It’s nearing 6 pm as we enter Kadesara Khurd, a dry drought-affected village in Lalitpur district of arid Bundelkhand. The main lane of the village wears a deserted look and several houses are padlocked. An emaciated cow is sprawled on the doorstep of one of the abandoned homes. “Over 200 people from this village have migrated to Bhopal, Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur in the last few months. They left their livestock behind,” says Sahodari, a middle-aged housewife who has turned a Jal Sakhi or water warrior, motivated by Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sanstha, an Orai (Jalaun)-based non-profit organisation working in Bundelkhand since mid-’90s.
As we speak to her, two old men limp past us, bent with age and wearing tattered clothes. Sunnu and Jhabua are on their way to the community kitchen being run by the village women since January to feed the old and vulnerable.
After 13 droughts in the last 15 years, crops have repeatedly failed in Bundelkhand, causing acute food scarcity. Canals are bone-dry. There is no wage work available. Some government-undertaken canal construction work is on, but the villages are uninterested in MNREGA despite the recent rate revisions. Moreover, the fund transfer is slow (sometimes taking four months). They instead want work that will fetch daily wages. Driven by hunger and thirst, many have chosen to flee the region. An estimated 9.8 crore people are affected by the water crisis in Bundelkhand and migration has increased by 65 per cent in the last few years.
Those who remain have chosen to fight it out, organising themselves into self-help groups. Spurred on by Parmarth, which works in 500 villages in the region, at least 18 villages in Lalitpur recently set up community kitchens, which work in the morning and evening. Only the extremely disadvantaged are fed right now, as funds are scarce. The villagers were asked to draw up a list of the really needy. The supplies needed are fetched from Talbheat, the nearest nagar Panchayat city.
Voluntary group workers tell us that the UP government has announced a drought relief package to give below-poverty card holders 25 kg of rice, potato, oil, sugar and pulses. Not many have received it though. A few villagers told us they got only 5 kg of rice and a kg of sugar, which is barely enough for their household. “There is nothing for those above poverty line, who are facing equally bad times,” says Jagdish, whose fields lie barren.
The locals, especially women, have been gradually empowering themselves to cope with scarcity. The Jal Sahelis tirelessly monitor water use and spread awareness on water management.
Supported by the European Union, ActionAid, Water Aid, and funds from a few government departments, Parmarth has catalysed the women to take charge. As Sanjay Singh, secretary, Parmarth, says, “The burden of fetching water falls on women and hence a women-centric approach was needed.” Also, the government’s water projects have focused on dams and not village-level projects, leading to a flourishing water tanker mafia.
The community kitchen certainly seems to have brought the village together.
Women of all ages, many with children in their laps, gather at a square and cut vegetables and knead dough. As they chat away, water worries recede temporarily. “Initially, the villagers were disgruntled that not all were being fed, but now they themselves come forward to tell us who is more in need,” says Manvendra Dwivedi, a field coordinator with Parmarth.
Another remarkable feature, as Lalita Dubey, a Jal Sakhi at Badauna Guggar village points out, is that all castes — Ahirs, Adivasis, Brahmins — cook and eat together. This in a region where caste-based discrimination and politics is rampant. Until a few years ago, members of the downtrodden Sahariya tribe were not allowed to use the handpumps available to upper castes. Even today, at Kadesara Bansi the handpumps are separate, though the Sahariyas say they prefer it this way as the water queues are long.
The veil lifts
Badauna Guggar is the only village in the district where the women’s faces are visible; elsewhere they hide behind the saree pallu, which is drawn over their upper torso too. The change in Badauna clearly owes to the tireless work of the 11 Jal Sakhis here, and the fact that one of them — Jayati, an adivasi lady — is the Pradhan. The most vocal of them is Lalita Dubey, who was born and brought up in Bhopal, and moved to this village after her marriage; she was instrumental in Jayati’s election (the seat is reserved for SC category).
(This article was published on May 6, 2016)