Women's lives in Mazhuvadi village in Idukki district take a turn for the better as Oxfam partners with the local panchayat to assist with water supply projects
Idukki, Kerala: Sudha (43) can easily divide her life into two episodes — the one before tap water supply reached her house and the other after that. No other event has impacted her life in such significance, at least not since she relocated after her marriage to ward 10 of Mazhuvadi village in Kanjikkuzhi panchayat of Idukki district some 25 years ago. She was 18 then.
The big change happened only two years ago, before which Sudha's daily routine would start much before daybreak. “After waking up around 4.30 am, I would rush to the small spring on the hill to fetch water. Then, using a coconut shell cup, I would collect whatever little water was available and pour it into a pot. On a lucky day, I would get a potful of water within half an hour of waiting,”Sudha told 101Reporters.
As per the understanding between the families that relied on the limited water resource, Sudha was the first on the list to take water. The four to six pots she managed to fill and carry back home in the allotted time slot — between 5.30 am and 7.30 am — would be enough for cooking and other morning chores for her family of four.
To check off the remaining water-dependent tasks on her list, including feeding livestock, she had to walk to a pond at the bottom of the hill and climb up to her house, located on top of a steep hill, almost 15 to 20 times a day. The physical exertion was much more than what her body could cope with. As a result, Sudha suffered through tonsillitis and shoulder pain throughout her life. Occupied by the dreadfully monotonous routine, she had no time to spare, neither for self-care, nor for any daily-wage work.
“My life was nothing else but fetching water and doing household chores. Those days, I did dream of living a day without fetching water,” Sudha recalled.
Health takes a beating
Sudha was not the only woman in the village with such a predicament — women of all 42 households that depended on the pond had to endure the backbreaking repetitive job of fetching water, a gendered activity in itself. An anthropological multi-country study shed light on the global inequality of access to water and the vast gender gap associated with its horrendous physical labour. As much as 13% of the study's respondents reported that they received injuries while fetching water. Though Sudha escaped severe injuries, she lived through deficiencies and ailments.
Explaining the demography, Celimol UC, who worked as an anganwadi teacher at the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) centre in Mazhuvadi, said, “People in this area belong to the lower-income category and are usually engaged in cattle-rearing. Women would usually prioritise feeding their children before they ate. With limited access to nutritious food and regular arduous job of fetching water, almost all women were underweight and had low blood pressure. Most women, including lactating mothers, weighed under 40 kg.”
“To sensitise women about the importance of proper nutrition and their own health, we had to conduct awareness classes on a regular basis,” she added.
Sudha did not get any respite even on her menstrual days, those being all the more painful and tiring. Every night she slept with the anxiety of having to wake up at 4.30 am to fetch water; to keep things smooth for her husband and children. “Things would go haywire otherwise, and god forbid if guests were to arrive, especially those with children,” she exclaimed. Such worries of existing and additional burdens added to her mental stress.
“Even during pregnancy, I had to fetch water, although my husband was helpful and tried to fetch as much as possible before leaving for his daily wage work.”
But not many women in the locality were as lucky as her, for they hardly got help from men in the family.
The way to water
The village women received a huge respite only two years ago. With the support of Oxfam, an international NGO, the panchayat was able to supply water to all 42 households that depended on the community pond.
Water is typically ensured to the rural pockets through the Jalanidhi Project, launched by the Kerala government in 1999. Rolled out in a phased manner, the project covered a total of 227 gram panchayats, with Idukki-Kanjikkuzhi being covered in Phase 2. However, it failed to solve water woes for Mazhuvadi due to topographical challenges.
During summer seasons, water sources in many pockets would dry up. To mitigate the crisis, the panchayat had constructed a tank under a village-level intervention (not Jalanidhi), but it had become defunct. Oxfam renovated this tank and constructed a slow sand filter. From the pond, water was pumped to the filter, and after filtration, it was stored in the tank and then supplied to household taps via pipelines.
“The panchayat had initiated the water supply project about eight years back. However, it reached a standstill due to technical glitches and topographical peculiarities,” said Pushpa Gopy, a ward member of Kanjikkuzhi panchayat. She added that when the representatives of the international NGO reached out to the panchayat offering support for water supply projects, they directed them to ward 10.
According to Gopy, “the NGO did a good job, thereby ensuring filtered water supply to households by making the most of some of the infrastructures already constructed by the panchayat.”
That apart, the government's new initiative, Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), has also helped many households to meet their water needs. Under the Annual Action Plan on implementing the JJM in Kerala, the officials have outlined the roadmap for the financial year 2021-22. The plan recorded that the state has 67.15 lakh rural households, of which around 21.55 lakh have tap water supply. The idea would be to cater to the rest under the Har Ghar Jal Scheme by 2024.
Leading by example
According to a government report, water was termed as one of India's biggest crises in terms of spread and severity, affecting one in every three individuals. Talking specifically about Kerala, the report established that despite being one of the wettest places in the country, the state was behind Rajasthan in per capita availability of drinking water. Experts think the characteristics of the state’s topography — the steep slopes of the Western Ghats take rainwater directly into the sea — ensured that nearly 40% of water resources were lost as runoff.
Parmeshwar Patil, who led the water supply project at Mazhuvadi in his position as the humanitarian programme coordinator of Oxfam India, felt Kerala's water supply system was far better than other states.
“I have worked in more than 10 states in the last decade, and the situation in Kerala is far better. In most other states, women going to distant places to collect water is common. But in Kerala, I have seen this as a rarity. Moreover, the local panchayat authorities are usually well aware of those areas where people are struggling. The availability of water supply starts to reflect on the health and well-being of the women,” Patil told 101Reporters.
The improvement in women's health could be a testament to Patil's statement. “The average weight of women in the area has increased to 47 to 50 kg,” said Celimol, citing Sudha as an example.
“Sudha's weight was as low as 39 kg at one time, but she is 51 kg now.”
Sudha has not completely recovered from tonsillitis and her shoulder and back still pains, but is at much relief as she does not have to hike the hill to fetch water anymore. Moreover, she now has free time to spend with her family and have uninterrupted sleep in the mornings.
“Exhausted after fetching water, I would always want to lie down. It even affected the way I dealt with my family. Now, I have time to relax, and do things I like, such as stitching dresses and talking to my children. After managing chores at home, I can also work outside for money,” said Sudha, who gets paid work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). With a daily wage of Rs 311, she has now started to feel more financially self-reliant as well.
Her biggest dream — seeing a day where she did not need to fetch water — has finally come true.
This story is part of our new series — Women & Water, which aims to cover the impact of water unavailability and contaminated water on women.
Edited by Devyani Nighoskar
The cover image is of Sudha who enjoys tapped-water supply in Mazhuvadi village after 25 years of monotonous water-fetching task, sourced by Divya GS.
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