Sat, May 24, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Water shortages becoming norm in Indian state


A mother of four walks 5km every day to collect a pot of water. A young man prays for rain so he can plough his fields, earn some money and get married. Children of a bankrupt farmer are sold as bonded labor to pay off a debt their father never could.

The ongoing drought -- now in its fifth consecutive year -- in the northwestern Indian desert state of Rajasthan has altered lives irrevocably.

The situation is particularly challenging for women in this largely male-dominated society who have absolutely no say in decision-making but are forced to work, both at home and outside.

Rama Devi starts her day at 4am, cleans her home and cooks a meager meal of "rotis" or rough unleavened bread that her husband will have with chillies or a little salt. By 6am she is at a government relief work site, her four children in tow.

For the next six hours she digs ditches and widens roads, often juggling a shovel and a crying baby. Once home, she has to walk over 4km to the nearest well to collect water.

While Rajasthan has suffered drought for 44 of the last 50 years, the government is increasingly less prepared to tackle it.

Officials said 41,000 villages, 40 million people and 50 million cattle have been impacted by the drought.

All the major water sources have dried up and little effort is made to trap water during sporadic showers. Water is supplied to remote areas on special trucks and trains.

The government has also connected five to six villages through pipelines to a common well that pumps water for a few hours every day. Those at the end of the pipeline receive little, if any at all.

A government-run food-for-work program attempts to provide employment by rotation to every family. For a nine-day cycle of work, which those who are lucky get once in three months, the government pays 180 rupees (US$4) and 60kg of wheat.

Rama Devi said, "There is lots of work but most of us are too weak to complete our targets every day. So, we don't get our full wages, won't have enough to eat and get weaker."

Rajasthan is a land of surprises. Endless miles of parched lands and an overhanging dusty brown haze are suddenly interrupted with splashes of flaming pinks, reds and oranges, the vibrant colors that women of the desert wear. The deadening monotony of the landscape is broken with the flash of white bangles, the glitter of a silver nose ring or the gentle tinkle of an anklet.

The state's highways are dotted with hundreds of women toiling in temperatures over 45?C. Government officials said nearly 80 percent of the workers at the relief sites are women.

"Our men would rather starve than do this work. So they send us. They are proud farmers. They don't think this work is dignified," said Rama Devi.

Women have begun to realize their importance in a state where gender discrimination is common. At a unique conference in January, over 1,000 women from 12 states exchanged experiences of the close relationship between women and water, the importance of conserving water and its impact on women's health and happiness.

As participant Shakuntala Desada said, "The challenge before us is not of water alone. It is one of civilization and culture. We have to lay the foundation of a new culture of equality, of fraternity and sisterhood. Our society needs a new direction, and this only women can provide."

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