The Rain Gods Have Not Been Kind in Palashban

By Ajitha Menon, Womens Feature Service

The pristine rural beauty of Palashban village in Birbhum district of West Bengal does not move 14-year-old Siuli Mondal. Her only concern is that vertigo should not grip her, as she climbs atop the rim of the old well in her village and peers in to check the water level.

This is Siuli’s daily early morning ritual. Water is a precious commodity in this village situated in a drought-prone area. There has been just six weeks of rain this year, not even sufficient to fill up the 20-odd ponds here. The two community wells have water for now, but Siuli knows from experience that they would dry out in a couple of months. She warns, “If you pump water from them, there wouldn’t be any left within an hour. The underground water level, too, is extremely poor.”

“There has been no irrigation or canal project in this region in over six decades of Independence,” says Nandalal Hara, a retired school master. But he reveals that the villagers – totally dependent on agriculture for their livelihood – have themselves worked out an ingenious method to tackle this perennial water crisis. They have put into place a unique water management system for the use and conservation of this precious natural resource.

“In Palashban, just after the monsoons every year, the 20-odd ponds are divided up – ten for agriculture and ten for household use like washing clothes and utensils, bathing, cleaning, washing and feeding cattle, making cow dung based energy sources like ‘gul’ or ‘goitha’ for cooking,” says Shankuntala Choudhury, 38. Every villager, irrespective of the ownership of the ponds, abides by the division taken collectively, with women having a big say on which ponds would be given to them.

Once the division is over, women have full control over the ponds earmarked for non-irrigation purposes. They decide which ponds are to be used by which households. Ponds are earmarked for washing clothes and bathing, washing utensils and for other ablutions. Water can be collected and taken home for cleaning or feeding cattle only from particular ponds, according to Rebati Mondal, 62.

“At my age I find it difficult to make the long walk to different ponds for washing or collecting water. But we have no choice. This system has been in place for years in not just our village, but in most of the surrounding villages. We have survived severe water crisis only because we follow the rules,” observes Rebati.

Water is pumped out from the ponds earmarked for agriculture and the crops – mainly paddy, mustard, vegetables and sugarcane – are irrigated with it. However, by summer time, the men are reduced to negotiating with the women in charge of the ponds earmarked for household purpose, to procure more water for irrigation.

With standing crops dying in the fields due to lack of water – this year they have lost 80 per cent of the standing crop – the men drive a hard bargain and the women, knowing that without a good harvest families would starve, slowly let go of one pond after another through the year, reveals Bhagwati Mondal, 52. “But we hold on to at least four ponds through the year for household needs. Even though some houses have sanitation facilities and bathrooms, we have to do all our ablutions at the ponds because there is no water at home,” she says.

The division of ponds has ensured that over the year there is at least some access to water. If this were not done, the men would just put in pumps in all of them at one go and use up all the water for irrigation all at once. Now both women and men have learnt to conserve water while using it for household needs as well as cultivation. No water is wasted, adds Bhagwati.

However, according to Sailen Mondal, 26, improper irrigation affects production. Farmers lose the whole of their standing crops some times. There is also a severe crisis of drinking water. The wells have polluted hard water, which is used to feed cattle and for cleaning for a couple of months after monsoons. The pond water is undrinkable. There are only three tube wells in Palashban. One of which contains water with heavy iron content. Only two tube wells are in use for drinking purposes for the 2,500-odd people in this village of 260 families.

“I have relatives in Kolkata. When I see how they leave the taps running while doing chores, how their children don’t even bother to turn off the water once they are done, my heart bleeds. It is such a sheer waste of water, when in our village we scrimp and save every possible drop,” remarks Subhadra Mondal, 28. She adds, “Every day, I trek 8-10 times for 15 minutes one way to the tube well to collect water for drinking and cooking for my eight-member family. Besides this, there are numerous trips to be made to the ponds for washing clothes and utensils, bathing, and so on. Sometimes I think my life has been one whole trek in search of water.”

Scrounging for water has become so important that neither the young girls like Siuli nor the old women like Rebati hesitate to climb atop the rim of the four or five wells in the village to check on the water levels every day. While there are two community wells, the other are owned by local families. However, from the absence of pulleys, it’s obvious that the wells are hardly in use. In the two months or so when there is water, the women simply climb atop the rim, bend down, throw in the bucket tied to a rope and pull up the water. “There is no point in bothering with pulleys or safety measures, since the water is available just for a few days any way,” says Siuli dismissively.

Palashban has about 2,000 bighas of cultivable land but the yield from it is below half of what is the norm. This is because of the lack of water. But life has to go on. The 260 families here have learnt to conserve water. Before the monsoons, the ponds are cleaned and widened in the hope that more rainwater can be harvested.

The rain gods have not been too kind to them so far. With no irrigation or canal project in sight, the low levels of ground water and no river anywhere around, the water woes of this community are set to continue. It’s only their indigenously developed system of water management that has sustained them so far.

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