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India: Women fighting misfortunes of water shortage

Sep 23, 2011

Breaking traditional barriers, poor women from the marginalised section of the Bargwan village of Uttar Pradesh have started voicing their opinions about prevalent water shortage problem to ensure women’s first right to water in the region.

Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh: The road is rutted and gets narrower at every turn as it connects a succession of small villages in the Rath, Gohand and Sarila blocks of Hamirpur district in Uttar Pradesh. Finally, the vehicle comes to a halt.

We are in Bargawan, a village that falls under the Mankehri Gram Panchayat of Sarila block. There are around 300 families here, 50 % of them belong to Scheduled Caste (SC) communities. They subsist on farming and when the harvest is poor or the crop fails – as is often the case because Bargawan falls in a severely drought-hit region – the majority of families migrate to nearby towns in search of work.


Among the many challenges these people battle on a daily basis, there is one to which most of their misfortunes are linked: the lack of water, a scarcity that manifests itself in a myriad ways – from ill health to failed crops.

But ultimately it’s the women who bear the heaviest burden. It is they who source and fetch water from ever diminishing reserves; ensure that the livestock have water; provide for their families when the men migrate. Although this is the reality, nobody, not even the women themselves, realise the centrality of their role in managing water. 

In Bargawan, we listen to women’s side of the water story, accompanied by Satish Chandra and Vineeta of the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan (PSSS), a civil society organisation based in the neighbouring town of Orai. The PSSS, supported by the European Union, is currently working on a project that focuses on ensuring women’s first right to water in Bundelkhand.

“No one will ever let us women speak freely. It’s just not done here” 

Seek out the women of this small village and one is led to a dimly lit brick room where around 40 of them from all age groups have gathered with children and grandchildren in tow. It’s hot inside because there has been no electricity here for the last five months. 

Discriminated in a conservative society

The younger women’s faces are covered by their long ‘ghunghats’ (free end of the sari), but although they can’t see each other they manage animated conversations between themselves! Surprised? Don’t be. As an elder in the group loudly announced: ‘Yanhaan dehat mein aisa hi hota hai (That’s how village women conduct themselves)’. 

When asked whether one of them would like to talk about how water scarcity affects her life, there is a sudden hush in the room. Finally Santosh Rani steps forward to break the silence - with a unique request: That we sit in a corner away from the rest.

As it turns out, Santosh, 23, is indeed unique. She may seem like a conservative woman at first glance, but once coaxed into conversation she displays an ability to speak on behalf of all others. She doesn’t mince words while listing the water woes of her community or expressing what she feels about the discrimination that lower caste women like her are subjected to. She is even keen to look for a way out of their collective misery but adds calmly: “No one will ever let us women speak freely. It’s just not done here.” 

Santosh’s life revolves around water. Her day begins at 4 am and she can never wind up before eight at night. All through the day she has a series of chores to take care of but, as she puts it, “all I have on my mind is how to collect water”.

Like mothers everywhere, Santosh too begins by sending her children to school. But that’s where the similarity ends. Because then it is a rush to reach the handpump. Santosh says, “I am unable to reach before 8 am and by then there’s already a long queue. In our village lack of water is the biggest problem.” 

Bargawan has around 20 handpumps but only five or six actually work, she says. The four wells have dried up and while the relatively better-off residents have dug tubewells, the poor only have access to the lone government tubewell.

Scarcity apart, the quality of water, too, is questionable. Santosh reveals, “We use handpump water for drinking but it is not clean since water levels here are low and we don’t get clear water. This year, after nearly a decade, we have seen some rains, so we hope the ground water level will rise and we get better water.”

The nearest water source from Santosh’s home in the Dalit basti (the Scheduled Caste neighbourhood) is a handpump. It’s a 30-minute walk and she carries three pots with her. But three pots do not suffice to look after the drinking requirements of her household. She makes at least five trips in the day. “I spend a minimum of five to six hours collecting water. I have three small sons and even though I want to be with them, where is the time to think about anything else?” she says.

Working as health workers

The family Santosh has married into is in dire straits. They own a small piece of land, but its paltry harvests, made worse by the incessant drought, cannot support the needs of a growing family. So she is always thinking of ways to augment the family’s income.

She now dreams of becoming the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) for Bargawan and has applied for the post. ASHAs are women from the local community, between the age of 25 and 35, trained to be health workers. Since they are treated as volunteers, ASHAs don’t get salaries, but they do receive a remuneration of Rs 600 (US$1=Rs 47.4), every time they ensure a woman opts to give birth in a health institution.

"We use handpump water for drinking but it is not clean since water levels here are low and we don’t get clear water"

Says Santosh, “I have filed an application for becoming an ASHA at Sarila hospital. I need to do this for my children. Whatever little I get from this will help us.” What about the grueling housework? “I spoke to my mother-in-law and she has agreed to chip in. But I know at her age it’s not going to be easy for her.” 

As Santosh expresses concern for her elderly mother-in-law, Phula Devi, a 58-year-old grandmother of four, who has been a silent listener thus far, quips, “I do this every day. It’s a 15 minute walk to the handpump from my home and being old I can only hold two buckets at a time. I make eight trips in the day and at times have to take the help of youngsters like Santosh. I get really tired but there is no way out.”

Phula has a family of eight but every year for nearly six months she is solely responsible for her home and her school-going grandchildren as the able-bodied in the family migrate for work. They have eight bighas of land but can’t live off it.

Bargawan’s water crisis has altered the lives of women here, and whether young or old, they cannot escape its tyranny. Unfortunately, although they shoulder the maximum burden, prevailing social customs do not allow women to express their angst or put their suggestions for change before the local political body – the gram panchayat. Says Phula, “Here women are not allowed to speak up. But I tell the younger ones that we need to change. The water problem will not be solved until we speak up.”

Vineeta, the PSSS activist, is now planning to build awareness among the women of Bargawan on the issue. “It has been only a few months now, and we are getting to know each other. It’s going to be tough to break age-old traditions but at least the women are beginning to realise they need to do something.” Phula words seem to echo this thought. Says she, “For the last 25 years I have lived with water shortage. But my grandchildren should be spared this. And if I can do something about it, I will.” 

Source : WFS
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