Women’s involvement in participatory water institutions in Eastern India

A study finds that women’s participation in water management institutions continues to be low in India in spite of the important role that they play in agriculture and irrigation.
Women, neglected stakeholders in water management (Photocredit: Makarand Purohit for India Water Portal) Women, neglected stakeholders in water management (Photocredit: Makarand Purohit for India Water Portal)

Women, major contributors in agriculture and irrigation

Women constitute a major workforce in agriculture with 75 percent of them, as compared to 59 percent men, working in the agricultural sector in India. Barring ploughing, a major share of agricultural work such as paddy transplanting, weeding, harvesting, sowing, and threshing is carried out by women along with allied activities like rearing of livestock and poultry, milking, milk processing, selling of chicken and eggs etc. Women also participate substantially in the construction and maintenance of irrigation systems.

Women work for as long as 14-18 hours on an average daily and expend more total energy a day as compared to men. However, they are often paid less than men and women’s participation in household and agricultural decision-making continues to be poor.

Women, neglected stakeholders in water management

Women have substantial involvement and stake in domestic and agricultural water use. However, women's perspectives and roles in water management continue to be ignored while framing policies and programmes.

For example, the National Water Policies of India—1987, 2002, and 2012—do not give significant importance to concerns related to gender. The National Policy for Women 2016 however, acknowledges the role played by women in agriculture and highlights the importance of legal provisions to ensure women’s rights over land. The policy also recognises that lack of availability of water increases the burden on women and highlights the need for designing gender sensitive programmes and projects keeping in view women as water users. It also suggests the need for involvement and training of women in initiatives on conserving and utilising water.

However, very few studies exist that explore the role that women play in managing water institutions, and the women's perceptions of the benefits they gain and limitations they face while managing water institutions in India. A study titled 'Gender perspective in water management: The involvement of women in participatory water institutions of eastern India' published in the journal Water examines the extent, nature and factors affecting women's involvement in participatory irrigation management institutions in eastern India, namely Assam and Bihar.

Assam and Bihar have abundant water resources as compared to other parts of the country and have been implementing participatory irrigation management (PIM) since the 1990s. The PIM Acts of Bihar and Assam are similar, and both states mandate an institutional structure for different functions and the levels of devolution. Under the Acts the Water User Association (WUA) structure includes central level committees (CLCs) and village level committees (VLCs).

The study examined the functioning of selected Water User Associations (WUAs) from both states keeping in mind the diversity of existing irrigation systems and geographic locations. Indepth interviews of women and men in the villages were also conducted as a part of the study.

The study found that

  • Involvement of women in farm household decision making was very low. Most decisions were made by men, with the exception of decisions such as bringing more land under irrigation, crops to grow under irrigation, when to irrigate, payment of irrigation fees, and the spending of additional income, which were undertaken jointly.
  • Inclusion of women in the Water User Associations (WUAs) was very low, but showed differences by states with Bihar showing higher inclusion of women in the VLC and CLC general bodies. This was because inclusion of a woman member is mandatory in Bihar and not so in Assam. This shows that rules such as mandatory inclusion can make a substantial difference in inclusion.
  • Involvement of women in WUA decisions and activities was also found to be very low with women having no say in matters dealing with water distribution, pricing, maintenance, and action on misusers. Women had some say in matters dealing with fee collection, assessment of water supply/demand, monitoring water use, and decisions related to investment in structure/equipment. Women in Bihar were found to be more involved in decisions related to structural investment, fee collection, and voicing their needs as compared to those in Assam. .
  • Participation of women in WUA meetings was very low and only men participated and made all the decisions related to farm and water management. Women were found to lack confidence to attend and participate in the meetings, prioritised housework over meetings, often needed permission from their husbands, felt restricted due to cultural and traditional familial practices, could not travel to the place of the meeting due to long distances and unsuitable timings, lacked control over money to travel and faced safety concerns to attend meetings. Older women were more influenced by social and cultural barriers preventing them from attending meetings while lack of interest was the major factor among younger women to avoid coming for the meetings.
  • Efforts made at the institutional level to facilitate participation of women however did help in making it easy for women to participate as in the state of Bihar, where rules and systems to ensure participation of women encouraged women to attend meetings.
  • Although a large percentage of women were comfortable playing leading roles in water management, their representation in leadership roles continued to be inadequate.
  • Women felt that formal participation in water institutions would not only help them achieve better status and respect in the society, but also help them improve their knowledge of water management, develop their ability to change rules that limited their participation, and better water management. The women respondents felt that WUAs had a positive impact on the village, and did help to change the situation of lower castes, small and marginal farmers, lower-income groups, and wage earners, but had little positive impact on women, allied activities, tail use farmers and youth.
  • Men and women differed significantly in their views regarding organisational matters and efficient functioning of the WUAs

The paper ends by arguing that while women experience a number of barriers in participating in water management institutions, the inclusion of women in government schemes, training programmes and education related to water management would be an important way to bring about gender equality and encourage women’s participation in water institutions.

Mandatory inclusion of women in the WUA executive committees would also greatly help in overcoming this handicap. Women’s views differ from those of men on many matters related to efficient functioning of water management institutions. Encouraging involvement of women will greatly help to add new ideas and views to the discussions on water management and lead to better outcomes for the society and the economy.

A copy of the paper can be accessed here

Note: This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Khandker et al (2020) ' Gender perspective in water management: The involvement of women in participatory water institutions of eastern india', Water, 12, 196.

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