India: The Cost of Brackish Water Measured In Women's Lives






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Publication: Women's Feature Service
Author: Bishnoi, Aditi
Date published: October 24, 2011

Beelpur (Women's Feature Service) - "On the face of it, we have water. There is a pipeline, taps in our homes, hand pumps... But if you look closely, the taps are mostly dry and the groundwater is brackish and undrinkable."

Don't these desperate words of Raniya of Beelpur village recall Samuel T. Coleridge's famous lines: 'Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink...' ('The Rime of The Ancient Mariner')? It is as if Coleridge had written those lines to describe the water woes that are presently devastating the lives of Beelpur's inhabitants.

Beelpur lies in Hamirpur, a drought-affected district in Uttar Pradesh. But unlike the rest of Bundelkhand, this village is not at all parched. At least that's what we think when we see see a middle-aged man using the local hand pump. With every heave, water gushes out into his rusty iron bucket. Then wearily he looks up, and says, "Take a sip. Certainly there is water, but see how it tastes?"

One sip and we realise what he is talking about. The water is salty; totally unfit for drinking. Which brings up the next question: Where is the drinking water? As this exchange is taking place, the crowd around us is slowly building up, and we hear a loud voice declaring, "Peene ka paani toh bhool jaiye (Just forget about drinking water)." This is our first brush with Raniya, a young mother of three girls and two boys, who is in her late twenties. Dressed in a bright green sari, she looks stressed out, as do most of the women in the crowd.

It is the specific misfortune of brackish water that drew the attention of Satish Chandra and Vineeta of the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan (PSSS), a civil society organisation based in the nearby town of Orai, to Beelpur. They are now regulars here, working to create awareness on women's first right to water, as part of a European Union-supported project being spearheaded by the PSSS in Bundelkhand.

Elaborates Vineeta, a PSSS cluster coordinator, "Drinking water is supposed to come to Beelpur from Mankehri - which is about four kilometres away. As part of a government water supply scheme, a borewell had been dug there and a pipeline was laid to carry water from this borewell to the three villages of Maharajpur, Mamna and Beelpur. Unfortunately, Beelpur gets very little of it. Of the 300 families here, only around 150 are able to access the water released from Mankheri because they are fortunate to live in low-lying areas. For the rest, the pressure is just too low to get even get a trickle."

Brij Lal, a retired Jal Nigam employee who lives in Beelpur, explains, "The pipeline is four kilometres long. When water travels over a long distance the pressure is low. Also Maharajpur and Mamna get water first; Beelpur is at the tail end of the supply chain." What makes matters worse, according to him, is inadequate power. "For the water pumps to work we need electricity. Unfortunately, at times there is no power for 15 days at a stretch. If there's no electricity in Mankehri then Beelpur does not get water."

The dismal situation adversely affects women like Raniya and Mamta, because on their shoulders falls the burden of ensuring water for their households. Everyday Raniya is up by four, busy with her household chores so that her children are off to school by seven.

Poverty and the fact that her family has no land have forced her to work as a daily wage labourer in the fields of local landlords. During the harvest season she leaves home by 8 am, which leaves her no time to collect water. The erratic water supply means that she has to trudge two kilometres to the only well in the area and cart two 25-litre drums of water back home. This is an extremely exhausting task and takes at least two hours, so she leaves it till after she's back at seven. "For 11 hours I work in the fields, either digging or harvesting crops. After that I am drained of all energy but still I have to fetch water, cook and look after the children. My eldest daughter, who is 12, helps me. I know her studies suffer, but what can I do?" she rues.

On the rare day the water does flow through the tap, people rush around and fill up any large container they get. They know that stored water can get contaminated but they have no other option. In any case, they argue, they are no strangers to ill health. "We are used to feeling queasy in the stomach, and our children are constantly falling ill with diarrhoea and fever," says Mamta, 40, a mother of three, who also works as a daily wage labourer. She adds, "Only a handful of us have toilets at home, so just think of our plight when we have upset stomachs?"

Everyone agrees that the worst season is summer - from April to July - when water, already scarce, becomes a truly precious commodity and collecting it gets even harder. Says Raniya, "The taps are dry and even the pond where we wash clothes and bathe becomes muddy. For drinking water the entire village of 2,000 people starts queuing up at the well from 1 am. The water is at rock bottom and we scoop it out with our hands. It takes time for the level to rise again each time we collect some. So it could take two or three hours to get enough water for the household. And even this water is dirty. People fall ill drinking it."

Since water access occupies so much of their time, the women are constantly thinking of ways to address it. They argue that water supply needs to be better regulated, so that everybody can access the resource. Raniya has even thought of a way to ensure how this can be done, "Unlike in some villages, we have a pipeline. So why let it go waste? We need water supply that is not dependent on electricity. For that we need to install a tank in Beelpur that will cater to us. When water is released from Mankehri, it would collect in this tank and be supplied to our homes from there. This way, the pressure would be good enough to reach all 300 families."

It is hard to imagine when Raniya talks that she is a simple village woman with no schooling. But life has taught her many valuable lessons. The problem is that nobody is particularly concerned about her difficulties. As Mamta puts it, "No one listens to us. The sarpanch, Gajraj Singh comes and meets with only a few people. If we tell him anything he has a standard reply: Don't worry, we are working on it."

For these women, time is money. Reveals Mamta, "We work in the fields and spend the little free time we have in making baskets from arhar dal stalks to supplement our meagre incomes. If we didn't have to spend time on water collection, we could earn at least an additional Rs 50 (US$1=Rs 50) by weaving baskets and this money would help in giving our children better food and an education. Right now we are barely managing to put them through school. What hope can we have for a brighter future when we can't even get drinking water at home?"

Mamta is no economist. But she could not have put across the opportunity costs of poor water delivery more eloquently. The brackish water of Beelpur is extracting a terrible price in terms of women's lives and livelihoods. But is anyone paying attention?

( Women's Feature Service)

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