The wells are almost dry, and women and young girls spend all their time just foraging for water

Kamal Shirsagar has prepared for her nightly sojourn at the well in Pachgad by leaving a steel pot to mark her place. In the daytime, she's busy rolling out papads with her sister and mother, besides doing household chores. Her husband Shivram accompanies her at night, since there is the danger of leopards lurking in the hills nearby.

Since March, no tankers have come to Pachgad, which is the furthermost village in the hilly Mokhada taluka. While water projects in Thane district provide round-the-clock supply to Mumbai, more than 150 km away, Mokhada is parched. At almost every well, there is hardly any water, and women and young girls spend all their time just foraging for water.

Of the three wells in Pachgad, one is outside the village, and another is located below a short descent into a nallah. Mr. Shirsagar says that women don't sleep all night, since they are busy collecting water. Earlier, when tankers did come, they only gave half the quantity, and sold the rest to hotels, he says.

The village, with a population of 450 people, has devised a “number” system, and everyone has to queue up for their turn. “Why must we pay a water tax if there is no water?” asks Rama Ganga Yele. To add insult to injury, the Middle Vaitarna project is coming up very close to the village, again aimed at supplying drinking water to Mumbai.

A steep slope winds down to the broken down well behind the village, and in the afternoon, there is a collection of plastic cans and pots. Tulsa Waje has been waiting in the sun for more than three hours to fill two steel pots; sometimes it takes more than 24 hours to get a decent amount of water. Sita Agvile says the tankers usually come towards the end of May, just before the rains, and that too, if they make several complaints to the taluka office, 30 km away.

A pregnant Kamal Ware skirts the slope and takes a longer route to reach the well with several pots. Pregnant women have no respite, nor do young schoolgirls like Durgi, who is here for her summer holidays. A class two student, Durgi expertly tosses a roped up plastic can into the well, and keeps aiming it at the small pool of water amid the rocks. She manages half a can, to pour into a steel vessel covered with a blue cloth, which acts as a filter. Like many young girls in drought-hit Maharashtra, Durgi too spends all day drawing water.

In the monsoon, the nallah where the well is located swells up with water, making access difficult for the women. They prefer the well outside the village in that period.

As the road winds up to Pachgad, on the way is Gar river, where you can see people washing clothes. The people from Pachgad hire a jeep to take their clothes to the river for washing once in a while. If the situation in Pachgad is grim, even worse are Karol and Vavdewadi which are located on a steep slope behind. Gangaram Ghatal from Karol says that people are now digging for water in a nallah, since tankers hardly come by. There is no access road leading to Vavdewadi. People from Karol have been demanding a dam in a nearby nallah to no avail, he says.

This year, water shortage came early to the five adivasi-dominated talukas in Thane district, comprising Mokhada, Jawhar, Shahpur, Vikramgad and Wada, says Kailash Jadhav, Additional Collector. Jawhar, too, has dry wells, and in Kundachapada, Saji Khutade and her friends spend hours by a large roadside well, filling and filtering water. The young girls drop steel and plastic cans attached to long ropes, which clatter into the deep near-empty well, and hit the rock repeatedly.

If you look carefully, you can spot water, but these girls are experts at teasing small quantities into plastic cans. Another well is even further away across the road. No tankers here, Saji says, and it usually takes her two to three hours to fill a largish steel pot. Bathing is a luxury in these parts, and a rivulet far away serves the purpose once in a while.

The government has a convenient explanation for the scarcity of water. Mokhada is hilly, and most villages are at an altitude, and the laterite soil doesn't retain water, says Mr. Jadhav. For the last three years, the government claims it has been sending tankers to 27 villages and 36 hamlets in Mokhada. However, currently, officials said that 11 tankers supply water to 14 villages and 21 hamlets, of the total 59 villages and 122 hamlets in Mokhada taluka, which is the worst affected in Thane district.

The solution in Mokhada, says Mr. Jadhav, is to shift the hilltop villages to the ground level, so that all government facilities can be made available to them. There were some 33 permanent water supply schemes using lift irrigation for Mokhada, but 24 of them had to be discontinued because the people totted up huge electricity bills. Little hamlets don't have the paying capacity, and the power connections had to be snapped due to non-payment, he added.

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