Borewells: Boon or bane for women?
A study shows that although borewells have improved women’s access to water in the short term, they have increased water insecurity and the suffering of women in the long term.
Collecting water, a daily backbreaking task of women. (Image Source: India Water Portal)

Tamil Nadu is one of the most water-vulnerable states in India that depends heavily on groundwater for irrigation. As high as 56 percent of land in the state is currently irrigated by groundwater and the remaining by tanks and canals. The provision of subsidies by the state government for irrigation and loans for deepening of existing borewells and construction of new ones have turned borewells into a main source of water for irrigation. This has encouraged farmers to extract groundwater by drilling deeper and deeper.

How has this proliferation of borewells affected intra-household relations, particularly the gendered division of labour and use of assets in the state? The paper Wells and wellbeing in south India: Gender dimensions of groundwater dependence published in the Economic and Political Weekly presents the findings of a study conducted in two villages in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.

The study finds that:

Borewells increase incomes but burden women

Having access to fully functioning borewells has helped to secure uninterrupted water supply, allowing farmers to grow crops of their choice, increasing both productivity and incomes. However, this has had variable implications on gendered well-being, varying across class and caste.

Borewells have increased women's access to water and relieved them of the burden of carrying water from long distances. But this has not, however, relieved them of their work burden in other tasks. This is because the expansion of groundwater irrigation has led to a shift in cropping systems and crop management practices from rain-fed food and fodder crops such as jowar, pearl millet, foxtail millet and ragi to high-value and high-risk perennial cash crops such as banana, turmeric, jasmine, tobacco, and curry leaf that are water and labour intensive.

With more opportunities for men outside the farms, women have had to take up this additional burden in agriculture. Engaging in physically strenuous work has taken a toll on women’s health and many women have been found to be suffering from chronic back pain. More reliance on cash crops has also compromised the nutritional status of women and other family members due to the lack of availability of traditional foods. Use of dairy products in the kitchen has also reduced affecting women and girls negatively as cash crops have led to the reduction in fodder for cattle, traditionally looked after by women and used for enhancing nutritional status at the household level.

Lack of labour availability and participation in agricultural activities have, however, helped women to be in a better position to negotiate their wages.

Failing borewells worsen women’s situation

While borewells have been looked upon as symbols of wealth and prosperity and an embodiment of economic aspirations, the situation is changing fast. Borewells are also increasing indebtedness and financial stress as increasing water scarcity is leading to more and more failed borewells forcing farmers to dig deeper. The total cost of digging a borewell in Tamil Nadu averages between Rs 1,00,000 and Rs 1,50,000, which is a big amount taking into consideration the average monthly income of families, which is around Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000. Failing borewells are increasing stress on families who are borrowing more and more.

Indebtedness in the region has pushed men to migrate in search of work. More and more women are engaging in jobs outside the farm and home with few engaging in MGNREGA work and agricultural labour or both. Most of these jobs have been found to be locally available and convenient but physically demanding and less paid. Women’s personal assets such as gold are also pawned in the process of securing more debts for digging borewells. Thus, failed borewells are also leading to an increase in poverty and pauperisation increasing women’s burden and affecting their health.

Women still have to depend on men for water

The boring of wells is seen as a strongly masculine process and decisions regarding getting a new borewell are mostly taken by men in the household. Women rarely take an active role in decision making with regard to boring, although the work burden of irrigation often lies on them.

While men prefer to depend on borewells that symbolise success and economic prosperity, women prefer to invest in small businesses or in assets such as land rather than borewells which they perceive as a gamble that could result in ?nancial ruin.

Many-a-time, failed borewells lead to financial stress. Since it is associated with the male member's decision on well boring, it causes strain in marital relationships in some instances. Men frequently resort to drinking to cope with their frustration caused due to failed borewells and mounting debt burdens and sometimes this also leads to violence at the household level.

While men are increasingly contributing both cash and labour to ensure availability of water for domestic use at the household level and acknowledging the importance of water for domestic chores, they are still the main decision-makers with respect to water provision and women have to depend on men to get access to water.

The study shows that household well being is inextricably tied to groundwater in Tamil Nadu and is being seriously threatened by depletion of the resource in the region. As the depth of borewells increase, the number of failed borewells also increase. As the cost of water increases, women are being forced to invest more time in collecting water from other sources, such as public standpipes. Water has to be bought from tankers in dry months. Since water comes at a price, it has to be used judiciously.

In spite of this precarious state of groundwater in Tamil Nadu, there is no regulation on its use. A Groundwater Regulation Bill passed in 2003 included provisions for the setting up of the Tamil Nadu Groundwater Authority. In 2013, the act was repealed, and no further progress has been made.

As water resources continue to be threatened by climate change, the need for enforcement of regulation on drilling is critical. Women continue to be in a disadvantaged position under these circumstances and require the support of male family members to meet their groundwater needs.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from below:

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