India is facing its worst ever water crisis. And it’s the unlikely heroes — women from rural regions — who are donning their capes (or sky-blue sarees, in this case) and getting water flowing in their villages
“Mother Earth is like a pot. Once it’s been emptied, nobody is going to get any water.”
These are the words of Sri Kunwar, a Jal Saheli and a resident of Bundelkhand, a hilly, perennially parched region in central India. After years of facing hardships to fetch a basic necessity — water — Kunwar and hundreds of other women from the region came together to bring water into their villages, rather than having to go out of their way to access it.
Over the last few years, the Jal Sahelis have built check dams, revived ponds, and undertaken rainwater harvesting projects to recharge wells in Bundelkhand. Their biggest victory came when after months of digging a 12-foot-wide and 107-metre-long trench, they managed to redirect rainwater into the village pond, which earlier lay barren.
The story of how the Jal Sahelis, a serene sight in their signature sky-blue sarees, turned the water situation around to benefit the villagers and wildlife has been highlighted in a film created by 101 India for MG Changemakers, an initiative that tells the stories of inspiring women who are torchbearers of change in their communities.
These are women who, through their grit and determination, are embarking on missions that are transforming the lives of many others. In the latest season of MG Changemakers, the spotlight is on women who are working on the sustainable development of communities.
It is an image of rural India that has been seared into our brains — women traversing long distances, with pots of water precariously perched on their heads, their colourful sarees billowing in the breeze.
Women, after all, have shared a close connection with water for centuries. Have to feed the family? You need water. Have to finish household chores? Water. Have to make sure the crops are growing fine? You guessed it — water.
Not only is the burden of caretaking and chores on womenfolk, ensuring the availability of drinking water in the household is also considered the responsibility of women and girls, not just in India, but globally. According to UNICEF, up to 200 million (wo)man hours are spent on these activities on a daily basis. This means that these women have no time left to get a decent education, participate in paid economic opportunities, or to even engage in frivolous pastimes.
And, if there is a water crisis, they’re the first ones to be affected. Yet, only a few women are in a decision-making position when it comes to water management.
As per a report published by NITI Aayog in 2019, India is undergoing the worst water crisis in its history. About 82% of rural households in India do not have individual piped water supply, and 163 million live without access to clean water close to their homes. Moreover, 70% of India’s surface water is contaminated.
But steadily, the women of rural India — particularly from water-scarce states in central, western and northern India — are taking it upon themselves to change their circumstances and, in turn, that of their fellow villagers, by getting water flowing in places where it didn’t before.
These women water warriors have risen up to the challenge across the country. Take the case of Bhojo ki Bap village in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, where drought and water scarcity led to stress in agriculture and caused the youth to migrate to other places in search of work. Naktu Devi and the women of the village came together to construct rainwater harvesting structures and rejuvenated ponds that had gone dry, thus improving the health of their farms and bringing food and water security to the village.
Similarly, Sarswati Barik of Pachapada in Odisha mobilised womenfolk from neighbouring villages by forming a Women's Water Forum in the Gram Panchayat. The efforts of these women have influenced people to adopt water conservation and management measures in their respective localities.
These are just a few examples. The government of India recently awarded recognition to 41 Women Water Champions across India, proving that women can be powerful catalysts of change.
The Jal Sahelis started out with just a handful of women, but today, it is a group made up of hundreds of women, all of whom take active part in water conservation efforts, whether it be by putting in physical labour, or having a say in matters of administration.
Shivani Singh of NGO Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, which helped kickstart the Jal Saheli movement in Bundelkhand, says that every village should have a ‘jal budget.’ “The villagers should audit how much water is available, and how much water is needed for drinking and other activities. Then, if there’s a gap, they can work on figuring out how to address that gap.”
Today, the Jal Sahelis make informed decisions when it comes to their water, dealing with men, bureaucratic red tape and more to fulfill their dream of a land that’s gushing with water.
Singh says, “If it’s the responsibility of women to fetch water, then the power to control it should also be their right.”
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Written By: Shraddha Uchil