It was a scorching hot afternoon of late May and we were sitting in a group meeting in the hamlet inhabited by Sahariya tribals in Kauriya village of Bundelkhand. This village is located in Jatara block of Tikamgarh district in Madhya Pradesh. The Sahariya tribals told me that they have just one functional hand-pump for their basti of about 45 households. This hand-pump is also able to provide water only after long gaps.This means that after filling one pitcher, villagers may have to wait a long time to fill the next one. Hence, they have no other alternative but to fetch water from open wells located some distance away. This water is likely to be contaminated by dust and leaves particularly at the time of strong winds. The consumption and use of contaminated water in turn leads to various diseases.
As these villagers particularly women have to spend a lot of time just to arrange water, this has an adverse impact on their livelihood opportunities as well. Similarly, the education of children also suffers. The hand-pumps at school also do not work; as a result, many children have to return home to quench their thirst.
While the drinking water shortage is very distressing for people, it’s even worse for animals. The villagers told us that during this season, in Kauriya village, about 50 animals, mainly cows, have already died. The villagers said that last year, since drought was officially declared, more funds were available for arranging water through tankers. This year, tankers have been much less visible in the villages of nearby area.
Similarly, other help is also now less available from government as well as non-government sources. Last year, as the drought peaked, great relief was provided for the people living in the Sahariya hamlet in the form of a community kitchen run for about five months with the support of a voluntary organisation Parmarth supported by the European Union.
This community kitchen provided nutritious and filling meals twice a day to about 34 of the poorest and most needy people. Old people left behind by migrant workers, widows, and disabled persons were selected on priority basis. The selection was made on the basis of certain criteria by the villagers themselves. The cooking and fuel were also arranged by the village community.
The community kitchen functioned smoothly for five months. Simbhu, a widow who lives in this village with her disabled son, said, “It was a blessing to be sure of getting two good meals every day.” Phoolan, another old widow of this hamlet said, “We still need this kitchen, so why was this stopped suddenly?”. Sanjay Singh, co-ordinator of Parmarth, responds, “We had to stop this after the worst period of the drought had passed, as the funds for this were available only for a limited period. However, we withdrew from this community kitchen with a very heavy heart as we realised that the old and disabled people particularly in a very poor community like the Sahariyas still need this support, drought or no drought.”
Ravi Kant Tomar, a local co-ordinator of Parmarth says that when the community kitchen started, some of the old people were in very precarious health, but when they started regularly eating two nutritious meals a day, their health improved visibly. In the process, some of the old people were probably saved from possibility of death, he asserts. Some of the elderly people also brought small grandchildren to the community kitchen, so their nutrition needs were also met to some extent, he says. The possibility of continuing such community kitchens where they are functioning well, beyond the officially declared drought period, should be examined carefully.