It’s that time of the year when everyone in north India is gearing up for the severe summer. For some, it’s the season to stay indoors and gorge on mangoes, but for others, particularly Bundelkhand’s Sahariya tribal women like Sunita and Dhiru, it signifies only one thing: Long days and sleepless nights chasing after precious water.
Being Sahariya women, poverty and discrimination at every turn is no new experience for them. But as the hot days of April slowly give way to the punishing heat of May and June, turning the entire rural landscape brown and barren, life becomes truly unbearable in the absence of water.
Conforming to the characteristic separations between castes and communities within the universe of the Indian village, Sunita, Dhiru and 38 other Sahariya families live together at one end of Budawani village, which falls in Lalitpur district’s Talbehat block in Uttar Pradesh. They prefer to keep to themselves for fear of being ostracised by more privileged communities in their neighbourhood. Sunita puts it this way, “Hamare gaon main kisi aur se koi lena dena nahi hai (we have nothing to do with others in our village).” There is good reason why she says this: Caste and untouchability issues have put their imprint here, especially where access to water is concerned.
Sunita and Dhiru, both in their early 30s, are homemakers and mothers. Whenever they get some time free from the chores of looking after the family, collecting water, cooking, cleaning and the like – they also step out to work as farm labour to supplement very modest household incomes.
Here’s how a typical day for Sunita begins: Up by 5 am, she washes her face with the little water that is leftover from the day before. Then she sets off on a 25-minute trek to a well located two kilometres away. For having the ‘privilege’ of taking three buckets of drinking water from this well, Sunita and her friends face daily humiliation at the hands of the other communities, especially the powerful Lodhas, who also have a stake in the well’s water. “The big problem is that the well is located on the land of a privately-owned farm and we need permission to draw water,” she reveals.
Generally, there’s no restriction on taking this water, but when the store of water dwindles in the height of summer, tension over water rises with the temperature. This stretch in the Bundelkhand region has seen drought for almost a decade. As the sun beats down for almost four months, the wells become nearly dry. “Many a time we’ve been denied water from this well during summers,” says Sunita.
However, chances of returning with at least a bucket from here are brighter if the women start queuing up even before dawn breaks. Elaborates Dhiru, “Last year, the water level was rock bottom and there were many wanting their share of the available water. We all waited patiently for our turn and filled smaller steel vessels with the muddy water.” She had begun at 3 am, and it was 10 am by the time she could make it back home to tackle the other chores.
If the Sahariya women are turned back from the well, they head to the nearby hand pump to try their luck. Here too the water level plummets during May-June and local farmers, who can afford diesel pumps, add to the women’s woes when they direct the little water in the well to irrigate their fields. In any case, the hand pump water is brackish, and although it can be used washing and bathing, it is clearly not drinkable. Yet, “if there is no other option, then this water just has to serve for drinking purposes as well,” Sunita says, matter-of-factly.
Ordinarily, to access the water of the hand pump, Sunita has to make at least three trips a day to meet the household needs. In other words, water collection can take up to six hours and during summer the time spent collecting water can nearly double.
The irony, of course, is that the situation needn’t have had to be so grave. On paper, Budawani has an overhead tank, pipelines and taps since 2000 and even electricity supply, normally missing in most villages in Bundelkhand, is fairly regular here. Unfortunately, someone stole the generator and the motor needed to pump the water within one-and-a-half months of their installation.
While it is true that the village has not displayed the social cohesion or unity of purpose required to pressurise the local water authority to get the supply restored over these last ten years, thel authorities too have obviously not considered the everyday traumas over water experienced by women here worthy of attention.
Chasing water is then the central activity of Sunita’s and Dhiru’s existence. It leaves them very little time to seek much-needed wage work that could help buttress household income. Chronic fatigue and health problems like nagging backaches have to be endured because nothing can be done about them, but what is particularly stressful knowing that the lack of water is seriously undermining the lives of their children, especially their daughters.
Although both Sunita and Dhiru want their children to be regular in their studies, they are unable to ensure this. Sometimes they get delayed in getting them ready for school because of the time they have to spend at the well or hand pump, and the young ones even find themselves locked out of school because they are late. There’s another factor at play here: On the days the two women manage to get work and cannot spend time collecting water, it’s their daughters who are sent to perform this chore, leading to disruptions in their schooling.
The school in Budawani has classes up to Class Five after which the children travel 10 kilometres to Chandrapur to study till Class Eight. Those who manage to get past that milestone then go all the way to a high school in Talbehat, about 25 kilometres away. Many Sahariya children drop out before they reach high school for several reasons, but water availability is certainly one of them.
While the denial of access to water continues to affect their entire existence, what are these women doing to get themselves a better deal? Last year, Sunita, Dhiru and several other Sahariya women were drawn to the awareness raising activities of Parmarth, a local NGO working on establishing women’s first right to water, supported by the European Union. The women now know that it is important to talk about their water-related problems publicly in order to persuade the authorities to take action. Says Dhiru, “Poor women like us will have to step forward. After all, the water crisis affects us first and most.”
The Sahariya women had drafted a petition for the authorities, with help from Parmarth, that clearly enumerates the existing water sources in their village, their problems in accessing them and suggestions to improve the situation. Then, at a public hearing in Talbehat a few months ago, in front of a room full of district-level officials, Sunita spoke out confidently on behalf of everyone when she said, “If we remain silent neither will we get water, nor will the discrimination we face disappear. Today we have spoken out; tomorrow we will come up with solutions, too.”
The Sahariya women of Budawani appear to be willing to use their newfound sense of confidence to protect their right to water. But the more disturbing problems are that of age-old biases and discriminations that they have to continuously bear.