India’s water women


Indian women have an intimate, and lifelong connection with water. The ubiquitous image of women with pots balanced on their heads, trudging long distances to fetch water, is a depressingly-familiar one. Dr. Vandana Shiva gives us an account of India’s water women.

“She sends me to fetch water
Very early in the morning
Oh! Grandfather it is very difficult for me. My pot never fills up fully
The water is so deep
That my rope hardly reaches it
The sun rises and also sets
By the time, I return
Unable to collect even one pot-full of water”

– A folk song of Rajasthan

Water has become the most scarce and commodified product of the 21st century. This may sound bizarre, but true. In fact, what water is to the 21st century, oil was to the 20th century. The stress on the multiple water resources is a result of a multitude of factors. On the one hand, the spread of water intensive Green Revolution agriculture, the rapidly rising population and changing lifestyles, have increased the need for fresh water. On the other hand, intense competitions among users – agriculture, industry and domestic sector, is pushing the ground water table deeper, diversion of river waters for intensive irrigation and urban industrial use, has left our rivers dry. What remains is polluted water, with dumping of industrial and urban wastes, making our lifelines like the Ganga and Yamuna, unfit for drinking.

Just one bucket of water
To get a bucket of drinking water is a struggle for most women in the country. The virtually dry and dead water resources have led to acute water scarcity, affecting the socio-economic condition of the society. The drought conditions have pushed villagers to move to cities in search of jobs. Whereas, women and girls are trudging still further. The time lost in fetching water can very well translate into financial gains, leading to a better life for the family. If opportunity costs were taken into account, it would be clear that in most rural areas, households are paying far more for water supply than the often-normal rates charged in urban areas. Also, if this cost of fetching water, which is almost equivalent to 150 million women day each year is covered into a loss for the national exchequer, it translates into a whopping 10 billion rupees per year!

On an average, a rural woman walks more than 14,000 km a year just to fetch water. Their urban sisters are only slightly better off – they do not walk such distances, but stand in the long, snaking queues for hours on end to collect water from the roadside taps or the water lorries.

In every household, in the rural areas in Rajasthan, women and girl children bear the responsibility of collecting, transporting, storing, and managing water. In places where there is no water for farming, men migrate to urban areas in search of work leaving women behind to fend for the old and the children. Women spend most of their time collecting water, with little time for other productive work. This impacts on the education of the girl child, if the girl is herself not collecting water, she is looking after the home and her siblings when her mother is away.

In India, there are many villages either with scarce water supply or without any source of water. If there is no source of potable water within 2.5 km, then the village becomes a ‘no source water’ village or ‘problem’ village. In many rural areas, women still have to walk a distance of about 2.5 km to reach the source of water. She reaches home carrying heavy pots, not to rest, but to do other household chores of cooking, washing, cleaning, caring of children and looking after livestock. Again in the evening, she has to fetch water. Thus, a rural woman’s life is sheer drudgery.

Declining ground water
In the cases of villages of Plachimada in Kerala, Raja Talab in Uttar Pradesh and Kala dera in Rajasthan, ground water mining of millions of litres per day by Coca-Cola has created a water famine. Apart from the water scarcity caused by Coca-Cola in Plachimada, other districts in the state are also facing a water crisis.

For Maharashtra, water is an abiding concern. In many villages, women have to walk more than 3 km everyday to fetch two huge vessels of water illegally from a government reservoir. They have to make at least three trips every day. The state government does not send tankers to the villages. At some places, women spend Rs. 5 for two cans of water. Women in Maharashtra have carried the water burden both as a result of scarcity and abundance. Drought displacement due to dams and irrigation have contributed to increasing the water burden of women. Women in the Nandurbar district of north Maharashtra share their woes: “Forget about getting safe drinking water from wells, we spend most of our time locating streams and springs”.

Stories of extreme scarcity
We have violated our duty to protect our soil and water. Now the violence committed on nature is translating into an emergency for humans. And nowhere is this more evident than in Maharashtra’s Marathwada. Last year, the Godavari River in Nashik went dry. There was no water in Ramkund — the sacred pond in Nashik devotees come to bathe in during the Kumbh. In the town of Latur in Marathwada, water scarcity was so severe that the district collector had imposed Section 144 of the CrPC (making assembly of more than 10 people unlawful) for two months to prevent law and order problems arising from the water crisis. The administration took over 150 wells and tubewells near the city because the dam that supplied water to Latur’s population of 4.5 lakh and adjoining rural areas, dried up in March 2016. Will this year be different?

In Bundelkhand women have no work other than collecting drinking water. The scenario is worse in Patha in Chitrakut district where women have to travel a long distance to collect water for drinking. Half of their time is spent in collecting water, which affects their health and the well being of their children. The paucity of time due to water crisis aggravates the domestic problems.

The biggest crisis ever
Water is the biggest crisis facing India in terms of spread and severity, affecting one in every three persons. Over 33 crore Indians were affected by the drought in 2016. Even in Chennai, Bangalore, Shimla and Delhi, water is being rationed and India’s food security is under threat. With the lives and livelihood of millions at risk, urban India is screaming for water.

In the 1980s, I was asked by the then Planning Commission to look at why Maharashtra’s requests for budgets to provide drinking water kept increasing, and yet the water crisis never gets solved. My research showed that the drought of 1972 was used by the World Bank to promote sugarcane cultivation, requiring intensive irrigation based on water mining through tubewells and borewells, just as the drought of 1965 was used to force the Green Revolution on India.

Marathwada lies in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats and receives an average of 600-700 mm of rainfall. Given the hard rock bed of the Deccan Trap, only 10 per cent of this water goes into the ground to recharge wells. Sugarcane requires 1,200 mm of water, which is 20 times more than the annual recharge. When 20 times more water is withdrawn from the ground than available, a water famine is inevitable, even when the rainfall is normal.

More than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995 — most of them in the Bt cotton areas. Marathwada and Vidarbha account for 75 per cent of farmer suicides in Maharashtra. Between January and December 2015, 3,228 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra, including 1,536 in Vidarbha and 1,454 in Marathwada. In 2001-2002, before Bt cotton was commercially approved, the area under cotton in Marathwada was 0.89 lakh hectares. Within one year, between 2003-2004 and 2004-2005, the area under Bt cotton in Marathwada jumped 11 times from 0.89 to 10 lakh ha. In the following decade, the area under Bt cotton has increased to 18.386 lakh ha.

Bt cotton hybrids are not suited to regions like Vidarbha and Marathwada. They need more water and, therefore, fail more frequently when assured irrigation is not available — a fact that Monsanto, the company behind the spread of monocultures, does not tell farmers when selling the GMO seeds. Bt cotton is also killing beneficial soil organisms which degrade organic matter and turn it into humus. Soils are becoming sterile. Our studies show that more than 50 per cent beneficial soil organisms have been destroyed by Bt toxins in Bt cotton areas. Unlike the crops it displaces, such as jowar, it returns no organic matter to the soil.

The increase in Bt cotton came at the cost of jowar which holds the answer to drought in Maharashtra. Jowar requires only 250 mm water and would have survived the drought, giving farmers food and livelihood security even with a deficient monsoon. Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, while Bt cotton in Beed (in Marathwada) increased from 1.01 to 3.290 lakh ha, the area under “rabi jowar” decreased from 2.567 to 1.704 lakh ha. Bt cotton has displaced the mixed and rotational cropping of jowar, tur, mung, urad, wheat, and chana. During the 1984 drought in northern Karnataka, an old farmer told us, “Bring me the old seeds of the native jowar, and I will drive away the drought”.

Not only do indigenous crops like jowar use less water, they increase the water-holding capacity of the soil by producing large quantities of organic matter which, when returned to the soil, increase soil’s fertility and water-holding capacity.

Native seeds and organic farming are the answer to drought and climate change, to farmers’ suicides and to the agrarian distress. They are also the answer to hunger and malnutrition. Care for our seeds, our soil and our water are the real test of our love for our land and our commitment to our future, not slogans. The same processes that are killing our soil, water and climate balance, are also killing our farmers. This is an emergency. Yet, the responses are not addressing the roots of the crises.

While women carry the water burden as water providers, they are excluded from decisions about how water will be used, how it will be distributed, how it will be managed, how it will be owned. These decisions are being increasingly made by international institutions like the World Bank and ADB (Asian Development Bank), and multinational corporations like Suez, Vivendi, Coca Cola etc.

Giant water projects, in most cases, benefit the powerful, and dispossess the weak. Even when such projects are publicly funded, their beneficiaries are mainly construction companies, industries, and commercial farmers. While privatisation is generally couched in rhetoric about the disappearing role of the state, what we actually see is increased state intervention in water policy, subverting community control over water resources. Policies imposed by the World Bank, and trade liberalisation rules crafted by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), are creating a sweeping culture of corporate-states all over the world.

Increasingly, the term “Water Providers” is being used not for the women who work to provide water, but for the water giants who take water from communities and sell it back to them at high cost for profit. The water traders, water profiteers are positioning themselves as “water providers” while increasing women’s burden in water provisioning.

To mitigate the women water burden, a few measures can be adopted:

  • Restore the conventional methods of water conservation like Baolis, Jhods, Ponds, Tankas.
  • Introduce rainwater harvesting.
  • Change the cropping pattern of agriculture. Instead of growing water intensive crop like paddy and sugarcane, introduce crops like millet, ragi, which consume less water.
  • Proper water conservation measures should be used. People should be made aware and trained on the techniques of water conservation.
  • Government schemes should be implemented properly.
  • Involve Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) and NGOs in the management of rural water supply.
  • Women should have community control over water. So that they can manage water for the sustainability of the eco-system, their families and villages. They should be trained as water managers for the better utilisation of water.
  • Conclusion
    More than any other resource, water needs to remain a common good and requires community management. In fact, in most societies, the private ownership of water has been prohibited. However, the emergence of modern water extraction technologies has increased the role of the state in water management.

    Throughout history and across the world, water rights have been shaped both by the limits of ecosystems and by the needs of the people. In fact, the root of the Urdu word ‘abadi’, or human settlement, is ‘ab’, or water, reflecting the formation of human settlements and civilisations along water sources. The doctrine of riparian rights – the natural rights of dwellers supported by a water system, especially a river system, to use water – also arose from this concept of ‘ab’. Water has traditionally been treated as a natural right – arising out of human nature, historic conditions, basic needs, or notions of justice. Water rights as natural rights do not originate with the state; they evolve out of a given ecological context of human existence.

    This year, on World Environment Day, we need to make a clear choice for the future of the planet and our survival — whether we want to step deeper into ecological and social emergencies as slaves of giant corporations, or we want to live as free and caring members of the earth family, Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, following our dharma.


    Dr. Vandana Shiva

    Dr. Vandana Shiva is a world-renowned scientist and environmentalist.