An oasis of hope in parched Bundelkhand

Express News Service
UTTAR PRADESH: From a group of a dozen women, they are now over 750, working tirelessly to mitigate the water woes of over 100 villages of perennially parched Bundelkhand. They are called ‘Jal Saheli’. Their efforts in the last four years have removed thirst from over 100 villages across four Bundelkhand districts. The others are close to achieving the target.

Over 450 check dams and 56 lakes have been built in these villages. Bundelkhand is one of the most water-deficient regions of UP-Madhya Pradesh. Drought is a way of life in its six districts. People go long distances to get water just enough to quench their thirst. Women here are the worst hit as they are the ones who mostly bear the responsibility of fetching water.

Amidst this struggle emerged a group of women of Lalitpur — a district in Bundelkhand — to form ‘Jal Sahelis’ (friends of water), a self-help group — with the help of an organization called Parmarth Samaj Sewa Sansthan, which works among local communities for water conservation. The Sansthan started organizing the women, encouraging them to revive water bodies in their village.

A dozen women came forward to fight the biggest adversity. They began with repairing the water pumps near their homes. “It wasn’t easy…we were not comfortable going out to work; our husbands feared the wrath of society in letting us participate in public events. They were uncomfortable in letting us converse with volunteers who taught us about water conservation,” says Gayatri, 40, a Jal Saheli. Gayatri’s co-worker Rekha says the women of Lalitpur would wake up at dawn to finish off their chores.

“When our husbands left for work and the children were off to school, we’d start our task of repairing the wells near our place,” she says. Sansthan’s secretary Dr Sanjay Singh says the women were first sensitized about water conservation, groundwater table and the need for repairing work. Special training programmes were designed by Parmarth to make the women water literate. The initial success came in a year when Jal Sahelis repaired all the hand-pumps in and around their villages in Lalitpur and installed a few new ones too. Even men volunteered to support the women.

“It has become a movement…the women volunteers are now active in six district of the region in both UP and MP. In UP, Jal Sahelis have brought about a sea change in water conservation in Hamirpur, Jaluan, Lalitpur and Jhansi. They have also started working in Chitrakoot,” says Dr Sanjay Singh. “I joined the Jal Saheli programme four years ago. Despite all unpleasant comments and restrictions, I decided to carry on. I have revived five wells in my village Manpur in Jhansi,” says Geeta, as she scans a clean water body revived by her. The women are divided into groups who are trained in water literacy programmes.

They build check dams in their respective villages. “In some places, the Jal Sahelis would end up working for 25 days at a stretch, digging acres of existing lakes and converting them into check dams,” says Dr Singh. “The water is now available not just for domestic use, but for irrigation as well,” he says. In places where farmers would grow only one crop during the maximum availability of water in the year, they are now getting three crops, courtesy Jal Sahelis. “The farmers’ income is rising and migration of youth has been contained – a change being witnessed by thousands of villagers every day,” says Dr Singh.