When a 10 year old Dalit (traditionally oppressed section of the society) girl fell into a well while fetching water for her family all hell broke loose. The local community accused the more well off neighbours for putting up restrictions on getting water from nearby well and demanded police action against the village head.
In another incident in the same region a Dalit woman was again stopped from fetching water from the wells of well healed. Her husband was so enraged that he singlehandedly dug a well in 40 days flat. Now his entire community depends on the same well to quench their thirst.
Incidents like these aren’t an aberration but slowly becoming regular as droughts intensify before the promised “good monsoon rainfall” arrives this year.
Two years of indifferent rains and continuous droughts in India has been straining the human life to its limits. It has led to a widespread water shortage across the country. The economic impact of drought has been carefully documented across many states. Even corporate India has calculated the cost of its plummeting sales in rural markets, but one aspect that has consistently slipped from policymakers and thinkers have been the social impact of drought.
The traditional water scarce zones are feeling the heat and age old social rifts and community hurts are rearing their ugly head. This has led to worsening social and law and order situation.
The case mentioned above is from Marathwada area of Maharashtra state, one of the most industrialised and prosperous. The area is traditionally drought prone and even good monsoons don’t firewall it against drought as there are chances that rains may give a miss to the area due to its geographical situation.
The same holds true for the Bundelkhand region in North India. Spread across two states – Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — the region suffers from extreme drought conditions.
In such a parched environment a jail in Bundelkhand’s Banda district has thrown jail manual out of the window and asked even those criminals to fetch water from outside who face serious criminal charges. The outlawed on the other hand are not running away, not till now, as anywhere they go water shortage will chase them like their shadows. So for now they are staying put but the threat of their escape remains.
For both the states the region is synonymous with backwardness and crime. However, people of this region are very hardworking and self respecting. Nearly 40 years ago in another prolonged drought period, my father visited the region as a government officer to take stock of the situation. He found that in one village the people had got together to clear the silt from their pond and were patiently waiting for the rains to arrive. When my father asked what they wanted from the government, their reply was an emphatic, “nothing”.
A few months ago my friend again visited the same region and met an 80 year old who was busy tending his barren field in the hope of rains. He too told my friend that government can’t bring rain and right now anything other than water is of no use. He told my friend that he believes in god and not in any human intervention anymore.
As the water shortage spreads even this faith in celestial power is waning and with it the patience is running out too. The self respecting are now ready to take law in their own hands. As the reports suggest water trains (trains carrying water tankers to the parched areas are a regular features for decades to meet local water needs) are being guarded by the policemen from the marauding gangsters who loot water trains, fill their tankers and then sell the free water at a premium.
While this is blatant loot, in Maharashtra few days ago a TV sting operation showed that the municipal officers and the local bureaucracy was selling water earmarked for the poor to rich and powerful.
The political leaders aren’t far behind. When a Maharashtra Minister visited a drought hit area 10000 gallons of water were used to irrigate his helipad. Similarly a lot of water was wasted to clean the roads where Karnataka Chief Minister visited to see the impact of drought.
This is a telling commentary on the lackadaisical attitude of our ruling class that fuels lack of faith among people in the government machinery.
Marathwada and Bundelkhand are two extreme cases from where journalists are sending hundreds of stories of lack and suffering. However, there are other regions in India where the problem is intensifying.
Water wells, ponds and tanks were treated as community centres during good old days. However, today they have turned into flashpoints where every drop counts and any delay or denial, real or perceived can trigger vicious physical violence.
Showdowns are just one aspect of deteriorating social conditions. Another silent but far more sinister problem is of distress migration. Left with no work marginal farmers and landless labourers are migrating towards urban areas.
Lack of employment has a direct bearing on the economic and educational background of their children. Many have to drop out of their schools as their parents are out of work and can’t afford to send them to school. In urban areas they would initially be used to earn money to supplement their family’s income. Each one will have to earn their keep.
In such a situation children especially girl child and women are at risk of exploitation. This is the reason many villages in Marathwada and Bundelkhand have witnessed a re-emergence of child marriage. Daughters, as young as 14, are being married off to get rid of liability and offload another mouth to feed.
Media intervention like the story of Sonali Rathod, in Times of India, a few weeks ago saved the girl from forced marriage but for every rescue there are hundreds who succumb to their wretched destiny.
The promised rains will arrive within a month and parched tales of suffering will be drenched by the heavy showers all around. However, beneath the sheets of water and showers the threat of drought returning with vengeance within months will remain potent.