A picture is worth a thousand words…springs, gender, access to water

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To begin with, I had shot this picture way back in 2015 while we were working in a village in Western Maharashtra’s Pune district. The photo depicts a routine work for a woman from a village wherein she is carrying water from a spring source (not in the picture) and her family member, a man, is accompanying her. The photo also depicts the beginning of the summer and the undulating terrain wherein the habitation is situated.

While trying to reignite a discussion about this picture through another forum, I actually realised that this picture indeed tells a story worth thousand words and multitude of issues when it comes to gender and water, water security, access to water situation with regards to water security programmes.

Following were the points I highlighted in that discussion and elaborated here:

Role of women in fetching water for household

Women predominantly collect/fetch water for the household needs from various sources. The photo depicts that aspect of the reality. It is a role designated for women in many communities across India and around the world. About 75 percent of population which does not have access to water on their premises task women including girls to collect water for the household. This in turn takes it toll on their health as well as overall well being since this is part of the unpaid labour work that they undertake to as a part to fulfill their responsibilities towards their families. On a daily basis women in India put about 352 minutes in a day in domestic work, while the same for men is about 51 minutes! Much of this time is allocated to work around water that includes fetching water, undertaking tasks linked to water like washing clothes and utensils etc.

The woman in this photo daily walks to this spring source to fetch water for her family.

Springs- a source of safe water in difficult terrain

In the region of Western Ghats and other parts of Maharashtra, Spring water sources tend to occur in the hills and undulating terrains where groundwater hits land surface and emerges out as spring. The spring (although not visible in photo) in this village is located on a small hillock near the tribal habitation and is the preferred source of water for domestic purposes and livestock needs. Unlike dug-wells which are created/constructed, springs occur. Hence, we find dug-wells close to or within the vicinity of the habitations but springs are little farther from the habitations (not necessarily always- exceptions can be found in other places like Himalayas etc). Many communities in the Western Ghats region depend on spring water as the only or alternative source of water for their domestic needs.

Given the mysticism linked to their occurrence, they are often revered places of worship and religious activity.

Safety issues around fetching spring water

Since springs are far away from habitation there is always an issue of woman’s safety (molestation, harassment etc.) which may emerge. These places are often wild (less human activity) and hence it is preferred that safety is guaranteed. The man here is accompanying the women mostly for that purpose (apart from of-course giving a company). She would usually do this activity with her women friends, colleagues etc. but may be none of them were available that day and hence the boy accompanied her. One of my colleague pointed out that he seems not to be ‘manly’ enough to carry the water.

Springs- a lifeline for vulnerable rural communities

The woman in the picture is a member of a scheduled tribe (Thakar community) whose habitation is near this spring source. These communities reside in most of the Western Ghats tract of Maharashtra, mostly on such terrains (long history associated with that like why there, since when, etc.). The point here is that they are usually not connected to the mainstream drinking water schemes implemented by the village owing to many dimensions of caste, accessibility, geographical challenges (elevation, far from ‘main’ village habitation etc.). Hence many community members from habitations like these depend on springs for their source of water. The only other source of water for the community in this habitation is a hand-pump which runs dry during summer and the community has to depend on the spring (which is perennial).

When it comes to reporting springs in the drinking water schemes, they are recorded as surface water source as in this example. However recent efforts to advocate the contribution of these sources towards drinking water security in the mountains as well as their contribution towards surface water flows is increasingly being recognised in the Indian context. The Niti Aayog (Central Government’s erstwhile planning commission) came out with a report that focused on inventorying and reviving springs in the Himalayas given the importance of this mystique localised groundwater sources for the communities residing in the challenging terrains of the mighty mountains.

As they say, a photo is worth a thousand words. Well in this case, it is precisely worth 790 words (excluding this paragraph). The government recently launched the Har Ghar Jal programme that aims for a tap water connection for every household by 2024. That means about 4620 households needs to be connected everyday, if the goal is to be achieved. This is not the first time the government has kept such a deadline, but for the record 12th time! Will it succeed this time to achieve this mirage like situation? It depends on how it envisages drinking water security and works towards acknowledging and addressing challenges (like the ones mentioned in this article).

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