UDAIPUR: Padoona village in Udaipur district of Rajasthan is nestled in the Aravalli mountain range. Though quite close to Udaipur city, the district headquarters, at a distance of 42 km, Padoona is one of the remote and underdeveloped villages. Some 90% of the population practices subsistence farming. Most of the villagers live on less than Rs 20 a day.

Partially electrified, the villages in the region lack basic amenities including water. With a single unstaffed PHC (primary health center), besides ANMs (auxiliary nurse midwife) at sub-centers, health and education facilities are meager. Women are confined to doing household chores, farming, manual labor and grazing cattle. There is an enormous social and cultural disparity between men and women.

Under such disadvantaged conditions, braving personal odds, a lone woman mechanic soldiers on, making sure that the hand pumps that supply clean drinking water to villages remain in good working condition. 52-year-old Meerabai Meena is a hand pump mechanic, an occupation generally perceived as men’s.

In this region where people are dependent on water bodies like ponds and streams for their water needs, they find hand pumps the most safe and reliable option for water. The government has installed hand pumps in the common places of villages. Many villagers have hand pumps in their houses as well. Meerabai caters to two panchayats, namely Jhabla and Padoona, which encompass five revenue villages.

In Jhabla village, men help Meerabai when she repairs hand pumps. (Photo by Manish Kumar Shukla)

In Jhabla village, men help Meerabai when she repairs hand pumps. (Photo by Manish Kumar Shukla)

Villagers call Meerabai whenever hand pumps need to be repaired. Her services are more in demand during summer when the water level decreases. Sometimes she works on Sundays too. Whether it is day or night, she works tirelessly to ensure availability of safe drinking water. Meerabai repairs a minimum of one hand pump a day. Sometimes depending on the proximity of the sites, she repairs two.

Motivation to become mechanic

Belonging to a tribal community, Meerabai faced problems due to lack of safe drinking water. The source of drinking water is usually far from home and women face the drudgery of fetching water. Poor availability of water, coupled with improper sanitation practices due to lack of water leads to high incidence of diseases and under-nutrition.

Understanding the need for availability of water for better health and recognizing the difficulties women faced in fetching water, Meerabai decided to get trained as a hand pump mechanic. In spite of facing problems related to water, none of the women from her village showed interest in joining the training offered by the government. But Meerabai was firm in her wish to do all she could in making safe drinking water available to the villages.

Meerabai faced personal difficulties at an early age. Four years after marriage, she lost her husband, whom she had wedded as the second wife. His first wife opted for natta, a common practice in southern Rajasthan, where married or widowed people can remarry. Meerabai did not have children. She was left with no choice but to live with her brother’s family in Padoona village.

Deciding to take charge of her life, Meerabai chose to become a hand pump mechanic when the government offered to train women. Since the three-month training in the 1990s, she has been repairing hand pumps.

There are many occupational hazards. The terrain is tough. Some of the houses are on hilltops. The houses are separated from each other by more than half-a-kilometer. With houses scattered on the hills and with lack of local transport except taxis, Meerabai has to walk miles every day, carrying her heavy tools. Often she is engaged thus the entire day, making her feel exhausted when she reaches home. Once home, she carries on with household chores.

In these interior parts, women do not step out of their houses to take up work. Those who do are subject to character assassination. In Meerabai’s case she has to travel and work with men often, which added to the insults. Unmindful of taunts, she worked with dedication. Her brother encouraged her not to be afraid and work to fulfill the needs of her people.

Women of Jhabla lend a helping hand to Meerabai by carrying heavy pipes. (Photo by Manish Kumar Shukla)

Women of Jhabla lend a helping hand to Meerabai by carrying heavy pipes. (Photo by Manish Kumar Shukla)

Now not only do men and women respect her and appreciate her work, they volunteer to help her by lifting heavy pipes and carrying her kit of tools and spares. “She handles such tough repair work all by herself,” the women helping her told VillageSquare.in. They acknowledge that a woman needs to have more courage and conviction to carry out the works, like Meerabai does. Now people fondly call her hand pumpwali bua, bua in Hindi meaning paternal aunt.

Of the eight women promoted as hand pump mechanics, Meerabai is the only mistry in her panchayat. Five women are working in different panchayats. The leaders of Jhabla and Padoona panchayats where Meerabai works commend her for her dedication. “She’s the only woman mistry in our panchayat. She’s a strong woman,” the panchayat leaders said.

Prabhulal Meena, field-in-charge at Seva Mandir concurs. Seva Mandir, a non-profit organization working across southern Rajasthan facilitates women use their expertise and helps them come together for collective representation of issues. “She is an independent and courageous woman. A perfect role model and an example for women’s empowerment,” Meena said. When no one was willing to, Meerabai started a battle alone, to ensure that the hand pumps were in working condition and women were spared the arduous task of fetching water. She has been successful in her work. While some hail her as an iron lady for her conviction, she takes pride in her work. As she tells VillageSquare.in, “Overcome difficulties and be the solution”.

(Jyoti Rajput has a master’s degree in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She works with Seva Mandir as Program Associate, Woman and Child Development Program.) (VillageSquare)