MOKHADA: They are young, gentle, soft-spoken and hardworking… all typically ‘feminine’ qualities. Yet, it’s these very attributes that set them apart from the many ‘social workers’ campaigning for water rights in Mokhada tehsil of Maharashtra.

As one starts trekking the mountainous countryside with Sangeeta, Heera, Savita, Gangu and Pushpa, one can clearly discern the heady union of life and a strong sense of purpose among these energetic ‘adivasi’ (tribal) women. For them, equitable access to water is a burning issue and their most cherished mission. As the group makes its way towards the block office, women from different, some even far-off, ‘padas’ (villages) stop them to share their problems.

The group from Chikan Pada has come to them with a plan to charge the wells in their vicinity with water from the Waghnai River, around three kilometres from their village. Presently, they are all bone dry, compelling the women to trudge 12 kilometres daily to the river to fetch four pots of water to drink, bathe and wash clothes with.

After promising to pitch their proposal to block officials, Heera, Gangu and the others move on, taking stock of the water situation in the ‘padas’ that fall in their way. Like Chikan Pada, Sangeeta, who is all of 20, talks about another ‘pada’ that is facing tough times. The residents of Pada Shendyachi Meth just have access to a small well to meet all their water needs. This pada is situated uphill. There’s a dead river downstream and beyond the riverbed is the well. The route is tortuous and rocky. There have been cases of women tripping over the rocks and seriously injuring themselves and one even succumbed to her injuries recently. Despite that, no one really discussed the possibility of repairing the trail until this group sprung into action.

“This is Mokhada. Nothing makes sense here,” she remarks. Speaking to Sangeeta, who is a Katkari (an aboriginal tribe), a myth is broken: that the ‘advasi’ society is more egalitarian than the rest. Among the ‘adivasis’, the Mahadev Kolis are the dominant group while the Katkaris are lower down the social ladder. In Shendyachi Meth, it’s the Mahadev Kolis who own the path.

Heera recalls how they had got a repair project sanctioned at the block office that couldn’t take off because of the hierarchical tussle within the hamlet. Their group had presented a proposal for carrying out repairs to the pathway under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) to the ‘tehsildar’ (block officer). The fact that no Non Government Organisation (NGO) activist had accompanied them to state their case struck him as unusual and amazing and he had signed the papers immediately.

However, this did not go down well with the Mahadev Kolis, who were livid that two Katkari women had gotten the sanction from the tehsil office. They refused to let the repairs happen. Though Heera and Gangu were in a fix at first, a fortnight later, they realised that there was a broken path leading to the well from the Katkari Wadi (cluster) as well. So they presented a second proposal and now the work has started.

Indeed, there are many challenges, geographical, environmental as well as social, which combine to make life difficult for the locals in Mokhada. Geologically, the basalt formation in the area and the hilly terrain not only make it a poor groundwater store but there also is little scope of collecting rainwater, which simply runs off. Consequently, the wells generally start drying up from February after which for a couple of months the women have no option but to traverse long distances on foot to get water. Moreover, while the rainfall here is ample and there are many rivers –Vaitarna, Pinjai and Waghnai, to name a few – that spring from its hills during the monsoons the water, collected in reservoirs like Upper, Lower and Middle Vaitarna, is directed to Mumbai, which is in close proximity. In fact, there’s an old adage in the area: ‘Pani ushala ani korad ghashala, (water is so close and yet I am thirsty)’.

In 2012, IIT Bombay had conducted a study and observed that it’s possible to distribute the water from the Upper Vaitarna reservoir to the Mokhada region using gravitational force. Their report noted the total demand of water in the tehsil as only 0.56 Million Litre per Day (MLD), or about 0.12 per cent of the water supplied to Mumbai from this area. The study recommended adopting an ‘inclusion’ model to deal with the scarcity at a small cost. However, this proposal is pending in the office of the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran (MJP/Maharashtra Water Authority).

The MJP had asked IIT Bombay to get resolutions from all 28 panchayats in Mokhada stating the demand for water from Upper Vaitarna. IIT faltered in this area as it doesn’t have wherewithal in outreach. A number of NGOs and social workers entered the scene, crowding the otherwise sparsely populated and remote ‘padas’. They carried out explorations, studies, and surveys while Mokhada continued to remain thirsty.

The adivasi women’s mission for water began in 2013 when the Chennai-based Barefoot Academy of Governance decided to rope in veteran activist and lawyer Shiraz Balsara Prabhu, who has worked in the area since late Seventies, to mobilise the community to look for workable solutions to the ongoing crisis.

“This is a highly politicised place. From the Shiv Sena and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Missionaries and numerous NGOs, everyone has been vying for a stake in the development narrative. There is still no long-term plan for providing water in sight,” remarks Prabhu.

Meanwhile, the tribal women, who have joined Prabhu unconditionally in her mission, have been trying to make a difference in their own quiet, understated way. “They work very organically. They don’t have any targets to achieve nor do they have to fill any forms. They don’t merely assess the availability of water in the ‘wadis’ and ‘padas’, they find alternatives, too,” shares Prabhu, who meets them once every 15 days. So far, the women have succeeded in visiting 84 of the 121 ‘padas’ in the block to look for gaps and problems in supply.

A critical problem they have flagged is the unavailability of water to the rural hospital in Mokhada. When Savita and Pushpa visited the facility, to their horror they discovered that it didn’t receive any supply. The doctor on duty complained that there isn’t any water to wash hands with after delivery. They also found out that the nurses wipe the baby with gauze and clean the woman with her own sari petticoat post-delivery. “A petticoat that is worth Rs 100 has to be discarded. It’s a big sum for an ‘adivasi’ woman,” says Savita.

Trying to figure out the problem of the non-existent water supply at the hospital, Prabhu, Savita and Pushpa, through the Right to Information (RTI) channel, came to know that Rs 1 lakh have been ‘spent’ on tanker service in the last six months. Whereas such occurrences can be discouraging the women are not ready to give up. “Not everything is lost; things are moving… they are speaking up for themselves.

Who would believe that a ragtag army of ‘adivasi’ women would be able to get a few proposals signed?” quips Prabhu. What’s more, through their low-key campaign, the women have stirred up villagers and panchayats to pass a resolution in gram sabha, demanding their rightful share of water from the adjoining reservoirs.

Maharashtra is reeling under severe drought conditions and the situation is getting worse. By day, the issue is heatedly debated in the state assembly, while the news channels beam discussions and analyses in the evenings. The plight of adivasis of Mokhada remains unseen.

( Women's Feature Service)