In June 2021, UNDP felicitated 41 Women Water Champions for their remarkable contributions to water conservation efforts in the country. The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) is proud to share that, out of the 41 champions identified, five women - Pareshamma, Sarju Bai, Sagni Bai, Laichi Bai, and Gayatri Sharma - are from FES project areas in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Here, we share the story of Laichi Bai Uike, whose efforts to bring about transparency in MGNREGS payments not only helped restore commons but also the faith of the communities in their local governance systems.
“If there is no water, there is no life. That is why we conserve water wherever and in whichever way we can. We don’t need any external help. We have to save water for ourselves, so we make the effort to do it. When we make boribunds, it is not only for us but also for the livestock and wild animals from the forest who drink that water,” says Laichi Bai Uike, a marginal farmer.
She lives in Umarwada, a village in the Bichhiya Block, Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, which has faced several challenges of water scarcity in the past. The entire village depended on a single well, where women had to queue up for hours to get drinking water. Another source of water for domestic and livestock needs was the stream flowing at the periphery of the village, but this would dry up during the summer, leaving the community with no source of water during these critical months.
The people in her village had earlier undertaken water conservation efforts such as the construction of boribunds on streams but were not compensated with due wages under MGNREGS by the Panchayat, due to corruption in payment processes. This discouraged any water conservation efforts in the community, worsening the situation.
Seeing the low motivation within the community, Laichi Bai, a marginal farmer from the village, decided to lead by example and undertook the creation of boribunds on the stream near her own agricultural land so as to harvest the water. She managed to hold the Panchayat accountable and get the wages due for this work under MGNREGS. Seeing this, others in the village too expressed their interest to work. However, with corruption in payments being a major challenge, many people did not receive their payments even after repeated interactions with the local administration.
Determined to bring about a systemic change in her village, she ran for the position of one of the Panchs in the village. She won the elections with the support of the community and used her tenure to diligently work for bringing transparency in the Panchayat’s dealings.
In 2016, after being elected as the Vice-President of the Natural Resource Management Committee of the village, Laichi Bai encouraged the people to undertake boribund construction in the streams of the village. Initially, people were hesitant especially because there was no payment for the same, but she went from door to door explaining to each household the importance of harvesting and conserving water and convinced them for shramdaan (voluntary labour) as it would lead to greater community ownership of the initiative. She also mobilized women to come forward and lead the water conservation efforts.
Due to her persistent efforts, boribunds are now being built across the village every year. The village community has access to water for their household needs and livestock, especially during the water-crisis months of summer. Women do not have to walk long distances in order to fetch water. Furthermore, the materials required to undertake the creation of boribunds are now being mobilized from the corpus fund of the village institution itself.
Under the leadership of Laichi Bai, the women of the village are now actively participating in Gram Sabha meetings, demanding and ensuring accountability from the Panchayat functionaries. They are thinking of undertaking community fishery in their common pond which will again help in improving the management of water commons, while also boosting the community’s nutritional security. They are also on their way to managing other commons in their village, such as forests.