Hill women share a special intricate and culturally nurtured connection to forest and water, making them better stewards or owners of their resources. This demands their participation beyond the right-based “beneficiary” approach, recognizing their accumulated knowledge and resilient and adaptive capacities in the recently contested discourse of springshed development and governance in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR).
On the morning of June 10, 2021, women from the two habitations of Tyarsun village of Champavat district (Uttarakhand) came together to finish the regular maintenance work in lands managed by the Van Panchayat (Village Forest Council), an autonomous local institution having legally demarcated village forests. At the onset of the monsoon, these women were preparing their forest to hold more and more water.
Their volunteer work before the monsoon includes - collecting dry pine leaves, chopping off unwanted saplings of invasive pine trees, reshaping the round trenches around newly planted oak saplings and clearing the debris and mud from the contour trenches to prepare them to soak and infiltrate more water into the ground.
When asked about the connection of forest and water, Geeta Devi says – “they cannot exist without each other, and we cannot without them. Forest gives everything, grass, fuelwood, fruits, and most importantly, water. They keep water alive in the spring and this water is the lifeline of our village. Our ancestors kept the forest and spring alive for the next generation and we ought to do the same.” One of the women started humming songs of forest in Kumauni language and other women joined her while doing their work.
Women of Tyarsun village had been facing acute water scarcity for more than a decade now, owing to reduced discharge in the spring, the only water source. According to these women, villagers and outside businessmen cut the forest for timber which has degraded the forest.
Moreover, the rainfall pattern is changing due to climate change, which led to reduced discharge in the spring (naula). Degraded landscape and increased frequency of intense rains has further exacerbated the loss of indigenous forest system and water in the springs and streams. The burden of collecting water from sources lies mainly with women, and this has led to extra drudgery for them. The added drudgery and connection to the forest could bring the women of two habitations together, despite their caste barriers, to conserve the forest and spring.
BAIF Development and Research Foundation, Pune initiated the work of springshed development in the region in 2017 as a part of the project “Climate-smart actions and strategies in North Western Himalayan region for sustainable livelihoods of agriculture-dependent hill communities” funded under the Adaptation Fund Board (AFB) of UNFCC and NABARD, technically supported by HESCO.
Interventions adopted were – participatory hydrogeological studies to identify recharge areas, soil water conservation technique on recharge area, community-based data monitoring systems, setting up social protocol to conserve and protect the area, benefit-sharing protocols for equitable water distribution and setting up an informal institution like Pey Jal Samiti (Water Users’ Group).
Pey Jal Samiti, is an executive body, 100 per cent represented by women members and has played a pivotal role in spring conservation in a sustainable manner. The institutional arrangement in the form of Pey Jal Samiti in collaboration with the existing Van Panchayat Samitis could lead to sustained efforts of conservation, inclusion and equitable distribution.
BAIF had undertaken the task of rejuvenation in 10 villages, reviving 17 springs, covering around 185 ha lands under soil water conservation and forest rejuvenation. The spring discharges were observed to be increased by two-three folds at an average increasing the water security for these villages.
There are several such anecdotal pieces of evidence from all over the Himalayan region, where these hill women led the efforts for forest, water and spring revival and protection. The women from Nagaland could revive 99 springs in collaboration with North East Initiative Development Agency (NEIDA) and state government, the women from Uttarakhand must have revived more than 1000 springs in collaboration with organizations such as People’s Science Institute, CHIRAG, Himmothan, ACWADAM, etc.
In many states, local communities have been supported and facilitated either by non-profit organizations, government, or both to successfully implement the springshed development. Some of the best practices have been documented by NITI Aayog too.
Springshed development to revive the dying springs in the country has recently been taking ground in the policy arena in India. As per a rough estimate, there are five million springs across India, out of which nearly 3 million are in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) alone.
Despite the key role that they play in drinking water security for 90% of the population of IHR, springs have not received their due attention and are today facing the threat of drying up, acknowledges the NITI Aayog’s working group. Hence, a national program on springshed development to revive 3 million springs across 10 states of the Himalayan region has been under consideration since 2019.
NITI Aayog’s report acknowledges the importance of participation of local communities with particular attention to women as they are the main beneficiaries in the springshed development. “The drudgery of women is particularly worth mentioning here; when village springs run dry, women are forced to manually carry water from springs below their village during the lean season (page 6). Since women are the most important stakeholder, a conscious effort is made to form women-led water users’ group and involve them in recharge activities and decision-making process (page 47),” the report states.
The resource book on springshed management developed by NITI Aayog and IWMI adopts a Gender-Equity-Socially Inclusive (GESI) framework for the implementation for improved benefit sharing and sustainability. The GESI framework was first proposed by UN-Women Nepal’s working group, a strategy in achieving equal opportunities for the different segments of society is based on theories of “inequality and exclusion”.
Likewise, ICIMOD proposes “Gender-responsive intervention in springshed management”. Gender-responsive policies are directed to consider and address the different situations, roles, needs and interests of different genders concerning the policy. In all the various approaches proposed under springshed development, the inherent “inequality” and “exclusion” concerning women remain at the centre of discussions.
The discourse of women in springshed development is very young but rooted in the long history of “women in water governance”. It will take many more years to mature this discourse as global and national policies on women in water governance will keep influencing the specific policies on springshed development. Hence, it is worth to briefly revisit the history of women in water governance, so that spaces for women's participation in springshed development and governance mechanism can be created in better and more practical ways.
Globally, the participation, decentralization and inclusive policies opened up the spaces for women participation in governance around 1970-80 and in water governance around 1990.
In 1992, for the first time, the importance of women in water governance was recognized in the Dublin conference on “Water and Environment”. The guiding principles that emerged from this conference recognized the essential role of women in water management.
Principle 3 of the Dublin Statement establishes that “women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water”, and therefore, positive policies need to be adopted not only to address the specific needs of women with regard to water but also to empower them to participate “at all levels in water resources programs, including decision-making and implementation.”
These efforts around water governance have been demanding the gender equity and active participation of women in the management and conservation of these resources.
The UN policy brief on ‘Gender and Water’ too outlines the importance of women in water governance from two perspectives - first, the gendered role of women in taking care of household needs and water fetching created the gendered inequality (women being a victim) and second, recognizing their accumulated knowledge about water resources over centuries (women being the custodian of knowledge). The women's participation based on first understanding is a right-based approach but remains at the level of tokenizing the participation in decision making as “beneficiary”.
The second understanding demands that women being custodians of the knowledge, are more legitimate stewards/owners of the water resources and hence their participation should not remain mere at the level of “means” (i.e., participation to accomplish the aims of the project more efficiently, effectively or cheaply) but “ends” (where the community or group sets up a process to control its own development).
Seema Kulkarni traces the history of women and water governance in India in a paper published in 2011. Historically, the discussion around women and water governance is embedded in the vibrant women's movement around 1970-80 which recognized the importance of women in the development and led to pro-women legislations.
Following the decentralization in water governance during 1990, women’s participation is seen as integral to these new institutions, partly because of the international discourse on right-based approaches shaping global policy agendas but largely because women are seen as best suited to manage the scarce water resources.
The notion of representation and participation of women in the public sphere has served women, who did not otherwise possess a public voice and identity to demand that their points of view be heard. But the implementation of these policies remains fragmented and non-cohesive due to the societal and political fabric of the country.
In the last decade, women’s knowledge around the vital resources, landscape, ecology, climate, and the social and political regime is being discussed. It establishes that such knowledge also makes them more adaptive and resilient to environmental changes around them. Throughout the world, women are intrinsically linked to water resources because of their roles and responsibilities in using and managing water.
In many indigenous cultures, women have a special and distinct relationship to water, which is rooted in cultural beliefs, social practices, and economic contexts as well as women’s role in reproduction. In Canadian indigenous culture, women are considered as “water-keepers” and “care-takers” because of their intricate and spiritual connection with the water.
Even in the Kumauni culture of Uttarakhand from where the case study has been documented, springs are considered so auspicious that newly wedded brides were taken to the local spring (naula) before even setting foot in their new homes and this is how a woman begins her new life after marriage. Despite these special connections with water resources, these women have often been excluded from discussion and decisions about water management worldwide.
There will be inherent fear that women's participation in springshed development may be constrained by such tokenized participation and social and political constructs, as exhibited in the history of the country’s water governance, whereas the stories of these hill women depict the intricately woven and culturally nurtured connection to water. Though there are progress and strides to mark and celebrate in bringing women to water governance and in springshed development, there is still a need to bring them to the centre of discourse in a more dignified manner.
There is a need to acknowledge them beyond “beneficiary” and to bring their accumulated knowledge into the discussion of water governance, recognizing their amazing resilient and adaptive capacities and regard them as steward/owner of these water resources. If the government of India is serious about their plan to revive over three million springs in 10 hills states, bringing the women to the centre of springshed development and governance in such a manner will be a humungous task for all other stakeholders.
Seema Ravandale is an ex-employee of People’s Science Institute, Dehradun. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s in environmental conservation (MS ECo) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst USA as a Fulbright Scholar with a special research focus on water governance and community participation.
BAIF Development and Research Foundation, Pune for facilitating the study tour in June 2021 in 10 villages of Champavat district Uttarakhand.