Through Paani Panchayat and training in hand pump repairing, women of Malhanpura village in Uttar Pradesh have ensured water security

As one enters Rampura block of Uttar Pradesh’s Jalaun district that falls in the Bundelkhand region, there is a magnificent canal brimming with water that glistens like a polished mirror under the mid-day sun. Turning off on to the almost non-existent roads that lead to Malhanpura village, a mere two km further on, and the canal appears to be only a mirage. For the 272 families of this village, especially for its women, getting water for daily household requirements is a struggle that has aged their bodies and tormented their minds.

Malhanpura’s residents are generally poor, largely illiterate, and eke out an existence by farming small, unproductive plots of land or by fishing. Some supplement their earnings by making ropes out of the moonj grass that grows on the banks of ponds, or fashion baskets out of the dried stalks of the arhar plant. As is the case elsewhere in Bundelkhand, many men in this village, too, have migrated to cities in search of work.

It is in such an unlikely scenario that one meets a team of women who are looking at ways to make their lives somewhat less burdensome by working on issues of water access. About a year ago, they decided to form a ‘water committee’ or Paani Panchayat with the help of a local organisation, the Orai-based Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan.

Somwati, one of the leaders of the Paani Panchayat, which has a membership of about 20 local women, says: “Whenever we sat down to talk, it was almost always about the problems of water collection. So we understood the need to come together on the issue. For the last year, we have been meeting every month as part of this panchayat. The first thing we did was to petition the authorities for more water sources.”

In this way, Malhanpur managed to get some extra hand pumps sanctioned. However, these hand pumps often broke down, bringing the situation back to square one and this is where Parmarth came in. The organisation is presently anchoring the European Union-supported ‘Women’s First Right to Water Resources’ project in the districts of Jalaun, Hamirpur and Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh.

To address the regular breakdown of hand pumps, Parmarth decided that the women themselves should be trained in the technology of pump maintenance so that they can handle minor problems. But first they had to understand the basic structure of the hand pump, which the men in the village generally knew much more about, because repairing things was strictly considered a man’s business.

In order to assist women in this task, Parmarth made available a hand pump repair kit (which costs around Rs. 6,000) in the village. It is kept in a room in volunteer Shyam Singh’s home, which is now called the Jal Soochana Kendra. The key to this room is always available to anyone who needs to repair a hand pump. To borrow the kit, the Paani Panchayat member is required to enter her name into a specially maintained register, and make sure that it is returned with all its instruments intact.

Thanks to this initiative, when small things go wrong with a hand pump in Malhanpur the women now have a much better idea about how to fix hand pumps. Somwati says, “When the bolts in the the handle of the pump get loose, for instance, we fix it with a spanner from the tool kit. Previously, when a hand pump would break down, we had to depend on the repair man from the Jal Board to come and he could take ages to make an appearance!”

She adds: “Earlier, we didn’t perceive the hand pumps as ours. Now we believe each one of them is our own and it is our duty to see that they are in running condition. We have also laid down rules for everybody to observe, like keeping cattle away from the hand pump because they could break the cement lining around it.”

During the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections held earlier this year, Somwati and others in the Paani Panchayat decided to highlight the lack of water and electricity in Malhanpur and when candidates came to ask for votes, the women roundly told them, “Agar light aur pani nahi hain, toh vote nahin hain (no light and water, no vote).”

(Women's Feature Service)