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Updated: July 17, 2012 12:45 IST

The water warriors

Sunila Singh
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The dawn of defiance: Demanding women's first right to water. Photo: K.R. Deepak
The Hindu
The dawn of defiance: Demanding women's first right to water. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Dalit women in Bundelkhand struggle to salvage both dying water resources in the semi-arid region and their dignity

Societal prejudices and coercive rules had sentenced them to an obscure existence till recently with no room to exercise their democratic rights and have their voices heard. But Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region has come a long way since — turning into water warriors and working their way up the patriarchal order to conserve water resources in this semi-arid region and also exert their right to water as a basic human right.

The Bundelkhand region suffers from erratic rainfall and experiences drought every alternate year. The conspicuousness of prolonged droughts, doubled up with environmental changes and lack of government policies in the last decade, has resulted in farmer suicides, hunger deaths, unemployment and migration. Traditional methods of water conservation and management have also come to a naught with water resources either disappearing or drying up.

In 2007, when a severe drought struck this region, a non-profit outfit Parmarth made an effort to mobilise rural Dalit women by initiating an informal structure of Pani Panchayats and Jal Sahelis to address the unaddressed issue of water crisis. The aim of Pani Panchayats was to organise themselves to protect and preserve traditional water bodies, and to create models of sustainable water security plans in the districts of Lalitpur, Jaulan and Hamirpur.

The programme helped the Dalit women break free of their stereotypical social role as they now brushed shoulders with men from upper castes at gram sabhas, panchayati raj institutions and also interacted with the local administration to ensure equitable distribution of water in the villages.

Speaking of the resistance faced from the local feudal class in their struggle for right to water at the community level, Mamata says that the feudal class fails to appreciate that Dalit women’s collective voices and actions could result in a bringing a social change and mitigate the water issue through a sustainable security plan since the latter view it as a threat to the existing power equation. She describes how the village headman initially objected to the women using the village pond and later tried to instigate the women against the non-profit outfit.

At present, the network is spread in 60 gram panchayats in three districts with a membership of over 2,000 women. “We are planning to revive all dried up water bodies and build new water structures with the help of panchayat funds,” the members say, adding that the initiative is being supported by the European Union.

The women say that their vision is to increase Dalit women’s participation in the decision making process at all levels by voicing their demands in democratic institutions and seeking entitlements and dignity. Clarifying that they do not nurture any political ambition, they say that their only demand is to establish women’s ‘first right to water’ and reduce water conflicts, increase access to safe drinking water, improve sanitation facilities, facilitating sustainable agriculture, food security and prepare social security safety nets.

Sunita, while sharing her experience of the Jal Saheli and Pani Panchayat initiatives, said: “There are erratic water pipelines in the village which is dry almost throughout the year. Government officials visit the villages, makes promises to fix the pipelines and then they disappear…we collectively repaired a few of the pipelines and the dried-up hand pumps...The perpetual apathy of the State administration underlie the under-performance of the famous Bunelkhand package and several other water schemes for the region.”

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