IN THE DYSTOPIAN world of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) water is a precious resource, so rare that the man, Immortan Joe, whose citadel sits atop a large aquifer, rules the wasteland. Do not become addicted to water, he says, it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.
In real life, humans don’t have that luxury. In India, in eight out of 10 households with water off premises, it is women and children who are the human pipelines, responsible for water collection in plastic pots, earthen vessels and steel bowls. According to Unicef, women and girls lose 200 million hours every day in collecting water. When it comes to piped drinking water, women are the worst sufferers, walking long distances to fetch water. In the case of irrigation water, they, the landless and voiceless labourers, are anyway marginalised.
But every crisis presents an opportunity. And in India, the water crisis could not be more acute. Currently, only 18 per cent of the country has clean drinking water. A 2018 Niti Aayog reports says 75 per cent of the country’s households don’t have access to any drinking water on premise, and 84 per cent of rural households don’t get piped water. Yet, women manage, somehow, to find water for domestic purposes in villages, towns and cities.
Much as Swachh Bharat’s success rested on the shoulders of women who felt empowered enough to demand that toilets be made, the challenge before the Narendra Modi Government 2.0 is this: how to turn women, the worst sufferers of water shortage, into its finest problem solvers. The BJP manifesto has promised piped water for every household by 2024, link rivers, and improve irrigation to farms. A beginning has been made by forming the Jal Shakti Ministry which hopes to cut through the chaos prevailing in this sector by merging the Drinking Water and Sanitation Ministry as well as the Water Resources Ministry and including within its ambit the ambitious and never-ending Namami Gange project, the flagship initiative to clean the Ganga, its tributaries and sub-tributaries.
Some states have done excellent work in providing piped drinking water. Under Mission Bhagirathi, potable water has reached 60 per cent of Telangana. But the problem, points out, international development consultant Murty Jonnalagadda, is the critical operation and maintenance of these water systems. This is where tariffs are required and where women can act as catalysts in persuading the community to pay the panchayats and urban local bodies, he adds.
At the ground level, the focus is not merely on water supply but also on water conservation. This can only be done, says Sara Ahmed, Founder, Living Waters Museum, by addressing water security through both enhancing water storage (such as by harvesting rainwater and building check dams) and groundwater recharging/conservation. “This means developing local, self-reliant solutions which are community-based and harness our water wisdom as well as collective action. Everyone wants the convenience of piped water systems but they have marginalised our traditional water systems and these are now being developed by NGOs and local communities to meet local water needs.” The challenge is to recognise water as a flow resource crossing both national and trans-national boundaries. The other challenge, she adds, is the absence of a legal framework for water security and water rights.
Several non-profit organisations have been working in the area of transforming Nari Shakti in Jal Shakti, whether it is for water for domestic use or agricultural use, and putting on record women’s unrecognised role as water managers. In Gujarat, an organisation called Utthan has promoted women’s decision- making in village water committees, allowing several women to use water saving technologies and less water- intensive crops. Another organisation, Soppecom, in Pune, understanding that only 10 per cent women own cultivable land, has supported women-led sustainable and innovative agricultural interventions. This has allowed them to have a say in water governance at the village level. Water is a universal resource and should be managed similarly.
Paani Foundation, run by actor Aamir Khan and his wife, director Kiran Rao, offers training in scientific watershed management, leadership and community-building in 90 per cent of drought-hit Maharashtra. Their flagship project, the Satyamev Jayate Water Cup, instituted in 2016 as a way to encourage villages to apply their training in watershed management, has thrown up many empowered women. In 2019, says Rao, there were all women batches of trainees for the first time, which means villages elected to send only women for training. “Women have taken on the responsibility for everything from motivating entire villages for shramdaan to mastering the technical aspects of watershed work. Age old gender barriers have taken a dent, in some cases even challenging practices that disallow women from stepping out of their homes.”
Because of their roles as domestic managers, women have accumulated a lot of knowledge—from the distance at which taps are to be kept to whether toilets have privacy—but men fail to tap into this. The greater the role of women in organising supply and negotiating delivery, the better it will be for the community. Gender expert Sonali David says for a very long time, in India and other developing parts of the world, water has been a divided matter, ‘where the decision-making is done by men, but women are the custodians.’ The communication gap between men being decision-makers and women custodians, has in some cases been bridged where expected success is a result. David recalls a case where the hand pumps installed in certain villages of Rajasthan were not being used. After much external prodding, it was revealed that the hand pumps were too high and too hard to push down. ‘Many issues to do with water are simply bad design. Men theorise and pass tenders on civil works without actually indulging in the physical labour of day-to-day activities. They don’t traditionally take women’s pragmatism into account and this leads to inefficiencies multiplied by economies of scale.’
The closest example of women as changemakers is from the Swachh Bharat Mission. Of the 600,000 swachhagrahis (village motivators) who drive behaviour change on the ground, 40 per cent are women. Jharkhand has led the charge with the ‘Rani Mistri’ initiative. Starting from Simdega district, women have been trained in the traditionally male-dominated profession of masons, and have created a cadre of over 75,000 Rani Mistris who have given great impetus to Jharkhand’s journey to become open defecation-free, a fact acknowledged by the World Bank. Women grassroots workers of the Swachh Bharat Mission have been routinely recognised, the latest and third occasion being in February 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacted with 15,000 of them from across India.
In our ancient epics, according to Devdutt Pattanaik, Renuka, who had the ability to collect water from unbaked pots made from clay from the riverbank, is beheaded on her husband Rishi Jamadagni’s orders because she has an adulterous thought for a moment on seeing a beautiful man bathing in the river as she is fetching water.
In real life at least, the women who fetch water get to keep their heads.