For many years, the 12-acre Baba Talab (lake) was the only promised source of water for villagers in Chaudhary Khera in Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh. The lake was constructed around 1,000 years ago, during the Chandela King’s regime, and served as a water bank for the villagers.
However, for 35 years, the lake, located in a region that is severely parched, remained dry. This was because heavy rainwater flow once washed away the 8-metre stone wall structure at one end of the lake, and the body could no longer retain all the water. A majority of water flowed downstream towards the Baccheri river.
The simplest way to address this issue would have been to repair the broken structure. But this was prevented by village superstitions. It is said that once, a sarpanch attempted to restore the damaged wall, and coincidentally, lost his children around the same time. The villagers came to believe this was the curse of local deity Gaur Baba, and henceforth refrained from making other attempts to fix the damage.
Without water, a few villagers took the empty lake land for cultivation. Excess groundwater extraction eventually exhausted the reserves, and residents of the area began depending on water tankers instead.
But one woman from the village took it upon herself to fight this false belief, and address the village’s water woes. Ganga Rajput (30) toiled for eight months to restore the lake and bring together the village community in this effort, benefitting over 2,000 people.
Never ending ordeal
Ganga moved to Chaudhary Khera 12 years ago, after marriage, and began to personally witness the water scarcity other villagers had been dealing with for years. “No steps had been taken to address the water crisis, owing to superstition,” she tells The Better India.
During peak summer months, the lake and groundwater depleted. “Women would queue up at the borewell and wait for hours for the water to accumulate through the small underground springs. Sometimes, they would have to wait for 24 hours to get one bucket of water. The water pumps would stop extracting water within 15 minutes, because the source dried up,” she recalls.
While discussions around reviving the lake were held, nothing concrete ever materialised, until in 2018, NGO Parmath Samaj Sevi Sanstha reached the village to create awareness on water conservation.
Manvendra Singh, a member of the NGO, says, “We conducted various cultural activities to build a rapport with the villagers. Ganga raised the issue of the lake and the resultant water scarcity, and said a few women were willing to support the cause.”
Explaining the historical significance of lakes in Bundelkhand region, he says the water bodies met the domestic and irrigation needs of the villages. “The water body remained under the custody of the local administration for its maintenance and repairs. But when the government took custody of these age-old lakes after independence, the social connections of the villagers with these water bodies diminished. They were threatened by encroachment and turned into unsafe zones for women. The disconnect, and decreased dependency on the lake, made revival of such water bodies difficult,” he adds.
Taking matters into their own hands
The NGO assisted the formation of a group comprising 25 village women to explain the importance of water conservation to the community, and promised to provide technical support to revive the lake. With help from experts, they explained concepts like de-siltation of the lake, repair work, and digging trenches.
Ganga says despite several discussions, many women feared stepping out of their homes or engaging in labour work. In fact, her own family’s story was no different. Her family, too, expected her to remain home and take care of chores. She was going against the norms. “The intentions of women are always questioned in society. I told my family the scarcity of water would lead to death anyway, and I might as well try to revive the lake,” she says.
In April 2019, Ganga, along with two other women, began working on the conservation work, as suggested by the experts. “We worked for a week, and then took a break for another two to show that our health had not been affected. We continued this practice for three months, after which, the fear in the community slowly began to dissipate. People began helping in small numbers at first, and after eight months, a majority of villagers began participating in the cause,” she says.
The coming together of the community helped complete the entire work in the following three months. Residents saw results within a year. “The monsoons here are weak, and rainfall is less than average. Despite that, the village faced no water shortage in 2020,” Ganga adds. This resulted in many farmers growing crops such as wheat, jowar, soybean, and cereals.
“Most people in the village were scared of the superstition,” says 21-year-old Girija Lodhi. “Ganga and the members of the NGO encouraged and supported other women. The lake was revived only because the women took initiative.”
Girija says she was inspired by Ganga’s leadership. “The entire village has benefitted, and never runs out of water now. My husband’s income has also doubled. We even repaired the local temple of Gaur Baba,” she says.
“Once fish began breeding in the water, many villagers even took fishing up,” Manvendra says, adding that the NGO has now shifted its focus on explaining the importance of water budgeting to the community. “Farmers are taking crops that consume more water, and while this is helping the economically, water must be used judiciously. Other water conservation works like building small check dams along mountain ridges, and initiatives to undertake groundwater recharging, are underway,” he says.
Doing her duty
Meanwhile, Ganga’s husband Jagdish says that owing to her efforts, his wife has earned more respect within the family and the village community. “She became popular in the area by being a problem solver. Ganga has motivated many women and problems like the shortage of drinking water and other meeting domestic needs has been solved. Right now, plans are underway to install tap water in every household,” he says, adding, “I accompany her to neighbouring villages where she aims to create water literacy and explain the importance of water conservation.”
Ashok Kumar Jain, the sarpanch of the village, says Ganga was determined to solve the water crisis. “She assured us that reviving the lake would allow irrigation, increase agricultural activity, and solve our daily water woes. With her help, the village learned that water is a precious asset, and needs to be respected,” he says.
Ganga says she fulfilled her duty as a woman. “It would have been impossible for me to do it alone, and I am glad that other women joined hands in the conservation efforts to solve the crisis. Women here now have more time to dedicate to their families and to farming activities, rather than spending an entire day waiting to collect water. In rural areas, the responsibility of fetching water for the family lies on the woman. Hence, only women can understand the pain and suffering that goes behind this,” she adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu
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