Running the household and looking after her younger siblings comes easy to 13-year-old Sita Verma of Bangra village in Hamirpur district of Uttar Pradesh. For eight months in a year, Sita not only manages her home single-handedly but also looks after her seven-year-old sister, Sushma and ten-year-old brother, Hardeepak. That’s because her parents and elder brother travel to faraway Delhi to earn money. Sita’s grandparents and extended family live right next door, tending to the 20 ‘bighas’ of farmland jointly owned by the large family. But to augment their meagre earnings from agriculture, Sita’s parents leave in search of work post-Diwali (October-November) only to return months later in June-July.
It’s a lonely existence for the three youngsters left behind, but Sita, who earlier used to feel sad for weeks after their departure, has a more pragmatic outlook now. She says, “I do miss my mother everyday but I know my parents have to go. How else will my father manage to provide for us? They do back-breaking work on construction sites in the city to send us some money. By looking after the home, I am doing my bit.”
From waking up early at 5am to finishing the household chores to helping her siblings get ready for school before she herself leaves for her classes that begin at 8.30, Sita goes about her daily grind without complaining. “In fact, I manage to take some time out to study early morning and I make sure Sushma sits with me so that I can help her out,” she says. But there is one chore that wipes the beautiful smile off young Sita’s face: that of sourcing water.
Accessing drinking water is the bane of everyone’s existence in Bangra, a village that falls in the drought-affected Bundelkhand region of UP. Only six of the 14 hand pumps here have good quality water, the rest have brackish water. That means around 2,000 people are dependent on just six hand pumps for all their drinking and cooking needs, which places a lot of pressure on the already meagre resource. It also creates a lot social tension and fights over water are an every day occurrence. During summers and agricultural operations in winter, even the hand pump water disappears and people, especially those from households located further away from a water source, are then forced to use the dirty water of the two ponds in the village.
Ironically, Bangra has a dedicated overhead tank and a pipeline was laid over a year ago. Some 11 tap stands have also been installed, five of which are in the SC neighbourhood, though none near Sita’s home. In December 2010, the Jal Nigam had begun the water supply, but only after a few days the taps ran dry. According to the locals, the pipes installed were of poor quality and had sprung leaks.
Now, in this on-going water crisis, imagine Sita’s hardships. There is a hand pump just a few paces from her front door yet she is up at the crack of dawn to ensure that she’s the first to fill water. “I am always tense in the morning. I want to beat the crowd that starts building up from 7am because of the problem of untouchability that is still very strongly rooted in our village. Women from the Sahu, Muslim, Khangar and Parihar communities line up here. They all come by turns and put their buckets or vessels near the hand pump, making sure that one’s container doesn’t touch the others. And if the vessels happen to come in contact, even by accident, they immediately throw all the water and start filling afresh! So much time is wasted. That’s when I wish my mother were here to handle all this. I don’t think one should discriminate against anyone on the basis of their caste or community but if I ever try and stop women from fighting they start shouting at me,” explains Sita warily.
For two hours, twice daily, the youngster faces this disturbing scenario. She hopes that these negative attitudes will change soon and shares this with her new friend, Vinita, an activist with the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, an Orai-based NGO that is works on women’s water rights in the Bundelkhand region. In fact, Vinita and her colleague, Satish Chandra regularly visit Bangra to help the community sort out its water issues, as part of Parmarth’s European Union-supported project, Establishing Women’s First Right to Water Resources.
Despite the daily community tensions, on most days, Sita manages to reach school on time. She enjoys studying and is always eager to share her progress with her parents. “I wait for Monday nights, which is when my parents call on my grandfather’s mobile phone. We talk about school, of the happenings in the village, and they even ask if I need any money,” she says.
In the absence of her parents, naturally, Sita handles the home finances, too. “My father leaves around Rs 3,000 (US$1=Rs 51) for buying rations, school supplies or anything else we may need. I try to keep the food at home simple – ‘dal’ or a seasonal vegetable and rotis, although my siblings are always coaxing me to make them some sweets or fried savouries,” she smiles. When Sita returns from school at 2pm, she is exhausted. But this teenager can’t afford to relax. First, she has to prepare some snack for the younger children to eat when they come back at 4pm. This done, she once again heads out to fetch at least two buckets of water. “By 4.30 pm, the women are back for another round of water collection and I really am not up to arguing with anyone,” she says.
Sita finishes all her tasks, including their evening meal, by six, which is when it gets pitch dark in these parts. Though Bangra has electricity, there’s no connection in their home yet. As they retire for the night in their grandfather’s home next door, Sita is already planning her next day, dreading her encounters at the hand pump. What she fervently hopes for is that the piped water supply in Bangra is restored and that the burden on the hand pump outside her home is eased. In the time she would then save, Sita could indulge in activities she likes – studying or having fun with her friends. At 13, shouldn’t water woes and community fights be the least of Sita’s worries?