Women Who Fought Drought: The Story of Jal Sahelis in Parched Bundelkhand
Bundelkhandi women in six districts are fighting for their first right to water and transforming their villages.
The men in the village had given up. It was not their problem, to begin with.
They didn’t have to walk miles to fetch water atop their heads or wait for hours and often entire nights standing in long queues.
“For us, water has always been a very personal problem, only we have lived through the humiliation of bathing in the open, or walking through the village with a pot of water on our head and our sarees drenched while avoiding piercing gazes,” said Prema Bai, 62.
“I can’t remember how many days I stood waiting hours for water only to return empty-handed because upper-caste men would arrive and cut the line. I still remember how small and humiliated I would feel on my walk back home,” said Kamlesh Kumari, 36.
Kamlesh and others like her decided that this needed to end. They took it upon themselves to find a solution to this perennial problem. Over a thousand women from over 300 hundred villages in two states in six districts of Bundelkhand donned blue sarees and started with reviving water bodies.
The Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh is one of India’s poorest areas. The land is parched and arid and the drought-prone districts face severe water scarcity every summer when the temperatures soar up to a searing 50 degrees Celsius and all sources of water from wells and ponds to tube wells and hand pumps dry out.
Kunti Devi, who is now fifty years old, recalls a story from when she was a younger, quieter, timid bride in the village. Most water ponds in her village had dried out and the villagers had illegally started filling them up to till the land. To prevent this, the village Pradhan started a project to clear out the ponds.
The pond in Kunti’s village did have water but was dirty and covered in foliage and algae for years. The Pradhan said whoever cleans this pond will be given Rs 60,000. Kunti stood with other women quietly watching, as several men started work at the pond, “days passed but no one was successful, they also got a boat in the pond but it sank and a few men almost died,” said Kunti.
“As I saw men fail, I thought to myself, if they can’t how can anyone else.” This is when Kunti had recently learnt about the women in blue sarees, the ‘Jal Sahelis’, so she decided to take charge and do something. She called these women from neighbouring villages and bit by bit within three days they completely cleared out the entire pond. “The villagers were shocked, women in veils had done what they couldn’t do. This is the first time our work was taken seriously.”
What Water Scarcity Means for Bundelkhand
Kunti Devi has been a Jal Saheli for over a decade. In these years she has built check dams, done rainwater harvesting, cleaned ponds and revived hand-pumps and water taps among several other things.
Summers in Bundelkhand mean no water for drinking, cooking or other household chores and none for irrigation. “Some nights my child would cry for water with a parched throat and I could do nothing but wait for the water tanker till the next morning,” said Sabara, 60.
“We used to fill water from the well all night, and carry it home on our heads just so the family could have some water in the morning,” recalls Prema Bai who became a Jal Saheli when she was 49-year-old.
Water scarcity has made agriculture- which was already facing several challenges in the region- nearly unviable. Those who are still at it, are able to manage only one crop a year. With almost the entire population dependent on agriculture, many have started migrating out of the villages.
This is not how things were earlier. Over the years it has gotten worse, and monsoons are more erratic, recalls 62-year-old Prema Bai, “we could predict rainfall, and the months when it was scanty we had the wells to depend on. Now the rainfall is irregular and it rains a lot less. The rainfall we get is insufficient to irrigate the fields or to recharge the wells. So everything dries up.”
Prema may not speak in the academic vocabulary commonly used to talk about climate change to describe the travesty her fields have witnessed, but she speaks from experience which is evidence enough of how climate change has been wreaking havoc.
Jal Sahelis' Improved Lives and Transformed Villages
Not only do these women revive ponds, they also initiate the digging of ponds. Constructing check dams helps irrigate fields by storing excess water during the monsoons. They also help replenish wells in the area. Digging small shallow pits beside wells and hand pumps also helps recharge them during the monsoons.
Availability of water has made lives far easier for these villagers now. Women have to spend less time fetching water, they bathe in dignity and the caste fight over common village wells has become avoidable for many. Improved agriculture has alleviated poverty in many households. Farmers who struggled to harvest even one crop in a year, now easily harvest two and some even three crops because of enough water for irrigation.
The Jal Sahelis don’t do all the physical work on their own. They identify what needs to be fixed, often ask the villagers for shramdaan which is the donation of labour. One person from each family leads to at least 200-250 people. Sometimes the village Pradhan also allocates this work to villagers under MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005) which promises 100 days of paid unskilled labour to all rural households.
Becoming A Jal Saheli
Many of these women are illiterate, most had never left homes or even seen the city closest to their villages. “I was very timid, always quiet inside the veil, the veil is still there but now I know how to fight for what is mine,” says 28-year-old Ramkali who is a single mother.
Becoming a Jal Saheli transformed their personal lives too, “In 2014 I went to Lucknow for a Jal Saheli meeting for the first time, I saw the big city, the airport from the outside. Ever since I have gone everywhere, to Datia, Orchha, even Jhansi,” said an excited Ramkali who now wants to go to Delhi someday in an aeroplane.
“My in-laws didn’t allow me to speak to anyone because I was a widow. Now I feel strengthened because of these women I am connected to,” said Ramkali, “I became so confident I even started a small grocery store in my house that I could’ve never even imagined as a single mother.”
The network and the feeling of being connected with others, have empowered these women in remarkable ways, “even if I need someone in the middle of the night, I know ten women will come for me,” said Ramkali.
The Genesis of Jal Sahelis
Bundelkhand saw some of its worse droughts between the years 2000 and 2011, many of these lasted for up to 4-5 years. Jal Sahelis came together when Sanjay Singh, the founder of Parmarth Sansthan, an NGO in Bundelkhand, met an angry Sri Kunwar in Lalitpur.
“I met Kunwar during a severe drought when she was mumbling in anger. There was no water in her house and by the time she fetched water and came back everyone waited hungry. Her husband threatened to beat her because the meal wasn’t cooked on time that day,” recalls Sanjay.
‘How is this drought my fault,’ Kunwar had told Sanjay.
During this conversation, she told him how water is a far bigger concern for women and yet they are never involved in water management decisions of the village, like where should a well be dug.
“I felt all she needed was some support and information. And this problem needed a cadre of women. Kunwar became our first Jal Saheli and inspired this entire idea,” said Sanjay.
“Women were not allowed to talk in our village and now we fight for our right to water, and not just our right, our first right, even over men,” said Kamlesh Kumari. “We have also started talking of other things like kitchen gardens now so the women can grow enough vegetables to feed their children and don’t have to depend on their husbands,” said Meera, 37.
Water- A Political Issue
Before the recent state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2022, Jal Sahelis put together a ‘water manifesto’ that highlighted the water needs of the region including a water security plan, among other things. This manifesto was shared with all political party leaders across the state to ensure that water emerges as a political issue in each party’s manifesto.
Nearly 42% of rural households travel every day to fetch drinking water, according to the 76th round of the National Sample Survey (NSSO). Fetching drinking water is a woman’s job in 84.1% of households, according to the 69th round of the NSSO. Rural women walk at least over 182 km every year in India.
“Women’s biggest need is water, but why should that be just our problem, it is time that water becomes a political concern, an election issue that people vote for,” said Kamlesh.
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