Nafisa. "Unlike water, politicians have no interest in it. But the ones who suffer most without sanitation are women and children, the old and the disabled. They are also the ones without a voice. Once we offer the security of a decent toilet, health awareness and behaviour can follow more easily."

Sanitation action is now a thrust area for Pravah, a unique Gujarat network, devoted to water and sanitation that Mahiti and Utthan helped create in partnership with other activists. Bringing together almost 70 institutions from across the states, it has emerged as a powerful network for 'watsan' advocacy and the management of knowledge.

The lined-pond technology, now known worldwide, has acquired fresh relevance at a time of falling water tables, major threats from deep-drilling - such as arsenic and fluoride ingress - and erratic rainfall patterns.

Protection of ponds and wells and the importance of rooftop rainwater harvesting systems are today part of the multi-pronged approach that Pravah has adopted to help safeguard communities as well as their aquifers, while working with city managers to understand the urban challenge.

At the 2000 World Water Forum in The Hague, the Council's 'Vision 21' document reminded the world that Gujarat had demonstrated that change is possible. The beginning made by Bhal's 'gang of four' and Devuben had now emerged as a global model.

Looking back to look ahead

"To look ahead we have first to look back," says Nafisa.

"What a long journey we have had to undertake to prove something that was obvious right at the start! We held on to our conviction. We tested it, and were tested ourselves, through all the natural, personal and man-made upheavals, years that saw drought, floods, accidents, a major earthquake and the horrors of the Gujarat riots of 2002. There has been change but drinking water is still scarce, total sanitation is nowhere in sight, our slums continue to fester and equity still remains a dream. Our first issue was to fight salinity in Bhal in 1981. We are still fighting it. Aquifers are sinking rapidly, climate change upsets every calculation, and SEZ construction brings seawater deeper inland."

But the experiences of the last three decades have proved that if power actually shifts at the ground level to women, sustainable change is possible. Says Nafisa, "It is this belief that keeps us young at heart and idealistic. And foolhardy enough to keep trying!"

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