In the Chhatarpur district of drought-prone Bundelkhand, Ganga Rajput (L) and Babita Rajput (L) led the women of their villages to successfully revive dry ponds. A network of Jal Sahelis (women friends of water) is facilitating women to lead their villages towards water security. Illustration by Anwesha for Mongabay.

An uphill task

Not too far away, in Agrotha village, another water warrior, Babita Rajput, daughter of a marginal farmer, is also taking forward the efforts of reviving water bodies. The 19-year-old jal saheli Babita has led labourers as well as community women in diverting rainwater through channels in the hill to the pond.

Due to the lack of a catchment area in the village, the monsoon water used to run off into the hilly forested terrain instead of being collected in the village talaab (pond) spread over 70 acres.

The women dug a channel of about 12 feet in width, running for over 350 feet (107 metres), connecting a small hill in the forest to the talaab. “Babita and the village jal sahelis worked hard to ensure that water gets collected in the water body. Besides diverting the water flow, the women are also fighting to protect the forest to ensure good monsoon rainfall. Towards this end, they have also undertaken plantation work on a large-scale,” said Manvendra Singh of Parmarth.

An aerial shot of the pond in Agrotha when the restoration work had been initiated. Rainwater was diverted to the pond with the help of constructed channels. Photo from Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan.
An aerial shot of the pond in Agrotha when the restoration work had been initiated. Rainwater was diverted to the pond with the help of constructed channels. Photo from Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan.

Babita explained that around two years ago, the Parmarth staff urged the villagers to do something concrete about water security. “But at that time many people did not believe in them. After that through the help of discussions and meetings, we became part of Parmarth and started working,” said Babita, currently pursuing her Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. “Initially when Parmarth wanted to work with women, men objected to the idea. But some determined women said that the organisation will help to make us water secure,” she told Mongabay-India.

In 2019, many women joined the efforts for restoration of the talaab.

Babita’s friend Kamla Lodhi said the talaab did not have adequate water. To remedy the situation, a nullah (channel) was created from the hill so that water can collect in the pond. “We revived the talaab this year (2020) and started work before the lockdown. There were about 200 women who laboured hard and stopped water from escaping to the Bachheri river,” Lodhi added.

Along with the pond revival work, some 250 saplings have been planted in the forest area about two km away from the village. The work on the Agrotha pond has also been appreciated by the forest department, said Parmarth field staff Dhani Ram.

Women carried out plantation work in Agrotha in addition to reviving a pond. Photo from Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan.
Women carried out plantation work in Agrotha in addition to reviving a pond. Photo from Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan.

Tiding over water scarcity 

Parmarth started the concept of pani panchayats in 2012, trained women and created a network of jal sahelis in Bundelkhand. At present, there are jal sahelis in 27 villages of Chhattarpur district.

The organisation leader Sanjay Singh narrates an incident where during a meeting a woman informed him that she had to face her husband’s rage after she failed to finish cooking on time. “I came up with the idea of jal sahelis in 2010. The women faced a lot of issues and now have been empowered. They sit in gram panchayat meetings and this has brought about a gender revolution,” Sanjay Singh said.

“As women face water crisis, even children are forced to drop out of schools. Caste is also a problem. Through pani panchayats smart women were identified, trained and informed about government schemes. Initially, we worked in 100 villages and both Chaudhary Khera and Agrotha replicated the work we did elsewhere. We stepped in these two villages in January 2019,” said Manvendra Singh.

He admits that it was difficult to talk to the women directly and men had to be convinced first. But as women started working, it also led to the setting up of kitchen gardens. “Men felt that it was insulting for women to step out. Some women used to be labelled as characterless for participating in training and men objected to their being selected leaders,” he added.

From gender discrimination where women could not sit together with men during meetings, things have come a long way. He said that though the government does many things, proper surveillance is needed. “Bundelkhand is famous for its talaabs. When community ownership ended and the government took over, many canals came up and roads were built. Earlier, rivers used to flow throughout the year and Parmarth is also working towards river revival,” Manvendra Singh explained.

Baba Talaab post-restoration provides water to the village for chores and irrigation. Photo from Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan.
Baba Talaab post-restoration provides water to the village for chores and irrigation. Photo from Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan.

 

Illustration by Anwesha, an illustrator from Siliguri, West Bengal. Her work is inspired by Indian traditional art styles. Her art focuses on women’s empowerment in a bold and colorful way.

Article published by Aditi
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