Sirkoo, a 39 year old woman in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, walked 8 km every day to fetch water. As a woman, it was obviously her responsibility to ensure the household's water availability. This put an additional stress on her already depleted health as well as time--until she decided to tackle the issue head on.
Three years ago, she and a few other women came together to form an informal water committee or ‘Paani Panchayat’ to work on water issues which is what affected them the most. Their agenda was simple – ensure water availability for all through the creation and conservation of water resources in their villages, so that water was available as a basic right. With the help of a local organisation called the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, they began to take steps in this direction.
The ‘Pani Panchayat Sanghatan’ nominated two women as 'Jal Saheli’s' or ‘water friends’. They now meet, discuss and decide on how to tackle local water related problems, have a say in where a new handpump should be constructed, how to revive a dying ‘talaab’ or village pond and also where check dams are needed for better irrigation. All this work is done through the village panchayat and at the block level .
Today, nearly 500 Sahelis are distributed across 7 districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. And they do not stop just at meetings but ensure that their voice reaches the state level officials. They have even written a letter to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh for the renovation of water bodies that were in dire need of repair.
Sirkoo recalls,”Rainfall had decreased, there was always a problem of clean water. So, water became our priority.” Laughing shyly, she adds, “Earlier we did not know anything beyond the four walls of our homes, and now we travel, meet and talk to people on water.”
It has been three years since this journey began. Today, these ‘jal sahelis’ are more self reliant and more confident but the process of change has not been easy. The men in their own families were apprehensive about their women moving out of the ‘purdah’ or veils. Others in the village often taunted them, calling them ‘netaji’, and tried to suppress their new founded enthusiasm. Nevertheless, they carried on meeting women and the elderly, convincing them of the importance of water not just for themselves but for future generations.
Thanks to their perseverance, the scenario has changed today. The men listen to them and so does the 'Pradhan' of the village. They have built check dams with government allocations and ‘shramdan’ or voluntary contributions by the community. The ‘panchayat’ considers the village Water Security Plan (WSP) or the ‘Jal Suraksha Karya Yojana’ prepared by them before any major decisions on water.
Dressed in blue saris, they flaunt their ‘water’ purpose to change the world or in their own words ‘Badlenge Zamana’. Watch these gritty women tell their story.
'Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan is grateful for the support of the European Union to the 'Establishing women's first right to water resources (pani par mahilaon ki prathm kakdari)' project.