It had been a chaotic morning. With so many people bustling around the small house, Avani was looking forward to celebrating her only son's second birthday. Graciously, her husband agreed to have the celebration at Avani’s mother’s place this time. Her mother made all the arrangements for the pooja and prasadam while Avani was to take care of the guests. Just one day at her mother's place lifted her spirits for months.
Picking up the water pots emptied by the guests, Avani headed for the standpost water tap that was shared by three households of her caste. The mason from the neighbourhood was filling his vessels. It was not always the duty of women to fetch water in their village. The mason stepped aside and gestured to her to fill her pots first. While she respectfully declined, Avani was now slowly getting used to the extra respect she had earned in the last one year. From Dangsari, a small village up the valley, she had to move to Suryatilak after marriage, a village on the hill ridge. Before marriage, she had to climb up the hill to fetch water from the spring mouth as the valley stream was far away. After marriage, she had to go all the way down to the valley pond from the ridge as their hillside had no springs.
Throughout her childhood, Avani would climb the hillside every day with her mother to fetch water from the spring. After a certain age, most children would be included in this daily chore. Carrying heavy pots of water downhill to their village was a Herculean effort, but the villagers were accustomed to it. The gash marks on Avani's knees and elbows were a testimony to that. The pain was shared by all 27 families of the village. While the timings for fetching water were different for Brahmin families in this community and Avani’s scheduled caste community, the hardships of fetching water and coping with seasonal variations in discharge from the spring (and hence erratic water supply) were the same.
It was the year she dropped out of high school. The village leader announced that construction of a road has been sanctioned for their village. The road would connect several small villages like Dangsari to the nearest town, Chamba. The assembly elections of 2007 ensured that the road construction was completed the same year. Avani’s elder brother was one of many in the nearby villages who was able to make a living after the road was built. When not migrating to parts of Uttar Pradesh or Himachal Pradesh in the times of harvest, Avani’s brother would transport eggs from their village to Chamba market and would also bring back produce from the market to sell in the village. Many benefitted from additional sources of income, all thanks to a road. It became a lot easier to transport material to these remote villages. People started building better homes utilising the material and money supplied under Indira Awaas Yojana. Things slowly began to change in the village.
Unfortunately, the road did not bring only development. Avani, her mother and many others noticed that it was taking more time to fill their pitchers from the spring. By the time summer came, things became unmanageable. The spring which had been giving water to the village for several generations, took more than an hour to fill a pitcher of water. Villagers were dismayed as they had no other source of water. Village leaders were clueless as well and they started approaching government officers in Chamba and Tehri. Two years passed but nothing happened. The lack of water began to affect the health and hygiene of these communities that depended on the spring. Avani’s father migrated permanently to work as a construction labourer in the Tehri Dam area. Her mother took care of whatever was left of their pastures, while her brother had to migrate more often in search of work. With less disposable income in the village, there was no point in transporting produce to and from Chamba. Some families shifted entirely out of the village and with just 16 households remaining, Dangsari was on the verge of becoming another ghost village of Uttarakhand.
Avani turned 18 as Uttarakhand turned 10. A government team came to their village to assess the water situation. They seemed to be experts on water distribution and claimed that for the first time ever, water would come to the village. They started building a box around the mouth of the spring and laid pipes from the box to the village. They were told the slow but steady water discharge from the spring would get collected in the box and the pipes would carry the water to a common point in the village. By the winters of 2011, Dangsari started getting water again and that too in the village itself. People now just went to the access point in the village to fetch water and followed a schedule similar to the one followed for going to the spring. Due to the storage, the issue of slow water discharge was reduced to a certain extent but it didn’t help much as the summers approached. It again started to take long hours to fill the vessels but at least the drudgery of carrying water was removed. With slightly better access to water, the out-migration started reducing. Avani too was delighted to see her father and brother more often.
This joy was also short lived. Avani got married.
"When others can do it in less than three hours, why can’t you? Our village doesn’t have piped water supply like your mother’s place."
Avani had no idea on how to respond to her mother-in-law. Those pipes in her village had rusted away in less than three years and things were worse than before. Here in Suryatilak, walking all the way down from the ridge to the pond in valley and then coming back took at least three hours. The path to water wasn’t as rough as it was in Dangsari but it was much steeper and longer. She was sure that her mother-in-law was just subjecting her to this hatred for a different reason altogether. It has been more than a year she had been married and there were no signs of pregnancy yet. The Primary Health Centre was farther down the hill after the pond in another village. She acted brave while carrying water all the way, but she was scared at the prospect of being carried on that treacherous path to the PHC for delivery. Everyone knew what had happened to the sarpanch’s daughter-in-law.
An NGO, Himmothhan has been working for rural development in the central Himalayan region since 2002 in collaboration with the Uttarakhand government. In 2014, they came to work in Suryatilak village. The villagers were used to the existing practice of fetching water, and weren't very optimistic about Himmothhan. The elders of the village knew the government officials. They also knew that the village was so remote that it was difficult to get any help. The NGO was clueless how to go about it as there was no alternate source of water other than the pond in the valley.
They didn't want to give up and decided to do an experiment in the village. Raising funds from corporates, Himmothhan tried installing solar panels in the village to pump the water up to Suryatilak. The electric wires went all the way downhill up to the pond in the valley where they powered a submersible pump. The water was pumped up the hill in narrow pipes for more than 700 metres into a storage tank. It worked. People were surprised to see water in the village coming through taps connected to the storage tank. The drudgery of fetching water had ended in Suryatilak village. While the drudgery of traversing the steep path for medical emergencies was not resolved yet, there was good news. Avani was expecting.
While Avani ensured good nutrition for her son, she also ensured that Himmothhan's team took up work in Dangsari as well. When some village elders from Dangsari came to bless her son along with her parents, she asked them to go and see the solar panels and the storage tank. People were impressed with the work Himmothhan had done and they requested them to come to Dangsari. Avani led the initiative and followed up on applications sent to Himmothhan for work in Dangsari. It took no time for Himmothhan’s team to design a plan for the village. The road construction at Dangsari had disturbed the ground water channels for the village spring. The team demarcated the area that recharged groundwater for the spring. The work required measures that would allow more water to percolate. The recharge area belonged to farmers from an adjacent village. Himmothhan’s team mobilised and trained some people from Dangsari village and facilitated cooperation between the two villages. A social protocol was established where people from Dangsari village would work in the recharge area but the outputs from the land would belong to the owners of the land. However, Dangsari would benefit from the groundwater recharge, which would increase the flow of the spring.
Bunds and pits were created, crops were planted and edge troughs were created to reduce rainwater runoff in the recharge zone. Social fencing was done so that people wouldn't
defecate in the recharge area. Results started showing as the monsoon ended in 2015. The spring discharge had substantially improved and a storage tank was built near the mouth of the spring. In the few months leading up to the summer, Himmothhan's team facilitated shramdaan and laid new pipes to bring the water from the storage tank to the village. Standposts with taps were constructed in Dangsari which were shared between three to four households. A village-level committee and the resource persons trained by Himmothhan took care of the maintenance of the entire system.
That summer, the seasonal variation in spring discharge did not affect Dangsari at all. Avani was not a resource person for Dangsari, nor was she part of the village-level committee. But she earned the respect of her friends, family and neighbours by helping to bring water to her village. Her efforts brought everyone in the village together, to celebrate her son's second birthday.
This is a fictional account based on the interventions made by NGO Himmothan at Suryatilak and Dangsari villages in Uttarakhand that the author witnessed. The author works for Arghyam, a charitable trust that works in water and sanitation in India.