Drought, and its devastating impact on women and children, is not news anymore.

Imagine your eight-year-old daughter carrying a five-litre pot of water on her head and making at least three trips a day in the scorching heat to the nearest water source. For those of us for whom water flows out of a tap, such a scene is unimaginable. Yet even as the media obsessed about the controversies surrounding the Indian Premier League (IPL) last month, scores of young girls were doing precisely this in hundreds of villages across Maharashtra and in other parts of India.

If you read the newspapers in Mumbai, you would not necessarily know that 7,296 villages in 15 of the state's 35 districts are suffering from acute drought conditions and shortage of water. There have already been water riots. People have died or are dying from the lack of potable water. And even if they get some water, the heat is killing them.

Looking the other way

Drought, we are constantly told by politicians, is an annual occurrence and therefore should not cause alarm. Perhaps that explains why this year, the media, with a few honourable exceptions, has chosen to look the other way. In the past, before we became so obsessed with the conduct and lives of just a handful of people in the country, most newspapers would routinely cover the drought. Inevitably, you would see a photograph of an old farmer in some drought-stricken village looking woefully at the cracked baked earth that was once his field. Or of a woman desperately trying to collect water at the bottom of a muddy pit. Today we don't see even these predictable images. And perhaps as a result, much of the urban middle class India is unaware that the earth has really scorched and cracked in many parts of the country and little children have become water carriers.

Natural disasters such as droughts or floods take a heavy toll on all — but more on children and the elderly. And women. The gendered division of labour has trapped poor rural women into being the chief collectors and carriers of water, a job that they certainly did not choose. And if mothers are doing this, inevitably their daughters will also be expected to do the same. But what happens to such young girls after successive droughts?

The effects are visible in the short term. These children are most likely to be under-nourished. The amount of food they get at such times would be further reduced. On paper, all these children receive a free mid-day meal or are fed in the Anganwadis if they are infants. But schools are shut in the summer, as are most Anganwadis — although the latter should remain open. As a result, even the little nourishment these children get in normal times is denied to them at a time when they have to undertake tough physical labour in conditions where even sturdy adults would wilt.

Government figures on child mortality in these circumstances are rarely accurate. No government will admit that children die because they are compelled to walk miles in the sun to fetch water in temperatures exceeding 45 degrees. But over time these are the children that then get added to the list of stunted, under-nourished and malnourished children.

India's record in this area is more than pathetic with figures comparing to those in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Unicef, 46 per cent of all Indian children below three years are stunted or too small for their age, 47 per cent are underweight and 16 per cent are wasted, a term that is used for those children you sometimes see in photographs who are but skeletons with a skin covering. This is the consequence not just of less food but because these children and their families do not have adequate access to health care.

At a disadvantage

Apart from the physical signs of less food and malnutrition, other aspects such as sensory and cognitive development of the children are also affected. In other words, these children will never be able to compete with other children who are better nourished and will suffer a lifetime of disadvantage. Unicef has also pointed out that girls face a greater risk than boys due to malnutrition because of their “lower social status”. Not only are they not wanted at birth but if and when they are born, they are expected to carry some part of the physical burdens that their mothers already carry. Fetching water is one such task that inevitably falls on the backs of young girls.

There is no magic wand to wish away drought conditions. But the root cause is not the heat of summer but the overconsumption of groundwater sources, the lack of a policy to conserve and replenish what is there, and to ensure equity in distribution of water. Wherever such policies have been followed — and there are examples in India where despite lack of rainfall, people do not have to survive without water — everyone benefits, most of all women and young girls.

So even as the monsoon hits the southern part of this country, let us spare a thought for the children of the other India that is scorching.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com