August 02, 2020
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School Is A Dry Lesson In Life

When drought forces parents to seek work in cities, children become the water-bearers

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School Is A Dry Lesson In Life
Piryanka fetches water in Malegaon village, Parbhani district.
Photograph by Amit Haralkar
School Is A Dry Lesson In Life


Priyanka Chavan is barely nine, studies in Std III and when we catch up with her, has no time to talk as she purses her lips and rushes with a plastic kalshi full of water from the tanker to the family’s one-room, patched mud house. She rushes back and forth and makes several trips. Curiously, Malegaon village, where she lives, is close to Yeldari dam, the second largest in Marath­wada. The beautiful Purna river spreads over a vast expanse and is quite soothing to our urban eyes, though people say the water level is way too low.

Priyanka settles to talk, chirpily and full of confidence, only after she has ensured that in the absence of her grandmother, who has gone to the market, she has stored as much water as she could. Her parents have been away for several months now, working as daily-wagers near Pune. But her aunt is here after her delivery, taking care of a month-old infant.

“It’s okay. I can do this. I only get irritated when I get pushed around because I am small. Sometimes, I get bored of walking to the well, but it is okay actually,” she says trying to sound like an adult.

The village gets a tanker once in three days, and more often than not, women end up spending hours at a nearby well, over a kilometre away, trying to fetch a couple of pots from the deep, near-empty water source. Other girls and boys, shy and curious at the same time, gather around and prompt her about vacations and a new computer in school. For them, filling water is just another extra-curricular activity in the summer vacation and they seem to have accepted it, for there are no better options, really.

Parbhani is one of the better-off districts in Marathwada. Although endowed with more water sources than other parched regions, Parbhani too has been gripped by drought and water scarcity. In village after village, people speak of even more limited water supply in the next three to 10 days. Often, people are dependent on the goodwill of private owners.

Latur city, which has now made it to int­ernational news, has been getting potable water once in a month in the taps. People say the last time they got water once in a week was around Diwali. They now receive less than half the amount of the water the region needs by the now-famous water  train. At the water tank, people queue up for hours and hours. It is getting dark and the heat is just about bearable.

Disha Kasbe, who could pass off as Priyanka’s little sister, has not attended school (which was shut due to water scarcity) for the past four months, even as she remains confused about whether she will repeat Std I or will be promoted to Std II the coming June. Her mother Sarita, her siblings and at least three to four more family members have been hanging around the tank, waiting for their turn for three hours. Their turn is likely to come after four more hours, if everything goes off smoothly.

They all work whenever they can as garbage or scrap workers. Whenever they can—that’s the key. “If we are here till 2 pm, I still try to go, but sometimes we are here all day,” says Anusuya, an older relative. “First we were known for the earthquake. Now, we are in the news for water. But can you get us water? We will pose all you want.”

And this is still Latur city, which now gets 50 wagons of water daily from the train.

Cut to Banshelki Lake, created in 1962 for a population of 30,000, in Udgir, Latur district, near the Karnataka border. With people grazing goats and cows on the lake bed, it looks more like a cracked, parched patch of land, not a water body. Udgir, one of the severely affected areas, is not served by the water train. It relies on tankers sent by the state government, and the town gets about eight tankers daily.

Things are worse if one looks carefully. Shantabai and Manisha Khedkar not only have to fill water here at the tank, but also wash their clothes. They will dry the clothes, collect water for drinking and take it home with them.

Discrimination works even in crisis—though cynics say it’s only to be expected. Muslims and Dalits often find their side of the village getting less water.

“We can’t afford to buy water. That’s why we have to be here,” says Janabai Pawar. And that is one of the most important issues at this moment. There are several long-term issues that need to be tackled, such as water-table depletion, excessive sinking of borewells, deforestation, the sugarcane industry, water for the beverage industry, little or no implementation of scores of schemes for water conservation and rainwater harvesting. But the monetisation and commercialisation of the water business perhaps is the most urgent and disturbing development.

“It is not that water is not available, it is available for those who can pay Rs 200-5,000,” says Ranga Rachure, an activist who had taken part in relief work during the 1972 drought too. At the hotels visited by Outlook, there were no obvious signs of water scarcity or conservation or any requests to guests to use water carefully.

A recent plush wedding of a politician’s son, where bottled water was distributed to couple of thousand guests, got some people upset but there was no real outrage. “When I come to the hotel for my shift, I feel like showering etc, but when I am at home, just across the street, I don’t even feel like gargling, because you feel that you are wasting water,” says a young waiter. “The options are between half a litre of milk or one litre of water. The price of both is Rs 20. What will you choose? Is that even a choice?” he says.

A water train chugs into Latur as a symbol of hope—and helplessness

Photograph by Amit Haralkar

Activists say it is the poor and the minorities—such as Dalits and Muslims—that are most affected. The same grievance was voiced in Malegaon, Parbhani, by Siddharth Chavan, who says that the “other side” of the village gets a tanker daily but their side only gets one in three to four days. Similar concerns were voiced by the minorities in Udgir, which has a sizeable Muslim population.  

How did it get so bad though? Most people say this year has been the culmination of four years of drought, severe dry spells for two years and, of course, lack of administrative or political will.  

“July last year recorded the lowest rainfall in 135 years in Parbhani, which is called the Punjab of Maharashtra (for its adequate rainfall and crop). That apart, it was clear that rainfall was insufficient in all of Marathwada by July itself. By October 30, all the reservoir levels were known, which means the government knew exactly how much water was available till June 2016. By December, all requisitions for water requirement should have been sent, so that arrangements were made. None of this happened,” says Rajan Kshirsagar, an environmentalist in Parbhani.

“Maharashtra has the largest number of dams in the country. But our percolation tanks have become evaporation tanks. Groundwater management needs to be done in consultation with a soil scientist and a geologist. There is no design. India is not the only place which faces drought, but one never hears of water being supplied by tanker in Australia or California. More than 60 per cent of the water is wasted through leakages,” says Atul Deulgaonkar, an expert and writer. He says chief minister Devendra Fadnavis himself was acquainted with the grim situation in September but no concrete steps were taken.

One major problem is that water schemes hardly get implemented. Rachure explained that if one scheme exists on paper, then another does not even start. A government official says municipal corporations in cities such as Latur, Jalna, Beed are simply not equipped to handle rapid urbanisation.

“Once it rains, all is forgotten,” says Deulgaonkar. But if it doesn’t, the vicious cycle is set—poor rainfall, and more imp­ortantly, poor irrigation, leads to crop loss and migration (chiefly of the landless) to the cities, which are mismanaged anyway. As if to make matters worse, migrant labourers thronging the outskirts of Pune, Mumbai and Nashik don’t find jobs—construction jobs, usually available readily, are hard to come by because of the downturn in the real estate business. Daily wages have dropped from Rs 500 to Rs 200. Farmer suicides are climbing: around 40 deaths related to water scarcity have been reported.

There’s no check on sinking borewells either: the law prohibits sinking borewells deeper than 200 feet, but in Latur and Beed, they have been sunk to as deep as 1,000 feet.

And there’s no decision yet on restricting water-intensive sectors. There may be disagreement on whether sugarcane can be blamed squarely and if removing sugarcane, the only assured cash crop, is the solution for people who are dependent on it, but there is unanimous agreement on one thing. No matter which party, the therapy has at best been symptomatic and even now there is little seriousness about taking a long-term view. People are referring to the CM’s flagship scheme jalyukta shivar yojana as the JCB yukta shivar yojana, expecting little outcome.

Despite being denied the fundamental right of access to potable water, people are tired but quiet. Many say that if they get water once in a week, they will be happy. The acceptance and internalisation is a worrying sign, say activists who work in the suicide-affected families. There haven’t been too many protests.

Next to Bulegaon storage lake, which has recently been built (though the board announcing the project is rusted, faded and nearly gone!), Sushilabai explains a disturbing irony. “We used to work as labourers on farms, but crops have failed for two to three years. So there is no work. Even in cities, it is not good. That’s why we have all the time to look for water and get it bit by bit. It takes up the whole day and there is no money but there is nothing else to do. Let’s see if it rains.”

The first lesson of economics is said to be scarcity: there is never enough of anything that everyone wants to have. And the first lesson of politics truly seems to be to disregard the first lesson of economics.

By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Latur, Beed & Aurangabad


Kothur, in Maha­bubnagar district, houses the largest Amazon war­e­h­ouse in India and a Procter & Gamble factory. Barely 5 km away is Penjerla, a village where women have to trek at least four kilometres every day to fetch water.

Pravalika Arrolla, a 14-year-old Madiga (a Dalit caste), spends half the day collecting water in the scorching heat. Balancing her steel vessel on one slender shoulder as she sets out on her first water round, Pravalika says she is a Std X student. She and her 17-year-old sister Mounika have come to accept frequent bodyache as part of their lot.

They bathe on alternate days and drink the water they fetch from the only functional borewell in the village, which is INS­ide a farm. “We do it on the sly when the caretaker is away. The water comes in fits and starts, and we have to wait patiently for the vessels to get filled,” says Pravalika.

Mounika, who studies at the Shamshabad Infant Jesus Junior College, says her parents had a tough time during her exams as she couldn’t help out by fetching water.

The girls’ parents cannot till their land.. “They have to work as daily-wagers in nearby factories,” says Pravalika.

Pravalika and Mounika, of Penjerla village, Mahabubnagar district

Photograph by K.R. Vinayan

Some women have to make extra trips to fetch water for their cattle as well. “I would be lucky to bathe once in four days,” says Amrutha Erlapalli, a woman in her 40s. “My knees and calves hurt all the time and I have many skin problems. The rich look down upon us, saying we are unwashed and dirty, but they never bother to ask why.”

Panchayat member and farmer Jagan Arrolla rues that no water tankers are sent to the village. The lack of alternatives has led to a spate of borewell-digging in Penjerla. “But not a drop of water has come from the 18 borewells that have been dug so far,” says Jagan. “That leaves us no option but to steal water from the only functioning borewell in the village. We don’t know when that too will run dry.”

By Madhavi Tata

Madhya Pradesh

Damoh, in the Bundelkhand reg­ion, is the home district of Jayant Malaiya, the water resources minister of Madhya Pradesh. But while ministers have come and gone, there has been no change in the last 30 years that people here can recall.

Tammana Khan, 14, lives in the Sho­bhapur locality. A student of Std VI, her father is a kabadiwala, who deals in stuff people throw away. He leaves home early, pushing his handcart and returns in the evening, thoroughly exhausted. Some days, he comes home dead drunk.

Tammana has not been to school for the last one-and-a-half months. She misses her school but there is no way she can attend. Her mother is a housewife and she and her younger brother are responsible for arranging water for the family.

The small pond in her locality has dried up. The municipal taps run dry. But she is forever alert, waiting for news of any functional handpump. Whenever she gets information about one that works, she sets off on her bicycle, plastic buckets—actually old paint containers with ‘Asian Paints’ and ‘Nerolac Plastic Paint’ printed across them—hanging from the handle of her bicycle. The buckets are her father’s gift, retrieved from the junk he peddles.

Tamanna Khan of Damoh, MP, hasn’t been to school for a few months now

Photograph by Abhishek Gautam

In the blazing sun, the mercury climbing beyond 42 degrees centigrade, she cycles to any handpump that happens to work. Her brother goes with her to work the pump. The children try to make sure not one drop is wasted as they pedal back home to pour the water into bronze gundis (pots)—and then it’s yet another trip.

It takes 3-4 trips to ensure the family has enough. But by the time she’s through, she’s too tired to think of anything—leave alone the books lying uncared for in a corner of their two-room tenement.

The next morning brings with it fresh rounds. School and studies are, of course, far from her mind. A week back, she had to be admitted to the district hospital. She was dehydrated following a bout of loose motion and vomiting, presumably due to extended exposure to heat. But she has no time to rest. She knows water is essential for the entire family and she is the one who has to make sure they get enough.

By K.S. Shaini

Jammu and Kashmir

For 15-year-old Setu, the day beg­INS at 4 am. That’s when she starts on a long and tortuous trek through treacherous footholds and rugged ravines under the fading stars. She returns home three hours later with a water pitcher on her head and a bucket in her hand. The Class X student has to miss school every time she needs to fetch water for a second time in the day. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, she gives a bewildered look before replying slowly—and perhaps sardonically—that she would just keep fetching water.

Setu is not alone in her plight. All her friends in the village, Paddal, do the same routine. Some of them have internet acc­ess on their mobile phones, but safe drinking water is a far cry. Drinking water scarcity is an everyday reality in the arid and rocky Kandi area of Jammu.

As an old local saying goes, it is better to ask for milk rather than water.

Girls of Paddal village, Jammu, stare into a well that’s nearly blind

Photograph by Ankur Sethi

The sapping and inescapable chore is one of the reasons why Setu’s friend Sapna, for instance, could not go to college after passing the Class XII exam—quite a feat here—and is now pursuing graduation through distance education.

The village is perched atop a hill. River Devika at the foothill stays dry most of the year, but villagers keep digging pits in the riverbed hoping to find the elusive water. During the dry months, the villagers lay charpoys around the wells at night to bide for their turn to fill vessels.

During the rains, the river is transformed into a raging surge of water. So the villagers wait and wait for the rains—hoping they’ll be able to collect water dripping from their tin roofs.

The girls not only risk their lives and limbs on the slippery slopes, they need to be wary of snakes, and the occasional python and leopard. But while they manage to collect water for household chores, for drinking water they have to depend on the same rivulets where animals too gather to quench their thirst.

“You will hardly find any girl or woman here who weighs above 40 kg,” says Chatur Singh, a retired subedar in the army. “By the time the women are in their late 20s, many of them are already suffering from thinning hair, bald patches, joint pain and stomach ailments. Last year, the villagers celebrated....because their long-standing demand of getting the area declared ‘backward’ had been fulfilled! But there has been little change despite that tag. The public health engineering department had laid pipes 25 years ago but the villagers rarely get supply water.”

Villagers claim Rs 60 lakh was spent on setting up a tubewell and laying of pipes in 2014. However, the project was abandoned due to faulty site selection.

In January 2013, Nirmal Singh, now deputy chief minister, had posted some pictures from a remote village in Kathua district on Facebook, lamenting the lack of basic amenities such as drinking water and road connectivity in the region. Describing a photograph of himself with a bearded man with silver locks, he wrote: “Shri Beli Ram ji has not worn shoes or chappals since 2004 when the NDA govt. lost the general election.” After the BJP wrested power at the Centre and then in the state, he went back to the village and gifted Beli Ram a pair of shoes. Maybe for the trek. For, the villagers continue to wait for drinking water and roads.

By Ashutosh Sharma in Jammu

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