The Water Women of Barmer’s Sands

By Deepti Priya Mehrotra, Womens Feature Service

Dallu Devi, 40, of Khari village, Barmer district, is barely able to eke out a livelihood although she owns a few acres of land. Severe water shortage makes farming virtually impossible in this village, as in the rest of the Thar desert, that stretches across Barmer and Jaisalmer districts of western Rajasthan.

With only a sparse crop of ‘bajra’ (pearl barley) growing during August-November, Dallu was in dire straits, particularly after her husband fell ill and died in early 2008. She has four small children to bring up, the youngest still an infant. She sought support from a Barmer-based NGO, Society for Rural Upliftment (SURE), to build a ‘beri’ – a traditional percolation well for harvesting ground water – on her land, for irrigation as well as drinking water. Standing by the ‘beri’, which is under construction, a smiling Dallu says, “This ‘beri’ will be a great boon for me. Others in the village can also use the water.” Labourers will continue to dig until ground water is located. Two skilled labourers have been employed, while the rest of the labour is provided voluntarily by the villagers.

Ramku Devi, 38, from the same village, explains that the ‘Dalit Jagruk Samiti’ (DJS: Dalit or working-castes Awareness Committee) and ‘Mahila Samuha’ (women’s committee) in the village have identified beneficiaries for ‘beri’ construction. As in most other villages in the vicinity, the Dalits and women in Khari, which has only 208 families in all, have organised themselves into DJS and ‘Mahila Samuhas’, and are actively engaged in community development activities on a voluntary basis. Both Dallu and Ramku are members of the DJS and ‘Mahila Samuha’. Since Dallu’s family is economically deprived, she was selected for ‘beri’ construction: evidence of an older ‘beri’ on her land helped swing the decision in her favour. “Our ancestors built ‘beris’ and ‘naadis’ (large water harvesting structures) long ago. They somehow had knowledge of where water is located,” says Dallu. But most of these are in ruins or disrepair. People living from hand to mouth find it impossible to repair and renew these structures on their own.

Lata Kachhwaha, 55, Joint Secretary, SURE, says, “A minimum of Rs 15,000 (US$1=48.8) is required for ‘beri’ construction. The organisation provides 75 per cent, while people contribute the rest.” Daulat Sharma, 40, Field Supervisor, adds, “We buy material and get it transported to the site, and pay for skilled labour. The beneficiary and other villagers contribute in kind – through their labour. The exact cost differs from one ‘beri’ to another, depending on the depth at which the water table is located. If it is deeper, costs go up, and villagers rise to the occasion by contributing for the extra expense.”

Each ‘beri’ takes care of the water needs of at least five to 10 families, and usually supports agriculture for at least one or two households. Hamlets, each consisting of a particular caste, dot the sandy terrain, at considerable distances from one another. Even within hamlets, homes are spread out. Homes are modest grass huts with thatched roofs and a few pots, pans and ‘matkas’ (clay or metal water vessels). Circular enclosures hold the goats and sheep while the children – who look bright-eyed but are often under-nourished – run around.

Dallu and Ramku are Kolis, economically the most marginalised caste in the area. The other major Dalit residents of Khari are Meghwals. As Dallu stands proudly by her ‘beri’, which will be ready for use in a few days, she says, “My ‘beri’ will have sweet water.” Dallu’s observation is significant – Khari has high levels of salinity in its water and, in fact, gets its name from the ‘khara’ (brackish) water available locally.

Half a kilometre from Dallu’s home lies Kesu Devi’s ‘beri’, constructed over a year ago with help from SURE. Although she is not at home, I spot two other women filling water. It is five in the evening. A little later, I see Kesu Devi returning home, carrying a spade and other tools in a metal basin on her head. She has done a full day’s work in the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), so will earn nearly Rs 100 as wages for the day. She stops by the ‘beri’ and remarks that she too has been digging all day, desilting the local ‘naadi’.

Fortunately, ‘panchayats’ (village councils) in the region are bringing activities such as de-silting of ‘naadis’ into the ambit of NREGS. The majority of workers at NREGS sites in Khari and other villages are women. Typically, men migrate to neighbouring Gujarat, to earn better.

Kesu Devi tells me that the ‘beri’ has made life much easier for her, since earlier she had to walk nearly two kilometres to fetch potable water. “This water,” she smiles, “is sweet. Taste it.” And sure enough, it is.

Dallu Devi and Kesu Devi are both widowed, with young children. As single women, they are members of the Ekal Nari Sangathan, a collective of single women where they discuss issues of common concern, including land and property ownership, children’s education, and issues like widow’s pensions and how to apply for them.

Sharma reveals, “This is the best season here. You can see some vegetation. In summer everything dries up. Then the government has to supply water in tankers. Rains come for just 11 days a year, on an average. It is only then that water collects in the streams and comes up in ‘beris’.”

While government tubewells also supply water to villages, they are marked by inefficiencies. For instance, when I was visiting, the pump in Aatiya village had broken down a fortnight ago and there was no water supply, creating extreme difficulties for people and animals. The local people had complained to the authorities, but had received no response. Meanwhile, all Aatiya’s water needs were being met through the few ‘beris’ and ‘tanklis’ (home storage tanks) that were there.

Most Dalit homes lack facilities for water storage. ‘Tanklis’ can be of big help, but very few families are able to afford them. DJS identifies families that are most in need, again prioritising economically backward single women for the construction of ‘tanklis’. A tankli costs approximately Rs 3,500, of which SURE pays about 75 per cent, and the beneficiary family the rest (through labour for digging and cleaning).

Water security is a critical requirement, and a people’s right. Women, since they are the ones responsible for fetching and disbursing water, are worst affected by drought and general water scarcity. ‘Tanklis’ save drudgery and avert crisis, since they can be filled every few days by water transported on camel carts and leather bags.

Uma Kunwar, 30, Field Supervisor, SURE, puts it this way, “Village women have been leaders in water harvesting programmes. They are at the forefront in demanding, building and repairing ‘beris’ and ‘tanklis’, and desilting streams. They realise the critical significance of these traditional water systems in their lives, the lives of children and the entire community.”

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