Women and Water: Challenges ahead amid COVID-19
By Dr. Ruchi Shree
Dr. Ruchi Shree is Assistant Professor at the PG Department of Political Science TMBU (Bhagalpur, Bihar). She has specialized in the politics of water and sanitation over a decade. Her research interests include Gandhi politics, peace and conflict studies, new social movements, and comparative politics. Apart from teaching, she has been actively involved in research advocacy with environmental organization.
In the wake of numerous challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, when washing hands with soap is frequently suggested as one of the precautions, access to water is certainly a matter of grave concern. Taking a clue from Sandra Harding’s standpoint theory 1, let me begin this writing with two inter-linked questions, first, do women perceive water differently? and second, why they should perceive water differently. Given the fact that the debate over complexities of ‘right to water’ is going on for more than a decade, the universality of such a right is often contested especially when it comes to the meaning of such a right for women. In the recent past, numerous reports of organizations such as the United Nations and the World Water Institute, etc. have highlighted the inevitable link between women and water, it is also one of the major reasons for girls dropping out of school as their physical presence is needed at home to store water. To share my experience of research on water for more than a decade and to have interacted with women to understand their plight for water in different parts of India, I would like to share three narratives – anti-Coca-Cola struggle in Plachimada (Kerala); dream of piped water in Sangam Vihar (New Delhi) and efforts of water conservation by women in Mount Abu (Rajasthan).
Anti-Coca-Cola Struggle in Plachimada (Kerala)
Plachimada, a small village in Palakkad district of Kerala, became famous worldwide when the local people, especially women, fiercely protested against the giant MNC Coca-Cola led to its closure in 2004. In the beginning, Mayilamma, a tribal woman, started organizing the local people for the protest, later they were supported by Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar. But, later on, there was a split in the movement since Vilayodi Venugopal, a lawyer by profession and a human rights activist, started giving more attention to the compensation issue. At present, the movement is split into two groups – one, headed by Vilayodi Venugopal, and another by Mayilamma’s supporters. In 2011 when I visited Plachimada, I had a chance to visit Mayilamma’s house and talk to her son Subramanian, who told me about the split in the movement. It was quite shocking to see that even after more than seven years of the plant’s closure, the groundwater was still not potable. People still depended on water supplied by the tanker lorry and they had to pay to get drinking water.
The Plachimada struggle was started as an initiative by the local people due to several problems such as shortage of water, pollution of groundwater and health hazards created by it, etc. But, over a period of time, it started earning many titles viz. environmental movement, feminist movement, Gandhian movement, etc. Today, this struggle is considered as a major victory and stands as an icon for the ‘human rights movement’, especially with the High Power Committee’s decision that Coca-Cola has to pay Rs. 216 crore as compensation to the local people on the basis of ‘polluter pays principle’. But, the fact remains that this Committee’s report has been challenged by the Company and the report was sent for the President’s signature more than five years ago. Thus, the present status of the struggle is of a long legal battle for compensation.
Dream of Piped Water in Sangam Vihar (New Delhi)
Sangam Vihar, one of the largest unauthorized colonies of India, is infamous for its severe water crisis. In 2015 and 2016, along with my students I conducted a few focused group discussions (FGDs) with women to understand how women coped with the shortage of water. When I tried to know about their perception of water, few very interesting responses came from the local women. Shamina, who was an illiterate woman, around 50 years old, said ‘Pani hai to bahut kuch hai, nahi hai to kuch bhi nahi’. They usually take bath once every three to four days and even washing clothes is so restricted. Earlier, there were many handpumps in the streets but in the last ten years they have faced a severe water crisis. In summers, it is not easy to get a water tanker. They spend a big portion of their earnings for water only. She further says that “Ramzaan 2 ke dauran to har pandrah din me pani mangana padta hai. Un dinon humen raoj nahana hota hai aur din me panch baar vajoo2 karte hain” (During Ramzan, we have to call the tanker every fifteen days as it is must for each family member to take bath every day. We also perform vajoo five times a day).
Another respondent Shagufta said, “Pani ke mare to sab pagal bhaye pade hain. Sari gali pani mol mangati hai’ (We all have gone mad behind water as the whole street has to buy water for all kinds of use). They don’t let the children wash the utensils or clean the house as they are likely to waste water. They also collect the rainwater to use it later. While I was conducting the focused group interview with the women, a group of boys passed by, twice, on motorcycles singing songs and trying to make sense of the ongoing activity. It made me a little uncomfortable and I shared my apprehension with the women and for them it was just another usual activity in that area. Most of the respondents complained about the open sewer in the streets and the lack of any system to collect the garbage.
One of the respondents Hooran (Hoor Bano) introduced me to her daughter-in-law Shehnaz. Ten years back, when she was in her first year of college, Shehnaz married the Hoor Bai’s elder son. Her parents live in Okhla area where there is no water crisis. Her husband works as a tailor in a factory and she was not allowed to study after marriage as her husband was illiterate and no one was willing to support her in continuing her studies. She has a nine-year-old daughter and she is happy about helping her in doing homework. The government schools are not good in the area and she sends her daughter to a private school named I.G. Memorial school (situated in the L-Block only). Ever since she shifted to Sangam Vihar, the shortage of water has been the biggest problem. She said, “Meri mummy ke ghar pani hi pani hai. Button dabao pani bhar jata hai. Main yahan pani ko tarasti hoon” (In my mother’s house, water is so easily available. It is just a click of a button and water gets filled in the tanks. Here, I am always thinking about water).
She took me to the terrace to show their four water tankers kept there. The fifth tanker, with a capacity of thousand liters, is on the ground floor right in front of their house. Four tankers kept on the terrace are of four different capacities i.e. 1000 liters, 750 liters, 500 liters and 350 liters. I also saw the other terraces full of water tankers. She said that the government borewells are always dysfunctional and they end up spending a huge amount of their earnings on water. The water, supplied by the government, comes once in a month or sometimes once in two to three months. Each family is charged Rs 140. She said those who have political connections get the water supply easily. Those who are rich do not let the poor prosper. Until the water problem gets solved, their situation will not improve. Her family spends Rs. 2500 to Rs. 3000 a month for water.
Omvati, who migrated from Badayun district of U.P., along with her husband, to this area said, “Hum tees saal se dhakke kha rahe hain pani ke chakkar me. Keval sarkari supply se hi theek hoga pani ka haal’ (We are mad behind water for last thirty years. Only water supplied by the government will improve the water situation). She further added, ‘Mehman bhi aa jayen to hamen pani ki hi chinta hone lagti hai’ (If the guests come, we are so tensed about water only). Her friend Shakuntala, from Etah district of U.P., said that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has improved the situation of water. Friends become foes in this area when it comes to water. When the supply water comes, everyone wants to fill the water before others. The residents who live at the border of gali no. 9 and 14 are not able to avail the facility for both the gallis within the same L-block. Sonia Vihar water supply has reached till Deoli but L-block could not get the pipeline. Every third day, people spend hundred rupees for drinking water.
Water Conservation by women (Aburoad area, Rajasthan):
In 2016, I had a chance to become part of a joint research project by two civil society organizations namely CSR and HSS-India to evaluate the collaborative work done by them. We were led by Sharmi Bai (former local elected representative) to the hilly areas of Nichlagarh (a village in Aburoad) to see four kinds of structures – anicuts (concrete structures), nadi (small pond like structure), check dams (make-shift structures made by stones) and trenches4 (a small structure of narrow ditch) – constructed by her team for water conservation.
In the above context, it is noteworthy to take account of two facts. First, Sharmi Bai had clarity on how these water structures worked and second, she duly acknowledged the help done by the government officials. The Haans-Seidel-Stiftung-India-CSR project has led to women empowerment in that region and has immensely helped the forest department of the Rajasthan government. It has helped them in the construction of structures. The local women have adopted practices viz. washing utensils near trees to utilize the waste water, saving the rainwater in containers, doing plantation to prevent soil erosion and promote water conservation. The tribal as well as the non-tribal people are mostly very poor. The level of literacy, especially among women, is also very low in that area.
In the Nichlagarh region, the coming together of State and civil society actors, to work with the tribal people, has not only benefited them but has also been very useful for sustainable development in the long run. In the summer of 2016, with the help of 500 daily wage workers, working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)5 scheme, they constructed as many as 60,000 trenches to retain rainwater. But very little rain in the region left them disappointed as the water level recharge did not match their expectations. However, they are hopeful to have better results in the coming years.
Complex Negotiations by Women around Water during COVID-19
Three narratives based on field-works conducted in the last one decade around women and water entail the centrality of everyday struggles for livelihood and survival. Partly they also suggest that given a chance, women could efficiently play the role of leaders. In the case of Plachimada, as mentioned above, it was Mayilamma (a tribal woman) who organized the women and local people of the region to fight against Coca-Cola. The Sangam Vihar experience suggests that the suffering of women is much more when it comes to the constraints of water. Going back to the questions that I raised in the beginning, whether women perceive water differently and why they should do so gets an affirmative answer. The narratives mentioned above strongly suggest that shortage of water leads to traumatic situations for women as they have to deal with the household chores woven around water. To my mind, women perceive water as part of their collective consciousness and have a sense of belongingness/attachment.
In the summer season, the scarcity of water is a normal phenomenon in numerous districts of India and this summer due to the ongoing and worsening pandemic COVID-19, the demand for water to ensure cleanliness is all set to increase. In such a condition, the challenges before Indian women, especially those who are poor, are likely to multiply in numerous ways. For instance, many women who are hopeful about the ‘right to water’ to provide them better life-prospects have to console themselves with water ATMs6. Eventually, over the last few years ‘paying for water’ (be it drinking water or for other household needs) is becoming a ‘new normal’ across different sections of the Indian society. When it comes to poor women, they try to consume the least possible amount of water even to the extent of compromising their essential requirements. With the situation going from bad to worse, it would not be an exaggeration to state that the number of ‘water martyrs’7 (especially women) will go up in due course.
This blog has attempted to highlight the simultaneity of the macro and the micro perspective on the politics of water. The range of issues vary from privatization in the water sector and representation of women to lack of access to water and their consequences. The writing makes use of intersectionality and standpoint theory to weave the themes of water, gender and class. These field-works enriched my life in numerous ways – I not only learnt the nuances of doing research with (not ‘on’) the marginalized sections of the society but also had a close experience of the glaring inequalities and complex equations of power dynamics shaped by class and gender across India. COVID-19 seems to have given us an opportunity to re-engage with the prevalent inequalities in the society but the question remains whether the State, as an actor, is to take responsibility to ensure water to people as part of their ‘right to water’ or we should get accustomed with ever increasing terminology around water such as water ATMs, water bill and water martyrs to name a few.
- Elizabeth Hirsh, Gary A. Olson and Sandra Harding, Starting from Marginalized Lives: A Conversation with Sandra Harding, in JAC, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1995, pp. 193-225, ‘standpoint theory entails an epistemological as well as ethical obligation on the part of dominant groups to theorize as rigorously as possible their own position as socially situated subjects of knowledge’ (p. 193).
- Ramzaan is the ninth month of Islamic calendar. It is the holy month for the followers of Islam. The Muslims keep fasting everyday throughout the month as a religious practice.
- Vajoo means to wash hands and feet before offering prayer to Allah (God).
- These structures not only help in retaining the rainwater but also in soil conservation and groundwater recharge.
- MGNREGA enacted in 2005 is run by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India.
- Water kiosks are being set up in different parts of India under public private partnership (PPP) model and they are named as Water ATMs where people can get water by paying for it. Most of these supported by the MNCs as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
- The author came across this concept in Sumana Roy’s fascinating story titled ‘Blind Water’ in Himal South Asian where a woman commits suicide due to her struggle around lack of access to water. One may read the story at https://www.himalmag.com/blind-water-sumana-roy-short-story-2019/. Otherwise also, on the basis of my years of research on water I can say that fight over struggle for water leading to violence of different kinds (abusive verbal exchange to physical fighting and even killing).