Nashik district (Maharashtra): Hausabai Jhole’s routine of years was to wake up at 5 am and, before her morning gargle or tea, set off on a 2.5-km journey with other women to fetch water.
In March 2022, they did this earlier than ever to beat unseasonal and unprecedented heat, as temperatures here in this northwestern Maharashtra district soared to 35 deg C. March and April this year were the hottest on record in India.
That their lives were becoming more difficult could be attributed, in part, to the fact that local effects of climate change predicted for central India included higher temperatures and heavier, more uneven rainfall, as a January 2022 study noted.
Indeed, Nashik reported copious rainfall by June, but that did not change the lives of the women of Mahadarwaja Pada, a hamlet that is part of the village of Metghar, home to Jhole and her friends. The monsoon, as we explain later, is a period that makes water more difficult to access in these tribal-dominated, poverty stricken parts of India’s most prosperous state by gross domestic product.
The journey to a public well—the scanty but only source of water until recently—was downhill and relatively easy. To return home to Mahadarwaja Pada was not as easy because it is 200 m higher than the well, which meant an arduous uphill climb in increasing heat at around 10 am, with two pots of water balanced one atop the other on their heads.
Jhole is a slight, shy woman in her 30s, dressed in a turquoise saree smeared with mud. She said she wore her sarees for up to four days without washing because water was in such short supply.
Jhole said she had been making these journeys for water even before the age of 10, when she got married. The most challenging part, she added, was to descend 35 ft into the well, using stone handholds built into the wall, without a ladder or rope, the water levels plunging when the heat rose.
This descent and ascent of the women of Mahadarwaja Pada into the well gained local and national prominence when a video went viral in March 2022.
While the video prompted immediate corrective action, it brought to public attention, yet again, to how women bear the brunt of water of the failure of the government to address Maharashtra’s water shortages, despite thousands of crores spent on hundreds of dams and a series of government programmes over half a century.
Maharashtra’s failure to provide safe drinking water is echoed nationwide. A June 2018 report from the NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, said nearly 600 million people across the country faced “high to extreme water stress”. A United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) India report that same year said that less than half of Indians had access to safe drinking water.
Climate change is likely to make water harder to find, with some trends already evident.
On 27 July 2022, the ministry of earth sciences informed Parliament that five states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Meghalaya and Nagaland— “have shown significant decreasing trends in southwest monsoon rainfall during the recent 30 years period (1989-2018)”.
More than 400 million people, or more than the population of the US and Italy combined, live in these five states. But increased water stresses are emerging elsewhere. The ministry said there were also “many districts in the country, which show significant changes in southwest monsoon and annual rainfall”.
Like the rest of the world, India is growing hotter, which means walks for water will be harder. The country experienced its hottest March ever in 2022, the ministry of earth sciences told Parliament, releasing another data set on 27 July.
In 2022, India reported 203 “heatwave days”, five times more than the previous year. As the weather becomes more uncertain, so, too, will life for Indian women who fetch water for their families.
‘My Entire Life Has Been Spent Fetching Water’
“Who is not scared of heights?” said Jhole, referring to the descent into the notorious well from which she fetched water for years.
“The well either dries up with the onset of summer or the water can be found at the bottom of the well,” said Jhole. “So, if I did not go down, someone else would have and I would not get water for the day.”
She cited another challenge in collecting water when the heat was at its worst: to spend hours, sometimes, waiting inside the well for groundwater to seep out of the well’s dry floor and collect it in small containers.
Whether the challenge of waiting for water at the bottom of the well in the summertime or the somewhat easier four-hour journey to and fro in better weather, the task of fetching water falls to Jhole and her two sister-in-laws for the family of 10. It is what most able-bodied village women, in her village of about 300 households, must do.
“Maza sampurn ayushya he gharatil jevayla baslela astana tambya madhe pani bharnyat gela ahe. Ani gharatil lokansathi pani dokyavarun vahun aananyasathi gela ahe (My entire life has been spent either pouring water into a lota when my husband eats or filling and fetching the heavy pots of water for drinking, cleaning and every other activity that requires water),” said Jhole.
Women play a primary role in providing families with water, especially in rural India where 833 million people live. The length of Jhole’s daily journey for water is the Indian average for women in rural areas: 2.5 km and between three to four hours every day, according to the last such estimation available in a 2005 report by the National Commission for Women (NCW).
Such villages, in government parlance, are called “no-source” or “problem” villages, and close to 93.4 million households across India’s 649,481 villages do not have access to tap water, the minister of state for jal shakti or water resources, Prahlad Singh Patel, told Parliament in February 2022.
National Plan Unfolds, But No Water A Year After Pipeline
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that its Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) will provide a household water tap to all of India’s 191 million households by 2024.
The number of households with functional drinking water taps grew from 22 million to 40 million over six years to 2019-20 to about 80 million in August 2021 to 99 million in July 2002, according to the JJM dashboard.
In 2022, the Mission is likely to fall 60% short of its targets, the Business Standard reported in March.
There was no evidence of the Mission in Metghar, although pipelines, some laid before and some after the JJM, reached 58.96% and 100% of households in the neighbouring villages of Rohile and Brahamanwade by April 2020, according to the Jal Jeevan Mission dashboard.
No water has ever flowed in those taps though.
“It’s been more than a year since a pipeline was laid in my house,” said Pratiksha Gangurde, 17, from Bhramanwade, who passed her 10th-standard in 2018 and does nothing currently except household chores, including fetching water. “We even got a tap, but no water ever came from it.”
Article 14 sought comment from Gangadharan Devarajan, the Nashik district collector. “I will not talk, sorry,” he said.
“It is raining non stop here,” said Gangurde. “But my mother, like everybody, still goes to a well at the outskirts of the village to fill water even for drinking.”
Since 1951, the Indian government has spent Rs 183,362 crore or $28 billion on rural drinking water programmes, noted a 2017 evaluation of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, now subsumed into the Jal Jeevan Mission, by the Safe Water Network, a global nonprofit and consultancy.
The evaluation, prepared in consultation with the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, warned that India faced growing water contamination, over-reliance on depleted groundwater sources, “inadequate” operations and maintenance process and habitations with “slip backs”, jargon for getting but losing water supply.
Despite progress, the burden of finding and fetching drinking water still falls on millions of women. Every year, women in rural India trek for more than 14,000 km, according to the NCW study. That is more than the distance from India to the US.
A Viral Video Fixes A Local Problem
The situation for Jhole’s hamlet changed in April when their death-defying descent and ascent was reported by Vikas Kajale, a local reporter, and gained state and national attention.
“I was equally stunned that women from Mahadarwaja hamlet of Metghar village in Trimbakeshwar, Nashik were risking their lives and descending into a well for a single pot of water,” Maharashtra’s then environment and climate change minister Aaditya Thackeray tweeted.
Water tankers were dispatched to Mahadarwaja Pada and, a few days later, Thackeray visited the hamlet, after which government workers installed a motor pump that drew water through a 1.2-km pipeline from a newly dug well and brought it to new blue and white storage tanks.
Although Jhole’s daily routine of house and farm work left her without enough time to rest during the day, she expressed some relief. She gets water from the new tanks now, a couple of minutes walk from her home.
“At least I will be able to peacefully sleep now,” she said.
Overflowing Dams, But Little Water
Viral videos may have brought some succour to the women of Mahadarwaja Pada, but there is little relief for thousands of others across Nashik district, which contains within its borders 24 large and medium dams and received rainfall heavy enough this monsoon to cause nine of these dams to overflow.
So, why do women make those long walks to fetch water?
One reason: uneven rainfall in a state that has witnessed widespread corruption and mismanagement of its water resources. Some experts also blamed an ambitious six-year-old Maharashtra government programme to build ponds for those who needed them as being responsible for an increased cornering of water resources by rich landlords.
An expert at a nonprofit called WOTR or Watershed Organisation Trust , which works in 5,200 villages in nine states, said the region’s rocky hills cause rainfall to flow away, with “insignificant recharge” of aquifers because of impervious basalt.
“So, obviously the terrain doesn’t let the water percolate through, and groundwater remains bereft of required recharge, in spite of the incessant downpours that the district witnesses,” said Eshwar Kale, a senior researcher with a PhD in water policy and governance, at WOTR’s Centre for Resilience Studies in Pune.
To address Maharashtra’s continued state of water scarcity, then chief minister (and currently deputy chief minister) Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced in 2016 a programme that would construct farm ponds. Popularly known as “Magel Tyala Shet Tale” or whoever asks will get a pond, the plan was to be implemented through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), simultaneously providing rural jobs.
Another programme that Fadnavis introduced, the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan (JSA), was supposed to make Maharashtra drought-free by 2019. While it found some success, the benefits were largely cornered by richer farmers, as IndiaSpend reported in 2016.
The JSA aimed to irrigate 19,059 of 40,000 villages in Maharashtra in 22 drought-affected districts by 2019. As many as 41,000 of proposed 0.14 million watershed projects were completed in one year, according to the government.
In 2020, a report from the government auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General, said that Rs 9,674 cr had been spent on the JSA with a "lack of transparency" with "little impact" on groundwater levels.
The JSA and the pond programme were not the first attempts to address Maharashtra’s perennial water crisis. The first employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra was launched half a century ago in 1972, when a crippling drought forced even rich farmers to work as farm labourers.
Govt Plan Leads To Privatisation Of Water
“The idea behind the introduction of the farm ponds, which are getting constructed at a fast rate, was to collect rainwater that would otherwise have flowed out of the field,” said Kale. “
“However, the problem really began with the privatisation of water,” said Kale. “Many big and resource-rich landholders started heavily extracting the groundwater and storing that in their personal ponds.”
The pond programme was primarily conceived to provide water for cash crops, such as grapes, pomegranates and sugarcane. Nashik, touted as India's grape heartland, with its vineyards and wineries, accounts for 80% of Maharashtra’s grapes, which require a lot of water.
A 2017 commentary by Kale said the programme had failed to harvest rain water, and farm ponds accentuated the water crisis by using impervious plastic as lining, which stopped the recharge of groundwater.
“In practice, it is impossible to find a functioning farm pond where rainwater is collected and stored,” wrote Kale in the 2017 commentary, published in the Economic and Political Weekly.
“In fact, in direct contradiction to the purpose of building such ponds, most of the farm pond owners still extract groundwater from dug wells and borewells and then store it in the same farm ponds,” wrote Kale. “Therefore, farm ponds have become the new way for groundwater extraction and have increased the competition amongst farmers to further extract groundwater.”
The Videos That Made No Difference
During a particularly severe drought in 2019, the Maharashtra government sent more tankers into rural parts than it ever had. Indeed, across India, water tankers continue to be a lifeline for parched villages.
But Jhole's hamlet of Mahadarwaja Pada, one of many tribal-dominated areas of Trimbakeshwar taluka, has never received a tanker, even during the peak drought season.
"Nobody knew that we also existed before that video went viral, forcing the (environment) minister to come to our village,” said Sampat Chale, a rice farmer with a three-acre farm. “But that doesn't mean we were not running here and there to get a water connection to our village.”
Chale, who lives in Metghar village, recalled repeatedly raising the issue of water scarcity at the village council but with no success.
“I myself had made several videos (one of them is here) of women walking and going down the well to get water and uploaded them on Facebook hoping that someone would notice and try to resolve our issue,” said Chale.
Locals alleged hostility from village council officials and those from the government who visited their hamlet in April 2022.
“They started questioning the women, asking them why they did not use a nearby well (instead of making the 2.5-km trek),” said Manabai Jhole, from Mahadarwaja Pada. “We didn't because a cow’s dead body was lying inside. Then the officials asked us, 'where are the bones?' That's how they have always talked with us.”
The block development officer at the time, Sarika Bari, admitted she had made those comments.
"I asked the villagers because there was a well 100 m away from their village,” Bari told Article 14. “But they said a dead wild animal's body was there. When we lab tested the water sample from that well, the report said it was drinkable.”
Landless Dalits, Tribals Left To Work The Land
Kale of the WOTR said most landholding farmers, mainly those who grew cash crops, had either moved to farmhouses or nearby cities, such as Nashik, and towns. “So who remains in the villages?” said Kale. “It's the poor, landless Dalits and tribals, whose voices are never heard.”
Of the 1,000 people who live in Mahadarwaja Pada barely 10 are farmers who work their own land. The others are either agricultural labourers on grape and vegetable farms or are forced to migrate to neighbouring villages or cities in search of jobs.
“We only manage to earn Rs 30,000 to 35,000 from our land and we are dependent on that meagre income for the entire year,” said farmer Manabai Jhole, one of those who owns land and has remained, growing some rice and ragi (finger millet).
But the owners of small patches of land like Manabhai Jhole—she has a quarter acre, but half is barren—have no access to irrigation, so they primarily rely on the monsoon rains and can only grow only one crop a year, usually rice or millet.
This also explains why there is little demand for farm ponds from western Nashik’s tribal areas even though, as the Times of India reported in 2016, the district had the highest demand for ponds: 14,500 bookings compared to the government target of 2,500.
Even if the aftermath of the viral video provided some relief to the women of Mahadarwaja Pada, their long treks continued because, as Manabai Jhole, sitting along with the other women of her hamlet outside her house, said there was much else for which they walked.
“Whenever anybody falls ill in our area, we have to carry the person on our shoulder and walk for 4–5 km to reach a bus stand,” she said. “We also travel for around 10 km if we have to buy atta (flour) or medicines.”
Why The Monsoon Makes Water Scarcer
A month after the video of Jhole descending the well had gone viral, similar videos (here, here and here) of women from Rohile and other neighbouring villages surfaced.
But they did not attract similar government attention.
“We were not that lucky to get the same attention,” said Hirabai Tathe, 62, who has spent more than 50 years fetching water from wells. “And so neither the minister visited our village, nor did we get any relief from fetching water.”
Now, Tathe’s two daughter-in-laws have taken over that responsibility, which is not what she wants for her three grand-daughters, one a widow, the others single. Tathe would like them to marry in the city, “where they won’t have to carry water on their heads because they will have water coming from taps”.
“Otherwise,” she said, “They will face the same fate as I did.”
Unlike the popular notion that monsoon rain resolves the water crisis, it makes matters worse. With no organised storage of rainwater, women must still make those long treks, only now it is more dangerous.
“During the rainy season it gets harder to fetch water because we have to take muddy and slippery paths,”said Tathe of Rohile. “If we slip and fracture our hands or legs, no one is responsible for us. The farming season has begun. If a woman gets injured, who will work in the field?”
Locals said they often have no choice but to drink rain water, which they collect from roof overflows with pots on days when the rain does not let up.
There isn’t much thought about the quality of water that they do fetch, said the women we spoke to. “It’s difficult to even get water here, so we don’t really know whether it’s clean or not,” said Lalita Khoatre, 32, as others around her agreed. “The best we can do is boil the water.”
Walks For Water Hindering Girls’ Education
“Getting late for school becomes quite a routine no matter how early we leave to fetch water,” said Monika, who re-enrolled herself in 12th standard after dropping out midway through 2021.
A 2016 UNICEF report titled ‘Collecting water is often a colossal waste of time for women and girls’, said women and girls globally spend 200 million hours just fetching water.
A local 2018 survey by a Nashik-based NGO, Abhivyakti Media for Development, called ‘Shodhini Action Research’ reported that 58% of girls in 25 Trimbakeshwar villages, including Rohile and Brahmanwade, had no choice but to fetch water every day.
Gangurde of Brahamwade, who couldn't study beyond the 10th standard, said that her two best friends also dropped out, after the 12th standard.
“I couldn’t get to complete my assignments and homework because along with fetching water twice a day, I also had to do household chores, while my mother worked in the field,” said Gangurde.
The Abhivyakti Media for Development survey also noted that 43% dropped out of school because of housework and 7% specifically reported the drudgery of filling water as a reason: 20% of those who were in school said they could not find enough time to study because so much of their day was occupied by water duties. The absence of secondary schools and colleges and transport also hindered their education.
Tathe’s granddaughter Monika has grown up helping her mother and grandmother in every task, from housework to farmwork. She hoped to enroll in a nursing programme, but feared three obstacles: money, marriage, and the seemingly unending responsibility of fetching water.
“I don’t want to end up like my mother and grandmother," she said. “Filling water.”
(Jyoti Thakur is an independent journalist based in Delhi.)