Until two years ago, Imarti Pal was one of those swaying, frail figures making the long trek for water, a pitcher on the head and another on the hip. Then one day, tired of walking 12km daily through rocky , inhospitable terrain to draw drinking water for her family, she decided to take matters in her own hands. She set out to dig a well in her village of Motho, a tiny settlement in Lalitpur district of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh. Her husband saw little promise in the venture and the villagers made fun of her. Only two women supported the outrageous idea. The trio set to work, lifting heavy boulders as they hollowed out the heart of the earth looking for water. “It was very hard work to break rocks to lift the earth but we didn’t give up,“ Imarti says.Three months on, they struck water.The gurgle drowned the village din.And evidently , all spoken and unspoken differences. Men and women, disgruntled at being ignored, and even rattled upper caste community members in the village, quietly came around to lend a helping hand.
Now, three check dams for rainwater harvesting, half a dozen handpumps and a well make Motho one of the few oases in drought-prone Bundelkhand. This year, as the summer scorches the earth, neither Imarti nor her sisters-in-arms, Ramkuvar Ahirwar and Phoolwati Pal, look anxiously at the sky . These “jal sahelis“ (water buddies) have finally succeeded in beating nature.
In the last six years, NGO Parmarth Samaj Seva Sansthan has brought together a band of sisters called Jal Sahelis who are actively working in creating and conserving sources of water in the region’s drought-prone villages. Today , there are more than 300 women or jal sahelis across 150 villages in the arid Bundelkhand region who have been working with their communities to build check dams, dig wells, install handpumps and adopt water conservation practices to tide over the brutal summer. They have petitioned and nagged government officials, stood up to the upper caste members in their community , even their own husbands, for the mere right to water and to end the long trek to the well that has long been defining their lives. Their cussedness is paying off. For the first time in years, these settlements have enough water through the blazing summer even as villages around them reel with thirst.
Eighteen-year-old Anjana Kushwaha remembers how she used to wake up at 4am to trudge to the nearest well, more than 2km from her village Kalhothra, in Talbehat tehsil of Lalitpur. “Since I was a young child, I have been spending 4-5 hours a day fetching water first thing in the morning before going to school and then again once I was back,“ she says. Now, a handpump practically brings water to their doorstep. She has time to study, while her parents have enough water for animals and their fields. In fact, the village now grows wheat, sesame and peanuts, and vegetables, taking a UP step towards sus tainability for the first time in years.At 63 million, India has the largest number of people living in rural areas without access to clean water, according to a 2017 WaterAid report. That’s almost the population of the UK and enough people to form a line from New York to Sydney and back again. Lack of government planning, competing demands, a rising population and water-intensive agricultural practices are all placing an increasing strain on water resources, says the study.
According to India’s official Ground Water Resources Assessment, more than one-sixth of the country’s groundwater supply is currently overused. So much so that droughts have become a way of life in Bundelkhand. During 2003-2007, the region suffered from a drought every year and last year (in 2016), water scarcity hit epidemic proportions, leading to widespread death and disease.
Governments in the state and at the Centre have maintained a studied indifference, while doling out drought packages now and then, leading to no perceptible long-term impact. As summer starts, villagers are usually caught between battling the tanker mafia and migrating to cities for the duration, turning entire villages into “ghost settlements“.
In some cases, the men migrate to Delhi or Mumbai for lowly paid labour and construction work, leav ing behind women and children to battle hunger and thirst. Sometimes, the drought and famine is so acute that villagers are forced to eat rotis made from grass to survive.No wonder then that families refuse to give their daughters in marriage to these villages.
Tulsa Prajapati of Chandrapur village, an hour’s drive from Jhansi city, remembers days when she could spare just one dry roti for her son.He died at 17, malnourished and ill, like many teenagers in her village.“The children would always have fever and diarrhoea, and sometimes cholera and malaria. It was an unending cycle. We could do nothing to save them,“ she says. Their mothers were no better off. A 2013 report by Lucknow’s King George Medical University 2013 found that the long treks to fetch water had led to deformities in the women and even premature abortions.
Thankfully , now, many families only have memories of those hellish days. The jal sahelis have heralded not just a revolution in water management but in women empowerment as well. “Women are most affected by lack of access to water and spend the most amount of time fetching it. Our aim was to ensure that they were able to take decisions about these issues including where the handpump should be placed and how channels of irrigation should be created,“ says Sanjay Singh, founder of Parmarth Samaj Seva Sansthan.
A gleeful Ramvati Kushwaha from Kalhothra village recalls the arm-twisting they had to do for their handpump. A group of 30 women had waited for several hours at the district magistrate’s office to petition him. But engrossed in his work, he set off in his car without meeting them. “We chased behind him till he stopped the car and promised us our handpump. No one makes us wait now. They realise we don’t give up till we get what we want,“ she says with a smile. Raise a toast to that, with a glassful of water.