Bridging the gender gap through groundwater monitoring in a Rajasthan village

Punni Gadri laughs at how there is a quarrel at home with the arrival of a guest and the associated increase in water consumption that leaves them with reduced quantity of water, which the women have to make up for by drawing more water. Photo by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay.

  • A group of trained farmer-researchers, ‘Bhujal Jaankars’ in two Rajasthan and Gujarat watersheds monitor groundwater levels under a village-level project for groundwater sustainability.
  • The participants were trained in their local settings to perform a hydrogeological evaluation of their area, monitor groundwater, and share their findings and experiences with their village communities.
  • Due to a gender divide in literacy levels, most of the farmer-researchers are men but women in the communities, who manage water at home, have evinced keen interest in pitching in to become Bhujal Jaankars.
  • The project seeks to include more women, as it expands to other parts of the country, through training resources that are suitable for women with limited literacy skills and a focus on practical knowledge.

In Hinta, a village in the west Indian state of Rajasthan, Manju Soni, troops through lush wheat fields and adjoining homesteads adorned with animal motifs, stopping at wells where she whips out a measuring tape and float and lets the contraption drop till it touches the water surface inside the dug wells every Sunday.

Noting the water level in a diary she moves onto the next one. Soon she has recorded data for 10 wells in Hinta which lies in the 6305 hectares (63 square km) Dharta watershed, a hard-rock terrain, along the gently undulating part of the Aravalli hills in Udaipur district.

Manju is one of the 25 ‘Bhujal Jaankars’ (a Hindi word meaning groundwater-informed) active in the Dharta watershed in the desert state reeling under a groundwater crisis. 

She is the only woman among the trained group of farmer-researchers and is optimistic that more women will soon join the project as it expands to other parts of the country (Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha) with a focus on inducting more women. 

These 25 Bhujal Jaankars (BJ) are local volunteers involved in participatory groundwater management under the Managing Aquifer Recharge and Sustaining Groundwater Use through Village-level Intervention (MARVI) project led by Western Sydney University researchers working in collaboration with nine partner organisations.

The BJs help make sense from a village perspective of what is happening to village groundwater recharge and availability and provide crucial information on crop selection.

“As a BJ, we monitor groundwater levels, rainfall, check dam water levels, and water quality. We then relay the information to the residents of the village so they can plant crops that do not require too much water and can help recharge the groundwater. We also help plan out irrigation strategy depending on the water available,” Manju told this Mongabay-India correspondent who visited Hinta earlier this year, before the lockdown.

Manju Soni, the sole female Bhujal Jaankar in Dharta watershed, is optimistic about women’s participation in the groundwater management project if the training is customised accordingly. Photo by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay.

“For example, many farmers have started cultivating isabgol and black tulsi instead of only growing wheat which used to guzzle a lot of water,” Manju described with pride.

The project is operational in the Dharta watershed in Rajasthan and the Meghraj watershed in Gujarat involving 30 researchers and a total of 35 BJs across the two hard rock aquifer areas. The project is funded by Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and Australian Water Partnership (AWP).

For over eight years (2012-2020), the BJs have monitored water table fluctuations in 250 dug wells in the Dharta watershed and 110 wells in the Meghraj watershed on a weekly basis and they still continue to do so in most wells. They are also being integrated with village committees under the state’s Integrated Watershed Management (IWMP) program in the state to fortify the committees’ knowledge of water management.

Limited literacy but abundant life skills

They may not have formal qualifications but they have life skills and practical experiences. When appropriately trained and supported, they can monitor water table fluctuations and water quality around their villages and can collect reliable data for sustainable groundwater management, noted Basant Maheshwari, who leads MARVI.

“Groundwater depth sensors were also used in eight wells in each watershed over a four year period (2013-17) as a backup to the measurements by BJs. By 2017, we were convinced that BJs are quite capable of providing reliable groundwater level data and felt that the measurement through sensors was not required anymore,” Maheshwari told Mongabay-India.

The BJs were trained in their local settings through relevant theory and practical exercises so that they could perform a hydrogeological evaluation of their area, monitor groundwater, and share their findings and experiences with their village communities. 

They went through a training program (totaling 45 days) that covered mapping, land and water resource analysis, geohydrology, water balance analysis, and groundwater management strategies, said researcher Yogita Dashora of Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology, Udaipur, Rajasthan, who is part of the project.

The hydrogeological data crowd-sourced from MARVI project’s network of BJs in Dharta and Meghraj is uploaded on the MyWell app, a smartphone and SMS-based app. MyWell displays the current status of the groundwater level in each well, together with rainfall amounts, check dam water levels, and water quality parameter values with historical and village level data for simple comparison and analysis.

Dashora, also affiliated with Vidya Bhawan Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Badgaon, Udaipur,  said the project’s success was a result of a two-way communication between the project researchers and the community. “For example, the inventories of the wells in their villages were made by them. And they demanded the app be made accessible to them in Hindi which was eventually executed.”

The hydrogeological data crowd-sourced from MARVI project’s network of farmer-researchers in Dharta and Meghraj is uploaded on the MyWell app, which also comes in a Hindi version for the ease of use of the farmer-researchers/Bhujal Jaankars. Photo from MARVI.

“While training, the main barrier was language. So we had to break down the measurements and calculations in their own language. We had to also engage in constant communication with them over the phone so that we could troubleshoot when they did the fieldwork. Over the months they developed competence in the monitoring,” Dashora told Mongabay-India.

As the only woman in the group in Dharta, Manju says she feels privileged to participate in groundwater management but emphasises that more women can learn about local hydrogeology and contribute to helping the village residents visualise the groundwater scenario.

“One of the criteria for participation in the project was the ability to read and write. Though I have studied only till class 8, I was able to do the simple measurements with basic training. More women can participate in the project with basic training and knowledge required for the project,” Manju said.

Dashora adds that when they started working they did not consciously think of the gender element in groundwater management but “when we started the fieldwork we realised that a lot of the managerial responsibility, as well as the role of collecting water, fell on the women of the household.”

Functional literacy for time-poor women

Brenda Dobia, a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, who specialises in participatory research methods and is involved with MARVI since 2019 observed that the women felt they could not take on active leadership roles in the project because they were illiterate. And yet they wanted to be involved. 

“At the same time, they seemed to think that learning was associated with school, which was important for their children, but not something that they had the time or inclination to participate in in a formal sense. So really I see it as a challenge for us to design the training program in a way that can build the women’s functional literacy to enable them to take part,” Dobia explained.

“This may well lead them to think of other leadership roles they may wish to take on and opportunities to further build their literacy skills.”

The idea of functional literacy is associated with empowering people by helping them develop literacy skills through relevant roles and activities. 

Dobia suggests tailoring the BJ training for women in the target villages so that it incorporates the kinds of functional literacy skills that will enable women to have a role in monitoring, recording, and communicating about groundwater issues in their villages. 

“So we don’t need to sit them in desks at schools and take their time away from important work, but rather we capitalise on their interest in taking part in the project to teach them the necessary literacy skills to take up roles in the project. The practical focus makes the learning relevant for the women and at the same time builds their capacity and sense of empowerment.”

Current figures for the education of rural girls show that Rajasthan has the highest rate of non-attendance by girls aged 11-14 (7.4 percent compared to 4.1 percent national average).

In the two watersheds, the issue of scarcity was most frequently reported by men, but it was also the most common issue raised by women, according to a research carried out as part of the project to understand the reality of gender in the context of groundwater management and use in the Dharta and Meghraj watersheds.

Across genders and watersheds, there was a broad endorsement for women and men to share management of groundwater.

Cradling her newborn, twenty-year-old Pushpa Gadri from Hinta who participated in a participatory photography initiative under the project said in peak summer season it comes down to a choice between conserving water for bathing versus saving water for drinking. “We bathe once in three to six days depending on the availability of water,” said Pushpa in the meeting with project researchers. She did not complete her education and works in her husband’s farms.

Dobia’s research also highlights that limited access to water affected hygiene and bathing and also meant that they cannot grow vegetables at home. However, there were also significant water impacts for boys and men, mainly due to the situation of water scarcity. 

Lack of water affected agriculture, leading to economic impacts that frequently necessitated boys going outside the village to pick up work. Boys who assisted with fetching water and with farming work or external employment were educationally disadvantaged. Chronic shortages of water for bathing left boys and men also vulnerable to health and wellbeing impacts.  

On a lighter note, Punni Gadri adds that water woes also lead to quarrels between husband and wife. “We have started broaching the subject of equity in water management at home with men of the house. Sometimes it leads to fights, especially when guests arrive and there is a demand for more water,” added Punni during the discussion with researchers in Hinta.

A Bhujal Jaankar with measure tape and float. Photo from MARVI.

Maheshwari said women’s participation is critical for groundwater management in India –where 60 percent of irrigation water for crop production and 80 percent of drinking water is sourced from groundwater supplies.

“We plan to develop training resources that are suitable for women with limited literacy skills, particularly relying on graphical illustrations, cartoons, and short videos in the local language.  We plan for new ways of recruiting women BJs, nurturing and mentoring their participation and supporting their development as BJs, provide suitable incentives for their participation, etc.,” he said. “Women bring in new perspectives to the challenges of groundwater management, they can moderate the attitudes, behaviours, and actions of men for effective and positive groundwater management outcomes and they can help in much wider involvement of the community for change in groundwater management at the village level.”


Banner image: Punni Gadri laughs at how there is a quarrel at home with the arrival of a guest and the associated increase in water consumption that leaves them with reduced quantity of water, which the women have to make up for by drawing more water. Photo by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay.

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