India’s water crisis, made severe by stressed water resources and grave mismanagement, is predicted to worsen in the near future. World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas painted a dismal picture by ranking India 13 out of 17 “extremely high” water stressed countries. While realisation dawns upon the rest of the country in the wake of the Chennai water crisis, women in Bundelkhand have been assembling under the Jal Saheli model to take the first step towards tackling water scarcity in their drought-prone villages.

Since its inception in 2011, Jal Sahelis have played a pivotal role in ensuring water availability in over 100 villages through small acts of repairing hand pumps, fixing wells and creating work plans for safeguarding water resources. Behind the origin of this women-led community based organisation lies the story of severe drought, drastically impacted livelihoods and an instance of domestic violence that forced women to take responsibility for water resource management in their villages.

The Jal Saheli model began post four years of consecutive drought in Bundelkhand region. “The primary impact of water scarcity was that there were a lot of tragedies that women faced, there were a lot of migrations and widespread malnutrition. The drought had badly affected the people. It had broken them,” said Sanjay Singh, Founder of Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan and National Convener of Jan Jal Jodo Abhiyan. “There was such water scarcity that we didn’t have water to drink. There was no water for tea or for irrigation, there were no grains for food, there was no water for the livestock. This was the kind of drought we experienced in those days,” said Shree Kunwar, a Jal Saheli from Udguwan village, Uttar Pradesh.

In India, organising water availability has traditionally been the domain of women. “In villages as well as in cities, all the work such as filling tanks remains the job of women. The men only utilise the water. Earlier in villages, women had to travel long distances to bring water home and sometimes they would get late in making food,” Singh told The Citizen. We would have to travel 2-3 kms to get water,” said Pushpa, a Jal Saheli from Chandrapur village. One such instance, where a woman returned late post fetching water, led to her being beaten by her husband. When she complained about the assault to her neighbouring women, they all rallied against the injustice, deciding it was time to take the management of village water resources in their own hands.

“When it comes to organising water resources, men mostly make the decisions about where the hand pump is going to be installed, where the tank is going to be placed etc. The men are mostly concerned with water for irrigation and sowing, they are not concerned with drinking water,” Singh explained. Post discussion, the women came to the conclusion that they should have the first right to water resources, as they were the ones who were primarily concerned with ensuring water availability in their households. Singh said the issue became a “matter of entitlement” and the women wondered how they could safeguard their rights. And so, the concept of a Jal Saheli in every village was born.

From its humble origins in Udguwan village in Lalitpur district, U.P., the model has now expanded to include a cadre of over 1,000 Jal Sahelis across 350 villages, as per Singh’s estimates. The women work without remuneration as Jal Sahelis and are organised as a Paani Panchayat. “There are 20-25 people in a Paani Panchayat and there are 2-4 Jal Sahelis in each village. All Jal Sahelis are part of Paani Panchayat.” According to Singh, the concept is being scaled with the U.P. government having introduced the Jal Saheli model in 22 districts. “Ministry of Water Resources has also included Jal Saheli in India’s best practices,” stated Singh.

Jal Sahelis have been involved in not only deciding where hand pumps and tanks are to be installed but also in formulating rules and regulations on water utilisation. According to Singh, they have created soak pits near hand pumps and improved greenery in their villages, ensuring less water wastage. They have also slowly made the change from sowing water-intensive crops to those that require less water.

Pushpa, highlighting the work she and the other Sahelis have done in Chandrapur village, said, “We joined in 2011 and brought other women together for a meeting. Then, whatever goals we decided upon for work in the village, we started on that... We had a well in the village which we first fixed, then in 2013 we made a check dam. So we got two check dams made and got hand pumps installed as well. We got all this work done and now there is no water problem in our village.”

The Jal Sahelis also run the novel concept of a water school in each village. According to Singh, this is a six month program wherein the curriculum is designed by the women themselves. The water school imparts learning on the subject of water conservation and efficient usage, covering both the demand and supply side. “This has been made keeping the women in mind. It is completely pictorial so the women who are illiterate and have not studied can also understand easily through the medium of pictures,” said Singh.

Pushpa said the water school is not limited to their village alone. “If there is another village 1-2 kms away, we go there as well and explain to the women through pictures how to save water, how to maintain cleanliness, how to keep water in pots and create kitchen gardens. We teach children as well. We go to schools to explain the same.”

Community participation in water management as exemplified by the Jal Saheli model, has helped ensure year-long water security. According to Singh, the work of the Sahelis has helped improve agricultural production and reduced farmer migrations to cities. Water availability, made possible by the small-scale organisation of the Sahelis, has also positively impacted the lives of girls in the villages. “Our daughters and daughters-in-law had to travel long distances to bring water, and the girls couldn’t go to school to study. Now they’ve started studying and the water level has also increased, so now we get enough water to drink,” said Pushpa.

The Jal Saheli model has been instrumental in not only addressing the issue of water scarcity but also helped empower the women by making them a crucial part of local administration. The women raise issues in the Gram Sabha meetings, and file applications for water availability as and when needed. “I have become very aware by being part of Jal Samiti Parmarth and Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan... Whatever problems we face in the village, we raise them. There were huge potholes in our gallis (lanes) and four of us went to raise this issue... I have been going to Gram Sabha meetings for 10 years,” said Shree Kunwar who has helped construct three check dams in her village.

Did the women face any challenges while starting out? “Yes, there is always a situation that when someone climbs the first step, there are many challenges they face. Similarly, when we started out, somebody or the other would say something, but we ignored them and with the help of the women, we got all the work in the village done,” Pushpa told The Citizen. “If we had to go to the District Magistrate (DM), three-four of us would go to the DM too. Since we have gotten this work done, even the children and men are aware. Earlier we used to face difficulties, but now there are no such problems,” she said.

Singh said the women faced objections primarily from their husbands. “Not being allowed out of the house, verbal and physical abuse…Husbands objected a lot, the men were averse to it.” He further highlighted an incident where an entire village objected and tried to stop the women digging a well. The three women, adamant for change, dug the well on their own. Today, the entire village drinks water from that very well. “Now however, they are receiving support and help as others realise that they have done good work,” he explained.

Over the years, there have been a number of schemes and programs implemented to alleviate the effects of India’s water crisis. However, Singh says, “The issue is implementation. Transparency is a major concern.” He stated that government work lacks any form of surveillance, participatory management and is adversely affected by widespread corruption. Community participation and local self-governance then becomes imperative in solving the water challenge.

“People need to know how important saving water is. They need to know about safeguarding water resources and water use efficiency. Apart from this, they should know about small ways in which they can conserve water like, how to fix a pond, how to create a pond or soak pit, how much water can come from a trench pit or check dam,” said Singh. While India continues to grapple with the burgeoning water crisis, Jal Sahelis, through small actions fashioned on a participatory approach, are ensuring an abundance of this precious resource in their villages.

(Cover Photo: Welthungerhilfe)