The image of a woman walking for miles with a pot of water on her head, another pot in one arm and a frail child clutching on to the other arm does not surprise anyone in Marathwada. These women are the most affected by the drought every year. The serpentine queues at a few functional wells in the villages are almost always dominated by women. The physical exhaustion of fetching the water aside, the drought results in other casualties among women like an increasing number of girls dropping out of schools, sexual exploitation, early marriages and the selling of young girls to become devdasis or beggars. This year has been the worst by all standards. And it is not expected to get any better in the coming years.
As the women here say, “We’ve always had to buy water, wait in queues or dig and desilt ponds in stream beds. But this year, we’ve had to dig deeper, wait for longer and pay much more for water. Water prices have gone so high that in fact, we’ve decided to use only 40 litres of water for the whole household for two days.”
The situation has reached an alarming level in Latur city and several rural blocks of the district. While the situation in the city has received some media attention, the rural areas of the district are seldom discussed.
The nature and the severity of the drought has changed over time and has wrought unexpected hardship on the people in the area. The cumulative impact of the growing monopoly of sugarcane cropping and the sugar factories, unregulated extraction of groundwater with no efforts to recharge, and the complete absence of policies for equitable distribution of water for basic needs in times of crisis have only worsened the situation.
Drought and women: A story of suffering
Politician and academic, Yogendra Yadav of the political organisation Swaraj Abhiyan, describes the current drought as a multidimensional crisis of life and livelihood . Public policy has failed to guarantee employment and ensure water security, both of which are essential for life and livelihood.
Men are hardly visible in the villages, and women are seen mostly at the water posts, near the tanker or the occasional borewell that runs for not more than two to three hours in a day. The dalit and the nomadic women without any land and water resources are the worst affected by the water mismanagement since they are entirely dependent on the public sources for water. With the closure of enterprises in Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) area in Latur, as well as small and medium enterprises and the construction industry in Latur city, the labour class (mostly dalits, small farmers and landless labourers from neigbouring villages) has no work. This is forcing them to migrate to cities like Pune and Mumbai where they are forced to live in subhuman conditions. While others migrate, the women, particularly the elderly, the single and the widowed, are forced to stay back in the villages to face yet another drought.
As one woman tells us, “We don’t have work anymore. Where will we get the money to buy our water and food? If the government starts relief works, we will definitely go for that work. But with no water and reduced food intake, we don’t even have the energy to work in the sweltering heat. After spending six to seven hours at the water posts, how will we have the time and strength to work?”
There is no work left for the locals here. Even the much awaited MGNREGA (The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) public works scheme has not made inroads in to the region. In Maharashtra, only 32 percent of the villages have initiated some MGNREGA works in the current year . In times of a crisis like this, it is important that the state intervenes and immediately starts relief work and not wait for people to demand work.
The reccurence of the drought has had a debilitating effect on women on both mental and physical levels. The dalit women, who assertively spoke to us about the need for work, also spoke of their poor health and the inability to do hard physical work that paid not more than Rs 181 per day. In fact, as a crisis-mitigation measure, it is important that the women in the households that are fully dependent on the public system be given a survival fund to sail through the trying times.
"We’d rather end our lives!" The downward spiral of microfinance loans
A very unlikely story emerged as we got talking to women in a dalit settlement in Gangapur village of Latur taluk. While farmer suicides are on the rise in these villages, no less alarming is the condition of the toiling landless labourers, in particular the dalit, the nomadic and the landless women who, through various microfinance schemes, have landed in deep debts. Loans were taken to purchase assets for income generation, but the yearly droughts have pushed them into deeper debts .
From Jalswarajya to Jalsuraksha
The Government of Maharashtra has spent over Rs 1200 crores to ensure that a minimum of 40 litres of water per capita per day (LPCD) is served to the villagers. Jalswarajya was a scheme by the government to ensure water sovereignty to the people for at least 20-30 years--the period decided to assess the source viability. Early warnings of source failure in several districts went unheard  and within a few years, the schemes collapsed in every village due to drying up of sources.
Given that 21 districts of Maharashtra (60 percent of the state) are affected by the drought this year, we need to move from Jalswarajya to Jalsuraksha or water security. Water security should be treated on a par with food security, guaranteeing the basic water needs through the public system. Public Distribution System (PDS) should, therefore, include food and water security as a justiciable right.
No water, no Swachh Bharat
The current government has been lauded for its flagship programme Swachh Bharat Abhiyan towards a cleaner environment. 'Toilets for the dignity of women' has been an important slogan of the Abhiyan. Since Swachh Bharat Mission was launched on October 2, 2014, the state has built 13.35 lakh toilets with 6,756 villages, earning these villages the Open Defecation Free (ODF) status. With the lack of access to drinking water, most of these toilets, especially in the Marathwada region, remain unused, affecting the ODF campaign adversely . Moreover, the lack of hygiene has affected the health of the villagers and water-borne diseases are already showing up in the region.
Need for urgent measures
The current crisis situation is likely to prevail for another two to three months at the least. But sustained normalcy will be ensured only if certain long-term measures are taken by the government to stabilise livelihoods. Ironically, the Maharashtra government is in the midst of finalising an Integrated State Water Plan which reflects little on the realities of drought that the state is currently facing.
While the water security legislation takes its time to be implemented, the government should immediately take complete charge of all private wells for the provisioning of basic water needs and regulating and penalising the water mafia.
The state should initiate MGNREGA urgently and stop people from distress migration. A survival fund needs to be provided to the areas facing severe water crisis. All loans including Self Help Group (SHG) loans from banks and Microfinance Institutions (MFI) be restructured based on the RBI guidelines. The repayment schedules must be based on a realistic assessment of women’s capacity to pay.
Politically-motivated water allocation and crop prioritisation as well as unregulated expansion and extraction of groundwater should be stopped. The livelihoods of the poor should be given importance during the planning and it should be based on equitable distribution and sustainable use of water.
‘Sabka Sath, Sabka vikas’ should not just be an election slogan. In the context of severe and recurrent droughts, the state must strongly act in favour of the poor and marginalised women while rolling back powerful vested interests. This must be accompanied by ensuring longer term sustainable solutions.
Until then, the women of Marathwada will continue to face a grim and losing battle for survival.
Seema Kulkarni is a senior researcher at the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management.This article is based on several years of work on women and water in Marathwada and a recent visit to Latur and Osmanabad districts along with Roshan Rathod, a student intern with SOPPECOM, with support from Dr Ramesh Jare and Dr. Sampat Kale, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the India Water Portal.
1. Yadav Yogendra (2016) The season of scorching ironies. The Hindu, May 5, 2016.
2. Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India (2016) The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005.
3. Kulkarni Seema (2016) Droughts and debts: the plight of Bharat Mata in Marathwada. Scroll.in, May 28, 2016.
4. Water Supply and Sanitation Department (2010) Chapter II: Performance Review on “Jalswarajya Project in Maharashtra”.
5. Shaikh Atikh Rashid (2016) Maharashtra water crisis drags 'Open defecation free villages' back to the fields. The Indian Express, May 22, 2016.