Only two dozen students turned up at the upper-primary school in Kahla village on Saturday. Apart from the scorching April heat, the students had a valid reason for staying away: the only hand pump in the school has been non-operative for four months. This has not only deprived them of drinking water but also rendered the school toilet non-functional. While girls have been discouraged from attending school, boys who turn up are told to use the open space to defecate.
To run the school, which has 130 students, teachers are forced to fetch water from a nearby hand pump. Even that has an erratic supply; dozens of hand pumps in the region have entirely collapsed or are dysfunctional. Attempts to re-bore them have also failed, as the ground water level is critically low.
In Kahla, only a fifth of the hand pumps are operational. “The students are de-motivated as their homes are two kilometres away and they have to walk back in the heat. We had to ask them to get water from home. We are also struggling to prepare the midday meals — the cook has to fetch water from a tubewell 500 metres away,” said assistant teacher V.D. Tripathi. “In spite of several applications, not a single official has visited us to repair the pump,” he said.
Parched countryside Fifty districts in Uttar Pradesh are reeling under severe drought and swathes of parched land lie unused as the water crisis has devastated the rural economy. Securing potable water has become an ordeal with the worst of summer yet to come.
Seven districts of Bundelkhand — Chitrakoot, Banda, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Lalitpur, Jhansi and Banda — are the worst affected. Kahla is located in the Hateti Purva gram panchayat of Banda, on the edge of the Ken, one of the major rivers in the region and a tributary of the Yamuna. A walk through the village takes one past dozens of dried up hand pumps — even those that are operational can produce not more than a few buckets of water.
It is noon and there is still a steady rush of women, with pots on their head and children by their side, moving towards the Ken. Alongside are many villagers who have brought their buffaloes for bathing. The river is fast drying up. But for a large section of villagers, it is still the only source of water. The same stream is used to bathe, collect drinking water and wash animals. The State government’s tankers are yet to touch Kahla.
“What option do we have? The Ken is our only lifeline — all other sources of water have failed,” said Ramsakhi Nishad, who walked 1.5 kilometres with her young grandchildren to bathe and collect drinking water at the river. All the hand pumps in her dera (locality) have failed and her family now drinks from the river. In solidarity, villagers in other areas have allowed people to use their hand pumps but that has not been enough to meet the needs.
“I run to the river in this sweltering heat each time we run out of water. We cannot arrange even a lota (glass) of water for guests,” Ramsakhi said.
Water fights ahead
Banda District Magistrate Yogesh Kumar says 35 per cent of the 33,000 hand pumps in Banda have been rendered non-functional. The drinking water problem is made worse by the high salinity levels in the region. Since the Ken is drying fast and is expected to become shallow in May, villagers fear the worst, and in recent weeks many water fights have been reported.
“I have never seen the Ken so dry. Its flow will completely break next month. People may not die of thirst but it will surely become a struggle,” said pradhan Om Prakash Nishad, whose community’s traditional methods of growing cantaloupes and watermelon on river beds in summer has somewhat mitigated the loss of a major crop.
As hundreds of ponds, canals and local reservoirs have dried up across Bundelkhand, stray cattle, or “ anna janwars ,” are dying of thirst. Though no human deaths have been reported of starvation or thirst, Chitrakoot Divisional Commissioner Venkateshwarlu said the situation is grave.
The administration is trying to fight it by introducing tankers in villages and repairing hand pumps, he said. Around 1,950 hand pumps had been re-bored in the Chitrakoot in the past year. Of these, 17 were in Kahla. “We have never needed so many re-bores,” Mr. Nishad said.
The Akhilesh Yadav government has allocated Rs 30 crore for solving the drinking water crisis in Bundelkhand. Over 3,200 hand pumps will be installed in the seven districts, while an additional 440 tankers will cater to areas beyond repair, the government has said.
Man-made crisis Deficit rainfall — less than 40 per cent — natural scarcity of water and other climatic factors are being cited as the immediate causes of the water problem. But environment activist Ashish Sagar says the encroachment of hundreds of Chandela-era ponds and the overall degradation of the forest cover are to be blamed for the sustained crisis. Through an RTI, Mr. Sagar found that in the past decade, 4,020 ponds have “vanished” in Bundelkhand, primarily due to encroachments by land sharks.