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 •  Interview : Nafisaben Barot
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A case study of women's rights over drinking water resources in Raisangadh village in Ahmedabad district
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January 2001: The geographic region of Bhal covers parts of four districts of Gujarat. This case study refers to the coastal Bhal, an area bordering the gulf of Khambhat on its western shores. In the local language, Bhal means forehead. It stands for a topography as flat as saline and as barren as a forehead. The region suffers from a hostile geo-climatic environment, highly saline shallow ground water, erratic monsoon rains, exploitation of poor by high castes, and out migration. All these problems have rendered living conditions very difficult.

During 1981-1994, Utthan had helped and supported the emergence of a community based group called Mahiti, in Bhal. Through highly facilitative community mobilization and organizational work, Utthan and Mahiti were able to initiate a women's movement in Bhal focused around the issue of access to safe and regular supply of drinking water. This movement graduated to create such a powerful pressure on the local state level bureaucracy the even the hardened policy makers had to sit back and take serious notice of it.

During that time, providing drinking water to far flung settlements through pipelines was accepted as the only public distribution system all over the country. But the women in Bhal pressurized the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB) to approve a project that sought to promote decentralized rain water harvesting structures such as plastic lined ponds, roof water collection tanks, etc, in the villages of Bhal.

One positive outcome of such community organizational processes was that it in turn inspired another small but noteworthy and successful social protest by women. This protest was directed against exploitative indigenous money lending system run by the Darbars - the most powerful and by nature a violent caste in the area. As a result not only did the money lending system of the Darbars crumble against the pressure but it gave the women a very good opportunity to organize themselves into vibrant community groups that acquired ownership rights over all forms of resources that they had learnt to augment and manage.

In 1996, the village of Raisangadh, a typical Bhal village, was struck by a blatant water theft by the neighboring village, Cher. Raisangadh supports 700-800 of Koli Patel families [in terms of numbers a major caste in the area] families. A plastic lined pond had been constructed in 1988 in the village through the facilitation of Utthan-Mahiti. A committee - constituted from within - was given the responsibility of managing this newly acquired resource. For many years, the committee did a commendable job in this regard. The village seemed to be gradually overcoming its drinking water problems until the theft occurred with the stealing of water by the neighboring village of Cher.

The year had seen good rains and both the ponds in Raisangadh (the natural pond and the plastic lined one) were still full at the beginning of November. The neighboring villages, Cher being one of them, were not so fortunate. Cher (located 6 kms away) had never been party to the development processes initiated by Utthan-Mahiti in the area. It is a village comprising solely of Darbar families. When their drinking water sources started to dry up, they approached Raisangadh for help. The community of Raisangadh responded positively but with a natural caution. For domestic use, the village Cher was asked to draw water from the natural pond. The lined pond was to be used for drinking water only. They also suggested that water be transported to Cher by bullock carts (these carts are fitted with wooden barrels that are used to transport water over long distances). In other words Raisangadh was not opposed to sharing water but they wanted as little waste as possible.

36, Chitrakut Twins
Nehru Park, Vastrapur
Ahmedabad, 380 015.
Tel: 91-79-6751023, 6763624
Fax: 91-79-6754447
Email Utthan Feeling insulted and angered by such a guarded response, some Darbars wielded their political strength with the district administration and managed to get an offical letter authorizing them to take water from the plastic lined pond. They also bought a diesel pump and connected it to an old broken pipeline of the GWSSB that led to the village. As the water level in the lined pond dipped, the women of Raisangadh grew worried. They had not expected that their most precious resource would be abused so blatantly. A couple of days passed and the tension in the vllage mounted; a group of about eighty women belonging to the savings and credit groups of the village decided to confront the situation and work towards an amicable solution. They drafted a memorandum and stormed the office of block administrator, and "forced" him to issue another letter asking the village Cher to stop drawing of water and remove the pump with immediate effect. Cher had to comply and withdrew.

The incident clearly identifies what women's empowerment (in this case, the organizing of women into a vibrant activity group) could achieve once they come to recognize and own a resource - as precious as drinking water - that they themselves had fought so hard to acquire, conserve and manage. More importantly it emphatically demonstrates that all social conflicts need not be confronted violently. Genuine community empowerment characterizes legal and non-violent solutions to social conflicts.

Utthan Development Action Planning Team
Transcribed from hard copy for India Together by Subramaniam Vincent
January 2001

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