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Nal Se Jal III

Battling social fault lines in rural water supply

The laudable aim of supplying piped water to all rural homes will have to tackle the existing power equations that deeply divide our society, and are tilted in favor of the elite in villages
It is invariably the women who are burdened with the task of getting water to rural homes (Photo by Daniel Bachhuber)

It is invariably the women who are burdened with the task of getting water to rural homes (Photo by Daniel Bachhuber)

In the earlier two articles on this subject, I had dealt with the legal, resource availability and quality aspects of the issue. In this article, I draw attention to the serious social issues that complicate the task of nal se jal (water on tap). See: Tap water in rural homes will increase consumption and Water availability and quality in rural water supply

In the initial stages of my career, in the late seventies before the advent of plastic bottles of purified water, I had to on many occasions walk some 5 km from Madhubani to Jitwarpur, a village known for the well-known Madhubani painters. I did that once on a hot summer’s day.

Having walked about a km or more, I felt thirsty, and seeing a hut went there requesting for water. Very politely they offered me a seat and said yes, water is coming. It took a while and after some 15 minutes I saw a boy, about 10 years of age, running with a jar of water in his hands. He brought it and gave the water to me.

Unaware of the reasons, I said that I was sorry the boy had to take so much trouble, but surely they had drinking water in their home. Why didn’t they give me that? Their answer was, “Sir, you obviously are from a high caste. How can we dare to give you water?” So they had sent a messenger, and got a high caste Hindu boy to fetch water for me.

Caste divisions

I was stunned then with the strong prevalence of this caste feeling. But when I spoke with other high-caste people there, they said that the Dalit family’s fear was justified. You never know, there could have been punitive repercussion on them had it become known that they had given water to a Brahmin!

Around the year 2000, a renowned social worker narrated a story to me. In the worst peak of the droughts in 1971-73 in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, he and his colleagues were engaged in deepening wells and other measures to alleviate the conditions about drinking water. When a well would be deepened and started providing some water, the dominant community of the place would start filling their needs. But they would keep the Dalits out, saying that if Dalits too took water, then their well would become impure.

Hence, the Dalits had to walk miles still, despite a well being there close to their homes. “I then said that you appoint someone who would draw water and pour in the Dalits’ buckets. At least then their problem would be reduced,” he said. “The response was, ‘do you think we, the descendants of Chhatrapati, should serve water to Dalits?’”

It is facile to say that these incidents are in the past and the social situation in villages have changed. We do need optimists, but a large national scheme needs practical thought, not just idealist optimism. What happens in Marathwada happens in Rajasthan, in Gujarat, in West Bengal, in Bundelkhand and virtually wherever else water scarcity occurs.

Segregated society

We are an awfully divided society and the Dalits are the worst sufferers. Recently, I came across another instance of extreme perfidy and oppression. Under a central government scheme, the Madhya Pradesh government was to provide drinking water facilities to the Saharia tribes in Guna and the contiguous district.

The Saharia tribe is designated as a particularly vulnerable tribal group. They are oppressed everywhere by people of more dominant castes in that region, as is the typical case with scattered and voiceless groups. These dominant-caste people would take the money meant for creating a scheme for the Saharias, build a scheme in their own hamlet and then prevent the Saharias from filling water from the systems! So the poor Saharias still trudged miles to get their daily water. And that burden came on — you guessed it right— the emaciated Saharia women.

Oppressive power

This brings me to the less voiced dimension of social issues. When I need water for my home, I must get it from whichever source. If you control the source, I am a supplicant and dependent on you. Obverse of dependence is power, and so you wield power over me for my immediate, urgent needs. Not only our honorable countrymen exploit such raw power to extract what they want, and you have noted that it is the women who front the weaker homes on these matters, they revel in the power it gives them.

They can suddenly order: “aaj se tumhara yahanse pani lena band (from today, you will not fill water from here),” should the woman filling water be seen as lacking in complying with some demand. I seriously hope you do not think I exaggerate. If you do, please come out of your sanitized, wishful image of our society.

How will nal se jal deal with all these messy issues? Nal se jal for every household, as promised, would eliminate such dependence, and hence, reduce the power of those who currently wield it. Will they, the local power structures invariably caught in the elite capture by powerful middle castes, ensure that the Dalits, often landless if not also homeless, have nal (tap) in their homes? Or will they say Dalits do not need such luxuries and provide half a stand post in their hamlet?

How to ensure equity?

Will they ensure that there is some degree of equity in water distribution or will the story of gross inequity from cities like Delhi get copy-pasted in reality all over? While homes in slums pay Rs 20 per bucket of water, people in the posh Lutyens area maintain lush green lawns and at times even fountains. Will it be the same in our villages?

Will the local power structures ensure 24×7 water supply in their homes but half an hour a day for 100 Dalit homes? It is worth noting that nal se jal involves infrastructure of overhead tanks, pipelines and the like. While a security man can guard the overhead tanks, pipelines run everywhere and can be breached by those who wield a hammer by those who have the desire and strength to strike. Are we envisaging a situation in which government creates equitable infrastructure only to be destroyed in a week by the local elite?

I do not wish to be a naysayer or a pessimist. I have noted in the three articles a number of issues connected with nal se jal. I am aware that we are a country that is huge, has bewildering diversity in every possible aspect. None of the issues that I have listed is new or unfamiliar to practical men and women in power.

I sincerely hope that the program takes off after due consideration of all these matters. I would be among the happiest persons if even half my rural sisters were able to get the comfort of filling water from a tap in their homes in coming five years. A capable government can achieve results, though five years may be an aspirational target. Let us hope for the best and support everything that is constructive.

Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.


Sanjiv Phansalkar
Sanjiv Phansalkar
Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

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