In Bundelkhand, Acute Water Shortage and Heat Wave Cause Distress, Forced Migration

Without functioning hand pumps or any government intervention, villagers are being forced to drink contaminated water, exposing them to skin infections and diseases.

Villagers gather around the sole functioning hand pump in Vangai village of Bundelkhand. Credit: Special arrangement

This is the first of a two-part field report on the acute water shortage in several villages of Bundelkhand region.

Bundelkhand: Bundelkhand region, which is spread over 13 districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, has often been in the news due to acute drinking water shortage. As the heat wave intensified and the water crisis peaked in many parts of the region, I spent three days  – May 21-23 – travelling to several remote villages of Tikamgarh (Madhya Pradesh), Lalitpur and Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh) to speak to people about their drinking water and related problems.

Mastapur village is located in Jatara block of Tikamgarh district. Although there are about 350 households in this village, only a single hand pump is in a working condition. Villagers have to wait for long hours to get some drinking water from here. To meet their bathing and other needs, they have to go to a tank located about 2 kms away. Several villagers have no option but to drink and use unclean water which, in turn, exposes them to several skin infections and frequent bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting.

A big effort to overcome the shortage was recently made by digging 300 feet for water, but this effort was not successful. During the worst phase of the drought last year, seven water tankers were deployed in this village by a voluntary organisation Parmarth. This year, however, neither the government nor others could arrange a tanker during the heat wave. At present, no water is available in the schools of this village.

“Half of my day is spent in bringing water,” says Rekha, a villager.

“Water has become the main concern about which we keep thinking all day and night. Many of us wake up while it is dark so that we can hope to reach the hand pump before others,” Kala, another villager, adds, “Many times fights start in the process of trying to get water first.”

In Vangai village of the same block, there are about 200 families but only one hand pump. I met Sita at this sole functional hand pump. She said that she had come here at 10 a.m. and now it was around 2 p.m. In these four hours, she had managed to fill just one pitcher. Pinky, another resident of the village, said a bit more happily that she had come at 8 a.m. and had managed to fill three pitchers in the six hours. This sole functional pump gasps and stops after yielding just about one pitcher of water – about ten litres. The women have to patiently wait till it is able to deliver again.

Under a tree nearby, villagers explain that the only tank in the village has dried up. Villagers use bullock carts or cycles to fetch water from a distance of about 2 kms or so. It is common for villagers to spend about four hours a day just to get water.

There is no water in schools so thirsty children keep coming to their homes or to the hand pump to get a few drops of water. Drinking unclean water brings health problems, so more has to be spent on expensive treatment while less time is left for livelihood activities. More people are thus simply migrating to cities in search of employment.

Kauriya village of this block has a basti of Sahariya tribals with about 45 households. They are presently served by just one functional hand pump, so they also need to fetch water from a well located about 1.5 kms away. This is very difficult for the several old and persons with disabilities in the village and they keep requesting others to get them a little water. Simbu is a 70-year-old widow who lives with a chronically ill son. Getting some clean water is particularly difficult for such households.

Several elderly people of Sahariya hamlet in Jhabarpura village (Talbehat block) are equally vulnerable. In this hamlet of about 30 households, only one hand pump is functional and this one too yields only a little water after long gaps. Denied any supply from a water tanker, people fetch water from a distance of 1.5 kms. As this community also faces social discrimination, it is even more difficult for them to get water from other sources controlled or owned by other upper-caste communities.

The social aspect of the water crisis was laid bare in recent incidents in Moto village of this block. Here some upper-castes used to insist that Dalits passing near their houses should take off their shoes for a short distance and carry the footwear in their hands. With the help of some activists, the local Dalits opposed and ended this custom, but this was soon followed by a clash over water. Dalits and some other weaker sections suffered more water shortage so they tried to repair and renovate a well which had fallen into disuse. This was opposed by the dominant castes but Dalits and weaker sections again asserted themselves and succeeded in renovating the well which now meets the needs of many villagers.

Imarti and Ram Kunwar, two women who played a leading role in this initiative, are among the several ‘jal sahelis‘ identified and encouraged as a part of a project to promote water conservation and inclusiveness. This project supported by the European Union and the non-profit Welthungerhilfe aims to promote community action for water conservation. To achieve this, village committees of more socially conscious villagers are set up in the form of pani panchayats. Community participation achieved with the help of pani panchayats helps to achieve better results for small water conservation projects, as seen in villages like Chandrapur, Bhamauri and Bhuchera.

Jal Saheli and Pani Panchayat members. Credit: Special arrangement

In Gundera village of this block (Talbehat), people bring most of their water from a distance of one to two kms, and then they have to remove a lot of dirt water from it to make it potable. One villager, Sudha Yadav, said, these politicians make so many promises at the time of elections but then forget after winning. Elders like Dhaniram and Atla depend on the goodwill of others to give them a little water.

Villages like Gundera and Geura in Talbehat block are very difficult to reach. For about 700 families living in Geura, there are only about nine hand pumps, out of which only four are functional. The hand pump water has an excess of iron, which increases the health problems of people. Several also depend on some open wells which have a lot of dust and leaves deposited in them, particularly during strong winds and storms. Many people have fallen ill due to the use of contaminated water. Vomiting and diarrhoea are particularly dangerous in the case of children, some of whom have died after such ailments in recent years. Timely treatment is very difficult due to the remoteness of the village.

Children of Geura village. Credit: Special arrangement

Rasina village is located in the Babina block of Jhansi district. Located in a hilly area, this village cannot find water even at a depth of 150 feet. The villagers have to thus go to lower areas about a kilometre away to fetch water. Village elders here and in some other villages claim that water availability was better and easier a few decades back. A water tank proposal, which could have solved the water problem of this village, has been gathering dust for quite some time.

Another nearby village of Semariya suffers from acute water shortage as there are only six functioning hand pumps for a spread out village of around 400 households. People here and in other villages have several practical suggestions of local, low-cost solutions but these just do not get the much-needed official nod even as very expensive and dubious gigantic projects for the region are being propagated by powerful interests.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.