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Water sustains all life on earth. Needless to say water is essential for our very being. Today water has become a contentious and political issue due to the scarcity of water and the ever increasing demand for the same.

On 10th December 1948, the United Nations passed the Human Rights Declaration. The Right to Life is a part of these Human Rights. The right to life has been explained and in that the right to water is quite predominant. The right to life would be incomplete without the right to water; the latter is a pre-condition for the right to life. Similarly the right to food, health and development would also remain incomplete without the right to water. The declaration also includes the protection, respect, fulfillment and promotion of these human rights by the signatory members. India too is a signatory to the covenant of Human Rights. By the virtue of this the Indian state has obligations to fulfil and thus it has to deliver on these rights.

However the reality for some parts of India is quite contrary. 1991 brought in new economic reforms which gave precedence to the market economics. Thus water too became a commodity which is quite contradictory to it being a right. A market ruled by capitalism and profit motive has led to privatisation of water. On one hand we observe privatisation of water and on the other the traditional sources of water are drying up due to changes in climate and the imbalance in the nature’s cycle. This has had serious repercussions for people from economically weaker sections of the society.

This article puts forth the case of Karjat taluka in Raigad district of Maharashtra. Raigad district is surrounded by metros like Mumbai and Pune. Inspite of the proximity to few of the developed parts of Maharashtra, Raigad district lacks access to essential amenities. This is true especially for the tribals of this region. Raigad district is home to adivasis groups like the Kathkaris, Thakars, Mahadev Koli who traditionally depend on forest and its natural resources for survival.

Struggles

In 1985 the adivasi- men, women, youth and children from the Karjat tribal belt walked a distance of 50 km demanding drinking water for the remote adivasi areas and raising the pertinent question of water availability. The public hearing arranged then was well attended and as a direct consequence, the municipality undertook the repair of run down wells, constructing new wells and hand pumps. Thus a collective effort on part of the people, Jargrut Kashtakari Sangathana and the Government proved to be useful. But if the government is more concerned about the profit of the contractors, share of the ‘peoples representatives’, some percentage to the bureaucracy and so on, even these efforts would not last long. As a consequence the wells and hand pumps broke down in a few months.  

A similar struggle was waged in April and October 2007. This time alongwith with water the people raised the question of land, forest and livelihood. This time the women from the villages were in the forefront and they put forth their demands, the government efforts, the efforts on part of the villagers and the governance unit at the community level (gavki) and its role. A small study was conducted on the same and was complied alongwith the role of the central government Maharashtra and gram panchayat. Right to drinking water is a Human Right and the lack of it has serious implications and dimensions to it which have been illustrated in this article.

The Stree Gavki conducted a small study at their village level and prepared a document based on the findings. They found out that apart from a few villages most of the villages face scarcity of water, water is available at a minimum distance of 1 km and the topography in this hilly region is dotted with steep climbs. To avail of the tanker facility, a water source has to be at a distance of 1.5 kms and above. This pre condition makes these villages even more vulnerable. It has been observed that some of the most interior villages belong to the Kathkari and Thakar adivasi groups. Thus it is these groups which also face discrimination.

The latest piece of advocacy carried out by Disha Kendra was arranging a public hearing on the issue of water and women in Karjat taluka. The public hearing was organised which brought together the affected people, the government representatives and a panel of experts who have worked with issue of water closely.

Market and water

The proximity of Karjat to Pune and Mumbai has translated into a high demand for the land. An SEZ slated to be established in Raigad faced a lot of wrath of the farmers and local people. As a result the SEZ was stalled. However the market has innovative ways to enter a place if entry is restricted is some forms. The purposes are many- ashrams, farm houses, tourism, hospitals, educational institutes, resorts etc. This has increased the demand for water in the region. The traditional sources are drying up due to indiscriminate cutting of forests of the Sahyadris.  The resultant consequence is that water has become scarce. These people can afford to construct private wells, bore wells and can also pay for their maintenance. This means the ground water level has gone down. These commercial places require huge amounts of water to maintain the gardens, fill up swimming tanks etc. The villages however have to face water crunch to fulfil even basic needs of drinking water, water to wash utensils and clothes.

In Malegaon Kathkari wadi, the land neighbouring the village has been bought by Shivanand Baba who has built a bungalow, a boring with a motor which draws water from beneath the ground. This has resulted in the Kathkari wadi getting lower pressure on their boring.

This sends a message that those who can afford to pay for water- which is ironically a basic right- will get it, thus commodifying water and threatening the right to life.

Water and its various dimensions

Scarcity of water is multi-faceted and it impacts many other spheres of life. In Karjat for example, the ashram schools which are residential schools were shut down this year for a period of two months due to scarcity of water. Thus the schooling of the students was hampered. The girl child stays back in the village to fetch water for the household (thereby reducing the mother’s work load so she can go wage work) and doesn’t attend school.

Women being the ones responsible to collect and distribute water, it is they who face a lot of trouble especially in the months after December. In the months after winter the water sources close to the villages dry up and the women have to travel 3-4 km one way to fetch water. A woman has to make minimum 3 to 4 rounds of water collection daily- this is excluding the daily household work of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes etc. This affects the health of the women- they have to undergo a lot of physical and mental stress owing to the long distance and at times steep climbs. It has been observed that pregnant women also have to lift and carry heavy pots of water.

In village called Borichiwadi, the women have to travel to another village to wash clothes. They have to spend Rs. 24 for the to and fro travel. This scenario is seen after Holi after which the scarcity of water pinches even harder.

To get water on time many women travel at night to collect water. This is quite problematic considering the fact that these villages are in hills and forested which brings up the fear of snake bites and scorpions. The villages don’t house medicines and antidotes for the same. Some women complain of having faced domestic violence because they couldn’t get water on time.

The family suffers financially as well. When one earning member has to devote the whole day to household work and a major portion of the day to fetch water, the person cannot carry out day wage labour. The women thus cannot be earning members during the months of water scarcity, which adversely affect the family finances. Thus poverty and availability of water are also closely related. Some families have elders staying while the younger generations have migrated. They are not capable of collecting water themselves. These persons have to pay somebody from the village to fetch water everyday. Thus water becomes expensive and impinges upon the family’s financial resources.

Some of the important anti-caste struggles involved forcefully accessing water from the village well. Mahatma Phule opened up his well for the lower caste people. Discrimination too is a very important aspect of availability of water. The Hindu caste system has laid down rules of purity and impurity which has resulted in upper caste people not allowing the lower caste and adivasis to access water from village wells etc. Though the situation has changed, there are some cases wherein the adivasis are denied water by the virtue of being adivasis.

Conclusion

This article illustrates the case of one taluka, but this reality can be seen in many parts of rural India. The government alongwith the three tier Panchayati Raj system has to be more accountable and transparent. While constructing wells and bore wells the villagers’ opinion should be taken into consideration as they would be more knowledgeable about the sources of water. There should be some control of the panchayat on the commercial activities in these areas and their usage of water. Precedence should be given to local needs as opposed to commercial interests.

Water is the need of every human being; its conspicuous consumption should be avoided for the greater good of all. As has been illustrated in the article, water impacts so many dimensions like health, education, finances etc. Thus availability of water is necessary for all round well being and development of human beings.

Devki (MSW 2nd year)

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