Chandankhera (Unnao district, UP): “For decades, we drank this water. It’s only in the last few years, when the boys of the village stopped getting brides from other villages, that it started to become a problem,” said Ramnaresh, a tailor from Chandankhera, Uttar Pradesh.
Chandankhera is a village in Unnao district’s Sikandarpur Sarosi block. It has over 60 families and a total of about 300 people. Most of the families belong to the lower castes and were for many years not allowed to use the wells from neighbouring villages. What this meant is that most of the villagers had to rely on the water from hand pumps – which is often contaminated with high levels of arsenic, fluoride and other chemicals. “It’s the tanneries. We rely on them for jobs but they also leave the waste into our water. There is very little we can do,” said Ramnaresh, a resident of the village.
Earlier, Ramneresh and others from the village used to cycle to the neighbouring village of Sattara every day to bring back clean drinking water. “During weddings and other rituals, we used to get water in drums on bullock carts,” he said. The situation became so bad that the bachelors in the village began to be denied brides from neighbouring villages. “Since the water was so bad here, the fathers refused to get their daughters married within this village,” he said, adding: “They said they didn’t want their daughters drinking and cooking with this “khara paani”.
“We used to be very ill before drinking this water. I drank it all my life and soon started developing joint pains and other illnesses which local doctors told me were because of bad water,” said Narayan, an octogenarian. “For sure if you pump water from the hand pump and drink it, you will be sick within an hour,” added Abhishek, another resident. The problem of brides apart, the villagers say the lack of access to clean drinking water meant constant illnesses in their families.
“Our children were constantly sick. Even now, if we are for some reason unable to get clean drinking water, then we rely on the water from the hand pump and we see our kids fall sick instantly. Before 2014, we would go almost every other week to the local ‘jhola chaap’ for treatment and spend lots of money,” said Shamala, a mother of two.
A look at the water will tell you why. When this reporter asked for water to be pumped, she saw that the water was red in colour. “We use the water to wash clothes but it eats through the cloth too,” added Shamala, saying they continue doing it as they have no other choice.
Unnao is one of the major industrial towns adjacent to Kanpur, which has most of the cotton, leather, pharmaceutical, steel and other industries.
A study conducted in 2013 states: “The quality of groundwater in the industrial areas is under constant threat of contamination directly or indirectly. Remarkable high concentration of chromium in some parts of groundwater of Unnao and Kanpur districts is a common feature in the region.”
Puneet Srivastava of WaterAid India said that for years Unnao has been affected by fluoride contamination and most of the steps taken by the government to counter this problem, especially in the rural areas, haven’t worked because of operational and maintenance issues.
“Rapid depletion of groundwater also means there is more contamination in groundwater, making the water undrinkable. And I am only talking about chemical contamination. Bacterial contamination due to poor hygiene problems is another big issue too,” he said.
Things changed in Chandankhera in 2014 when their village got a water filtration system from World Vision India, a non-profit working in Uttar Pradesh. The organisation set up a water treatment plant run on solar energy in 2014.
From a village that was entirely relying on other villages for clean drinking water to one that is now providing water to other villages, Chandankhera’s story is one of self-sufficiency with the help of constant community engagement. “The water filtration plant can filter up to 1000 litres of water per hour. Since this relies on solar energy, this ensures that clean water can be made available without depending on electricity – which is not available continuously here in these villages,” said Sundar Mika Abhishek, WASH Technical Specialist for World Vision India.
The water isn’t free. Villagers have to pay a nominal price of Rs 10 for a 20-litre can. The money collected every month is put in the village ‘Jal Samiti’ (water committee) bank account and is used for repair and maintenance of the water filtration system. Over 14-15 villagers form the water committee and it is their responsibility to also ensure that they educate other villagers on why it is important to consume clean drinking water.
The village now provides clean drinking water to other surrounding villages of Karimabad, Bhavani Kheda and Mohdinpur with over 1,500 people. “Whatever amount we collect, we save it to maintain the filtration plant which is now our lifeline,” says Soni, a Jal Samiti member.
Shamala said repeated complaints about the state of water in the village have not had any results. “The village pradhan tried a lot. He also spent a lot of money in getting us clean drinking water by drilling bores but that didn’t work either. No one from government water work department really visits us and asks us of our problems,” she said, adding: “The only time they come to our village is during the election to ask for our votes. They don’t give us something as basic as clean water but they demand from us votes.”
While the filtration system helps this village, Puneet believes this isn’t a solution that can be implemented in ones which are in highly remote parts of rural India. He says a decentralised solution which can be sustained by the community such as cleaning and treating an existing water source such as a pond or lake could be a good way to tackle the problem.
“Not every village can get a filtration plant, nor can they sustain it. Also, not everyone can afford to pay for that water and nor should they have to. We believe access to safe water supply is a basic human right for everyone including the rural poor,” he added.
For now, the water filtration plant has turned the fortunes of the young men in Chandankhera. “Now, men in the village are more sought after because of this filtration plant, because people know we now have clean drinking water,” said Ramnaresh.
D.V.L. Padma Priya is a freelance journalist and World Vision India Media Fellow, Water and Sanitation.