2024 Lok Sabha polls | Do water woes affect voting choices of women?

As the campaign of political parties gets heated up, gaining the women vote is a top priority. Promises about water, sanitation, gas connections, financial loans, and education appear in the manifestos of several political parties. Here’s a look at how access to water and its scarcity affect women and how parties address them.

Updated - April 23, 2024 04:19 pm IST

Published - April 23, 2024 04:09 pm IST

File photo: Women carry pots filled with drinking water on their heads through a dry pond, in Nadia, on Monday, April 17, 2023, as the area is facing a drought-like-situation due to the continued heatwave across South Bengal.

File photo: Women carry pots filled with drinking water on their heads through a dry pond, in Nadia, on Monday, April 17, 2023, as the area is facing a drought-like-situation due to the continued heatwave across South Bengal. | Photo Credit: PTI

Launching Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election campaign for a record third term, BJP has pitched ‘Nari Shakti’ as the driving force of India. While touting its nine years of governance in June 2023, the Centre listed its various schemes for women and its impact in different sectors such as health, education, finance, water, food, electricity, defence and security. Even the Republic Day celebrations this year were themed ‘Nari Shakti’, and highlighted the rise of women in the Armed Forces.

This focus on women ahead of the elections is a direct result of their increased participation in voting. In the previous general election, the women voter turnout was 0.17% more than men – a marked improvement from 1962 when women’s turnout was 16.71% lesser than men. With 30 crore women voting in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the number is projected to increase to 47 crore in 2024, as per the Election Commission data.

The Hindu – Lokniti post-poll survey in 2019 too found that women voters’ participation was historically the highest in 2019. Even BJP, which has traditionally been favoured less by women than men, saw its gender disadvantage narrow, with 36% women voting for it compared to 39% men. The report also found that women voters who were either young, upper caste, educated or rich favoured the BJP.

PM Narendra Modi being felicitated during the ‘Nari Shakti Vandan-Abhinandan Karyakram’, a day after Parliament passed the women’s reservation bill, at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi

PM Narendra Modi being felicitated during the ‘Nari Shakti Vandan-Abhinandan Karyakram’, a day after Parliament passed the women’s reservation bill, at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi

The considerable rise in BJP and Mr. Modi’s popularity among women may have been due to the Centre’s women-centric schemes such as the Ujjwala Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Jan Dhan Yojna, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, the survey had found. Ujwala Yojana (free cooking gas connections), whose beneficiaries are exclusively women below the poverty line, saw 41% beneficiaries vote for BJP, compared to 33% non-beneficiaries.

As the above-mentioned schemes reaped rich dividends for the BJP in 2019, the party is hoping the schemes launched by the second Modi government will do the same. One of its most popular and widely-implemented schemes is the Jal Jeevan Mission, which promises a tapped water connection to every household in India by 2024. With over 14.21 crore households receiving tapped water as of January 31, 2024, the Centre aims to complete its target of 19 crore households soon, fulfilling a major campaign promise and alleviating one of the biggest struggles women in India face — access to clean drinking water and hygienic sanitation facilities.

Water scarcity in India

The NITI Aayog’s report on Composite Water Resources Management (2019) paints a bleak picture of water reserves in India. Home to 27% of the world’s population, India has only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. India’s per capita water storage capacity is 209 cubic metres, which is meagre in comparison to countries like Australia (3223 m3), the USA (2193 m3), Brazil (2632 m3) and China (416 m3).

India is also heavily dependent on groundwater which contributes to 62% of irrigation, 85% of rural water supply and 45% to urban water supply, according to the Central Groundwater Board (CGWB). With 20 million wells pumping water across the country, India’s groundwater reserves are severely stressed. As of 2018, 52% of these wells are showing a decline in water level, projecting water scarcity in India by 2050.

The NITI Aayog report says that large economic hubs such as Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, housing 1/4th of India’s population are the lowest performing States, with poor groundwater restoration, untreated sewage in urban slums, lack of drinking water access, poor irrigation utilisation and no data on major indices.

How are women affected by water scarcity?

Water scarcity disproportionately affects women in India, highlights the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) 2019-20. Though it finds that almost all urban households (99%) and rural households (95%) have access to drinking water, not all of them are delivered directly to the dwelling via pipes. In urban areas, piped connections to individual homes constitute 54%, while tube wells make up 16% and community taps are 12%. In contrast, in rural areas, tapped connections to individual homes constitute only 23%, while tube wells make up 46%. In totality, only 68% rural homes have tapped connections compared to 86% urban homes.

Sources of drinking water in India

Sources of drinking water in India

Bridging this gap falls on women. The NFHS-5 report states that women aged 15 years and above are most likely to collect drinking water (71%) where tapped connections are not available.

Rural women and water

Fetching drinking water from the nearest source such as wells, rivers, ponds, and tanks is an arduous task for women in villages. As per a report released by the National Sample Survey Office in 2018, 54% women (including girls) in rural India walked an average of 173 kilometres to fetch drinking water, a daily average of 5 km. The time lost in walking and waiting in queues to fetch water is 210 hours a year, amounting to a loss of 27 days of wages.

Apart from health issues like anaemia, fatigue, and dehydration affecting these women, there is only a limited number of pots they can carry, necessitating multiple trips in one day. With so much time wasted on this task daily, a 22% increase in school dropouts, mainly girls, has been reported in drought-affected areas.

A peculiar side-effect of water scarcity is the practice called ‘water wife’. In arid areas of Maharashtra, which face yearly droughts, one man marries multiple women for the sole purpose of fetching water from the nearest water source— lightening the load of his primary spouse who takes care of the household and children.

Bhagat poses with his wives, Sakhri, Tuki and Bhaagi (left to right) in their house

Bhagat poses with his wives, Sakhri, Tuki and Bhaagi (left to right) in their house | Photo Credit: Reuters

The practice was first highlighted in 2015 in Denganmal village in Thane district, Maharashtra, when 66-year-old Sakharam Bhagat along with his three wives were interviewed by Reuters. Mr. Bhagat, a farm labourer in a nearby village, claimed that he had married two of his three wives to ensure that his house had enough water to drink and cook. While two wives fetch water, the other cooks and takes care of the household. While the practice of ‘water wives’ is commonly used in Denganmal to solve their water access issues, similar scenes of long walks and waiting in even longer queues are seen in other States such as Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Odisha and Jharkhand.

 Urban women and water

Cities too face severe water scarcity in India. The NITI Aayog report states that 5 of the 20 largest cities in the world under water stress are in India, with Delhi ranking second. As of 2014, no major city in India has been able to provide continuous water supply (24x7) to its citizens with only 35% having piped connections, which increased to 54% by 2019-20. Despite better access, waste water treatment is a major issue plaguing cities. The urban water crisis is only set to increase as the cities’ population is estimated to increase to 600 million by 2030.

Similar to rural areas, the burden of fetching water to households falls on women. However, unlike rural women, long walks to the nearest source of water is not common; but standing in long queues for collecting water from the community tap is.

Women wait with empty pots to collect drinking water at HLL Nagar near Tondiarpet bus depot in Chennai on March 10, 2017.

Women wait with empty pots to collect drinking water at HLL Nagar near Tondiarpet bus depot in Chennai on March 10, 2017. | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

Women standing with colourful plastic pots early in the morning in urban slums and chawls across India is a common sight. In summers, when water is scarce, water tankers are ferried to provide supply to community taps. These tankers generally arrive early in the morning (occasionally at late night), forcing women to stand in wait for the tap to begin its timed supply. According to the 2015 NSSO report, 99 of in 1000 women between the age 15 -59 years were engaged in bringing water from outside their household premises, totalling 64,558 women out of 6,50,170.

In one of India’s hottest cities — Chennai — during summer, women in slums and chawls, are seen queueing to the solitary community tap – where fights break out over water-collection with women often being inflicted to physical and verbal assault. Due to poor water treatment, water received in these community taps are also dark, murky and contaminated, forcing these women to buy clean water from tankers at hiked prices. Women from lower castes such as Dalits also face discrimination and denied access to water, forced to either wait till the end or buy water from tankers.

Locals climb on the water tanker while others as they wait for their turn to get water at Vivekanand Camp in the Chanakyapuri area of Delhi

Locals climb on the water tanker while others as they wait for their turn to get water at Vivekanand Camp in the Chanakyapuri area of Delhi | Photo Credit: PTI

A similar condition is witnessed in the north – the nation’s capital – Delhi. Ranking as the worst State with respect to water, Delhi’s water crisis is compounded due to lack of its own fresh water sources, making it reliant on groundwater, canals on the Yamuna river, Uttar Pradesh’s Ganga canal, Haryana’s Yamuna and Munak Canals and Himachal Pradesh’s Bhakra reservoir. Women are also forced to practise open defecation at times due to lack of water in the community toilets and its poor maintenance, leading to sanitation issues and harassment

Access to water in toilets

Access to water in toilet facilities is also a crisis faced by both urban and rural women. While 83% of households have access to a toilet facility, only 69% are non-shared. 11% urban homes use a shared toilet compared to 7% rural homes. However, 19% households do not use any toilet facility, practising open-defecation. Despite access to toilets, water is often unavailable in these facilities.

Access to Toilet facilities in India

Access to Toilet facilities in India

The problem is compounded when women/girls are menstruating. In India, 64% women between the ages 15 and 24 use sanitary napkins, 50% use cloth and 15% use locally prepared napkins. While sanitary napkins are easily disposable without water, sanitary cloths are usually washed and reused. Without access to water in toilet facilities, women, especially school-going girls, who use sanitary cloths face hygiene issues.

Physical violence is another burden rural women bear in drought-prone or water scarce areas, According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPC) Change, fetching water from far-away sources increases the risk of sexual abuse, demand for sexual favours at controlled water collection points, physical injuries and domestic violence for not completing water-related tasks at home.

Centre’s actions to tackle women’s water issues

In 2019, on being re-elected for a second term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) promising safe drinking water via individual household tap connections to all houses in rural India by 2024. As of February 13, 2024, over 14.3 crore households (74.23%) have a functional water tap connection, of which 11.06 crore houses (69.03%) received water connection after the launch of JJM.

As of February 13, 2024, States such as Goa, Haryana, Telangana, Punjab, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh have provided 100% households in their states with a tap connection. States like Mizoram, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Nagaland, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have achieved over 80% households. The lowest performing states are Jharkhand (43%), Rajasthan (43.36%) and West Bengal (43.18%).

Number of households with tapped water connection as of February 13, 2024

Number of households with tapped water connection as of February 13, 2024

Water access before and after launch of Jal Jeevan Mission

Water access before and after launch of Jal Jeevan Mission

Apart from providing tapped water connections, the scheme also aims to develop reliable drinking water sources to provide tapped water to rural households on a long-term basis. The JJM has a fund-sharing pattern between the Centre and States, with an outlay of Rs 3.60 lakh crore for five years, of which Rs 60, 713 crores were drawn in the past year.

Involving the community at a grassroot-level, the Union Jal Shakti ministry along with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is conducting several campaigns to construct rain water harvesting pits as well as rooftop structures, de-silting tanks, and using defunct bore-wells to feed aquifiers. Employing a network of women-led councils, the mission introduced the ‘women water champions’ to better tackle water-related issues by offering specific solutions at a panchayat-level.

On a macro-level, the Centre has two major schemes to tackle India’s water scarcity – Atal Bhujal Yojana (Atal Jal) and the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG).

Launched in 2019, the Atal Bhujal Yojana is a Central scheme with an outlay of Rs 6000 crores till 2024-25, of which Rs 3000 crores is a loan from World Bank. The scheme aims at improving groundwater management in 8220 gram panchayats with community participation, in water-stressed states like Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The scheme includes creating and maintaining a strong database on ground water level and its usage, preparing water security plans, and efficient water usage via ongoing state or Central schemes.

File photo: Sewer water is being directly discharged in the Ganges at Krishna Ghat in Patna, as Chhath devotees take holy bath in the polluted Ganges to mark beginning of Chhath festival on November 15, 2015

File photo: Sewer water is being directly discharged in the Ganges at Krishna Ghat in Patna, as Chhath devotees take holy bath in the polluted Ganges to mark beginning of Chhath festival on November 15, 2015 | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

Tackling India’s biggest freshwater source – the Ganga – along whose banks 40% of India’s population, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Namami Gange programme (a wholly Central scheme) in 2014 with an outlay of Rs 20,000 crore till 2021 for comprehensively treating/improving the river waters via solid waste management, developing ghats and crematoria, afforestation, biodiversity conservation.

As of December 2022, the government has launched 409 projects to create sewage plants to treat domestic and industrial effluents polluting the river, generating 5,269.87 million litres of clean water per day. The second phase of the project has been extended till 2026 with an outlay of Rs 22,500 crores disbursed across Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.

Poll promises on water and women

Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Mr. Modi assured that schemes launched in his second term such as the Jal Jeevan mission will be continued and expanded during his third term. Even the interim budget 2024-25 reflected the Modi government’s intent as the Jal Shakti Ministry was allocated Rs 98,418 crores with the JJM bagging Rs 68,926 crores. The BJP manifesto too promised drinking water access to all and reduce water wastage using technology.

Similarly, the Congress manifesto has promised to increase funds and quicken the pace of implementation of the National Drinking Water Mission. It has also promised to make water harvesting mandatory and install desalination plants in all coastal areas to supplement drinking water reserves.

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