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On her head

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 30, 2016
Pain behind the smiles: Village women trade stories and jokes as they fill water from a tank in Alwar, Rajasthan. On bad days, it becomes a site of bloody brawls. Photo: Kamal Narang

Pain behind the smiles: Village women trade stories and jokes as they fill water from a tank in Alwar, Rajasthan. On bad days, it becomes a site of bloody brawls. Photo: Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

Thirsting for change: Women were tasked with fetching water in nearly 84.1 per cent of rural households, according to the 2012 National Sample Survey. Pushpa (left) and Rajwati often venture into nearby fields to collect drinking water. Photo: Kamal Narang

Thirsting for change: Women were tasked with fetching water in nearly 84.1 per cent of rural households, according to the 2012 National Sample Survey. Pushpa (left) and Rajwati often venture into nearby fields to collect drinking water. Photo: Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

Age no bar: Village women of all ages, including girls as young as five or six, trek long distances to fetch water. Photo: Kamal Narang

Age no bar: Village women of all ages, including girls as young as five or six, trek long distances to fetch water. Photo: Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

Across villages, women spend the better part of their day hovering near handpumps, wells and tanks, fighting to snare a pot of drinking water for their family

Among the few chores for which a woman can set out on her own, and cross the implicit Lakshman Rekha, is the search of water. Yet, water is also bondage. It is the woman’s burden to bear. Water is politics. It is also power.

Mundiya Khera is simply an archetype for the thousands of villages across the country where women spend their day hovering around handpumps, wells and tanks or stealthily slipping into irrigated fields to snare an odd pot of water.

In this village of over 2,000 inhabitants, and a pitiably skewed child sex ratio (877 girls to 1,000 boys, Census 2011), only the very young, the old and the sick are exempted from water duties. The muddy approach to the village — located about 18 km from Alwar, in Chikani panchayat —is hemmed by yellow fields of mustard flowers. Women balancing a pot or two of water on their heads is a common sight here. None of the houses has piped water, and the entire village depends on a single source for drinking water.





There is nary a quiet moment around the massive concrete tank. And hardly a man in sight. Cackling women banter as they take turns to fill old paint buckets with water from a motorised brown hose connected to the tank. Some of the women live close by and have it easier. Most others have to carry the filled buckets and pots over several metres to reach home. A few have to walk nearly a kilometre each way.

‘Don’t be misled by the banter,’ the women caution me. “ Aaj yahan bheed kahan hai? (There’s no crowd today),” someone yells. On bad days, the tank becomes the site of bloody brawls. “ Haan… haan… jhagda hota hai. Sar bhi phat jaate hai… tankay bhi lagte hai. Saara kaam hota hai yahan. Gir bhi pad jaate hai (Yes… yes… skirmishes happen… heads are broken… sometimes stitches are needed… all kinds of things happen here… we slip and fall too),” says the spunky Rekha, her voice rising above the others’. She has brought along her 10-year-old daughter Rakhi to help her. Girls are initiated into their water responsibilities fairly early. Water walks are a daily chore before and after school. As Rekha balances a smaller, brimming bucket on her daughter’s head, she says girls much younger are tasked with fetching water. “Girls, five and six years old, come with small buckets,” says a woman in the crowd.

For the women, water is a nagging worry. If the motor at the tank fails, their ordeal multiplies and the walks get longer. Water regulates their time and their daily routine. So much so that there is little time for anything else. “ Saara din paani bharte hain aur ghar ka kaam karte hain (We spend the entire day fetching water and doing household work),” as Rekha puts it.

The 69th round of the National Sample Survey was on ‘Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition in India’, over a six-month period in 2012. Whenever drinking water had to be fetched from afar, it was observed that women took on the task in 84.1 per cent of the rural households. On average, the survey said, a person spent 20 minutes a day travelling to fetch water in rural India and waiting another 15 minutes at the source. Community use of drinking water was prevalent among 46.7 per cent of rural households. On the fringes of Mundiya Khera, inhabited by people belonging to the backward Jatav caste, and away from the tank at the village entrance, Annu, a young mother, is washing clothes at a handpump. The water is drawn from the pond across the road. A few enterprising villagers use large hoses to draw water from the pond to wash clothes. The water, the villagers say, is khaara (saline) and unfit for cooking or drinking. Adjacent to the pond is a massive concrete tank, similar to the one at the village entrance. But this has no water. Mahendra Singh Yadav, the village sarpanch, says the tank has been ready for over two years, but water lines were never drawn. A supply from it could lessen the pressure on the other tank, and make fetching drinking water a less fraught affair. A couple of borewells drilled by the panchayat also yield khaara paani. For the women, though, getting the water home tests more than just their skill in balancing pots. The scramble at the tank a couple of days ago has left Annu with broken pots. “There was a lot of jostling. I wasn’t allowed to fill water. There is no numbering system and women were giving water to those of their caste,” the 23-year-old complains.

Annu visits the tank a couple of times a day. Sometimes she returns with empty pots. The khaara paani from the handpump is used for chores other than cooking. At her home, where she lives with her in-laws, Annu offers us water to drink. We feel guilty accepting it. She insists on offering tea. “People here have more milk than water,” says Balvinder, who works to create awareness about sanitation, hygiene and education among village women on behalf of Spectra, an Alwar-based NGO.

At Pushpa’s house, one realises how intensely private a commodity such as water can be in a joint family. Pushpa, a 30-year-old mother of two, is among the educated daughters-in-law in Mundiya Khera. She has studied up to Std X. One of five sons, her husband works in a factory and they manage to send their son to a private school in Chikani. Surrounding the central courtyard are several rooms. The five brothers and their respective families occupy a room each. Pushpa goes into her room to fetch a glass of water from an earthen pot. When we refuse, she doesn’t insist. The entire household, in fact, maintains a fragile balance in their water use. Any false move could lead to frayed tempers and relationships. The courtyard has several small, plastic tanks placed at different points. The one next to me is Pushpa’s, at the end of the yard is her elder sister Rajwati’s, the black one is co-sister Manju’s, and the small, blue drum is the youngest co-sister Seema’s.

Nobody messes with each other’s drums. A squabble ensues even if a child accidentally drinks from another family’s water tank. Pushpa insists theirs is not a family at odds. “Ask us for milk or ghee. We will share it. Don’t ask us for water,” she says.

She was blissfully ignorant of water worries until she married into Mundiya Khera 12 years ago. At her maternal home in Ferozpur, Haryana, water shortage was never an issue. “I had never carried a matka (earthen pot) on my head until I came here. I broke many pots before I got the hang of balancing it. My mother-in-law chided me. Maike bahut yaad aati thi (I missed my maternal home a lot),” she says.

Now, balancing a pot or two is no longer a tough task. It is a way of life. And water has become an obsession. Even if they have a few spare minutes, the women immediately step out with a pot on their head. Pushpa’s pot is full, as she had filled it that morning. Often, to avoid the melee at the tank and the long trek to it, Pushpa, Rajwati and others venture into nearby fields to try and collect a pot or two of drinking water. Whenever work is on in the fields, a borewell or two is bound to be in working condition too. “Sometimes the owners let us fill a pot or two. At other times they don’t,” says Pushpa. “There isn’t enough water in the fields anyway,” points out Rajwati.

Skimping, says Pushpa, is how they live. They routinely postpone bathing for another day, wear clothes for two or three days at a stretch, and then wash them leisurely at the handpump near the graveyard. Water is toil and time-consuming. Both Pushpa and Rajwati are also agricultural labourers; their work is often interrupted by trips for water. There is no toilet in Pushpa’s house. “What is the point when there’s no water?” she asks.

Toiling for water is a narrative common to village women across generations. When the younger women grumble about water, mother-in-law Sanjha Devi silences them with accounts of her own labours. “When I came to the village over 40 years ago, I fetched water from a well in the jungle. That well, though, has now run dry,” she says. She also recalls how, years ago, water brawl had claimed a young life. “The accused are now out of jail. But the fight had started over water,” she points out ominously.

Water fetters these women. Pushpa says even when she visits her maternal home, she takes care to be back by evening. Sometimes other women do offer to fill her drum in her absence, especially if she has helped them similarly in the past. Do the men help? “ Woh kamaaye ya paani bhare? (Do they earn a living or fetch water),” asks Pushpa. “ Paani ki samasya ka kuch karo. Phir hum bhi aap ki tarah ghoom sakte hai (Do something about water. Then we too can go far like you),” Pushpa delivers her parting shot.

Published on December 30, 2016
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