Thirsting for Progress
The Story of Mokhada’s Water Rights Struggle
Three hours away from the bustling metropolis of Mumbai lies Mokhada, a taluka (block) considered to be one of the most backward blocks of Maharasthra, a place where people literally die of thirst. On April 24, 2012, a 37-yr-old woman’s heart gave out after she had to trek 4 km in the blazing summer sun to a 40-foot well in the hope of gathering some water. Stories like this are common in Mokhada; water scarcity is a condition that most residents have grown up with and too many have died from.
Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink
Located in the foothills of the Sahyadri range of the Western Ghats, Mokhada taluka consists of hills with narrow valleys. The Vatvad hill ridge, a distinct feature of the taluka, is the source of 5 major rivers, the Godavari, the Wagh, the Pinjal, the Tansa, and the Vaitarna. The taluka also receives 2,700mm of water annually, however none of this bounty reaches the water starved population of Mokhada.
Urban centers trump tribal tracts as a priority; all these rivers provide drinking water for all the urban-industrial centers from Vapi in Gujarat to Mumbai in Maharashtra. The Middle Vaitarna dam, recently completed in the block, provides 455 million litres of water per day to Mumbai, and two more have been proposed, but no provisions have been made for them to supply Mokhada. In addition to this, heavy deforestation has caused erosion of top soil in the region, so that rainwater rushes down the hills and into the rivers, carrying away even more top soil and leaving the villages parched.
Everybody loves a thirsty public
The government’s response to the water scarcity over the years has taken two forms, piped water supply schemes and provision of tankers of water. However, neither of these are permanent solutions. According to data collected from the BDO, upto the year 2002, a total of 30 piped water supply schemes were constructed of which only 6 are functional today. The reason behind this sorry state of affairs is that the MSEB bills have not been paid or that major repairs are required. No data is available after 2002. While overhead tanks are dry and deteriorating, the pipelines have been dug out and sold as scrap.
According to data from the same source, the total cost on tanker based water supply in just three years from 2013-2015 is more than the planned budget for permanent solutions for water supply in the same period. It is obvious that funds are diverted, as none of the water sources are private however contractors charge the government per litre of water. Payments made to the water tanker owners consume a major part of the developmental budget of the block.
Water is good business for those in power. The 46 villages of Mokhada are serviced by tankers owned by local politicians or their associates. The unfailing water scarcity transforms into tanker multiplicity, providing a regular source of income and sleaze money for politicians, administrators, and middlemen. They manage the water sources, the public demands, the water supply, the transport, recording, and billing. Water supply becomes both a promise and a reward for political allegiance and loyalty. Come election time, without fail, ministers visit the villages and make promises without ever delivering on them. After desperate calls to their Panchayat presidents, villagers are rewarded with the arrival of a tanker of water, which provides temporary relief.
The state has created the drinking water crisis in Mokhada and has consistently failed thereafter to address it. Money is siphoned off to line the wallets of those in power while the villagers carry their burdens in stoic silence.
The Human Cost of Urban Drinking Water
While residents of Mumbai have access to water at the turn of a tap, the Adivasi women of Mokhada travel miles to scoop cups of water from a hole dug in the ground, or climb down the precarious wall of a 40-foot well to collect driblets of water flowing out of crevices near the bottom. In some villages, women recount instances when, for nearly two months, they spent half of every night patiently collecting water from a small hole in the river bed, or keeping a night vigil around the village well, waiting for water to collect. They travel miles to wash clothes and bathe, and often encounter hostility from those living around the water source. In certain regions, the paths leading to the wells are downhill from their homes and are difficult to walk on due to the rocky terrain. Women often wade through streams, or walk along irregular pathways, balancing numerous pots of water, putting their safety at risk for the well-being of their families.
Although most of the tribal population are marginal farmers, due to the water scarcity of the summer months many migrate en-masse to urban centres for work. There can be no farming without water, and families need to be fed. These water refugees are often forced into extremely exploitative working conditions and are preyed upon by unscrupulous contractors who underpay them or cheat them of their wages entirely.
Possibilities and Political Predicaments
The engineering faculty of the Center for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA, IIT) had spoken of the possibility of water supply from the Upper Vaitarna on the basis of google maps which showed that all the villages in Mokhada were lower than the lowest withdrawal level of the dam. An engineering solution was possible whereby piped water supply could be provided to 16 villages by gravity.
Previous piped water schemes had failed following the inability of the population to bear high electricity consumption costs of pumping water from water sources in the valleys to habitations in the hills. The solution proposed by the IIT faculty would ensure that water users would have to bear minimal costs after the initial expenses of laying the pipelines.
The problem here was political and not structural. Sanctions had to be obtained to siphon water from the Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) which was the legal owner of the the Upper Vaitarna dam and the waters impounded by it. The IIT faculty had presented their findings to the villagers, however the political leadership at the village level to support such an initiative was not forthcoming.
In addition to this, consciousness of water as a right was not a concept prevalent among the tribal residents. In their minds, water was largely seen as a basic necessity of human survival or gift of nature. It was the duty of the women to make it possible. In times of scarcity, water was a luxury enjoyed by a few. While interceding with people in power was a necessary part of life, the right to water had not yet become part of their narrative.
The Barefoot Campaign
The Campaign to ensure water rights for Mokhada was built around three axes.
- To create an ideological shift in the minds of the residents that water was a right that they could demand from their political leadership.
- To enable the community to take ownership of the stewardship of water, through consensual decision making, empowering the women of Mokhada who were most affected by the situation.
- To find an alternative cost effective solution, that could be managed by the tribal women with low maintenance.
No Man is an Island
To carry out what seemed to be a herculean task, Barefoot facilitated the alliance of three important organizations in the community. The first was the Kashtakari Sanghatna, a people’s organization of the tribal people working in the area for the past 15 years, who were keen to resolve the water crisis with the active support of the local population. The second was Dr. Milind Sohoni and his colleague Mr. Rajaram Desai, from CTARA, who were the brains behind the water supply alternative by gravity, but who were unable to muster political support. The third was an NGO Aroehan.
Activists from Kashtakari Sanghatna began discussions with the presidents of all three tiers of self-governing institutions in the locality, namely the Village Panchayats, the Block Panchayat, and the District Panchayat, in an attempt to bring them on board. In addition, local political leadership from the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress were coaxed into associating with the Campaign for Water Rights. A Water Rights Convention was called for at the end of May 2014.
Mobilizing Consciousness, Negotiating Participation: Jal Adhikar Yatra
The question of water rights, stewardship, and citizenship was placed before the Adivasi population of over 50 hamlets spread over 16 villages of Mokhada. Youth and activists organized Jal Yatras (Pilgrimage for Water) through the month of May. Short plays, discussions and debates were the daily fare during the first phase of the yatra, opening up people’s minds to the water issue, and giving them food for thought on what they had always regarded as a hopeless reality. This first phase attempted to stimulate debate and discussion on three questions that had never been asked before.
- Is water a basic right?
- Had the authorities, who were duty bound to recognize the right, done so?
- Is a permanent solution to the water supply problem possible?
Following this, the second phase of the yatra sought to build up the capacity of challenging the present conditions of engineered drought and enforced scarcity on the residents. It also hoped to meet the demand that water supply agencies from the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai, the main beneficiary of the water of Mokhada, and the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaaran (MJP), the water provider agency of the Maharashtra Government be brought to the Convention.
The second phase reinforced the message that the people of Mokhada should look at themselves in a new perspective, from being hapless victims to being citizens with the power to effect change. This yatra was the first step of mobilizing consciousness among the tribal people on access to water as a right, the need for stewardship of the survival resource and finally to introduce citizenship as the real goal.
Making History: Jal Adhikar Sammelan (People’s Water Rights Convention)
The People’s Water Rights Convention, the first ever of its kind, was held on the 31st of May 2014, following an exhaustive mobilization effort of the tribal population and political leadership by activists of the Kashtakari Sanghatna. The Sammelan (Convention) sought to bring together citizens, elected representatives, and duty bearers from the BMC on a single platform. Thanks to Ms Shiraz Bulsara, an unfailingly enthusiastic and ardent activist from Kashtakari Sanghatna, participants from all the political parties were present, as well as the newly elected Member of Parliament who promised his unqualified support.
The team from CTARA, IIT, presented their findings and the engineering solution that could end the water scarcity situation in Mokhada. The proposal was met with support on all fronts, by presidents of self-governing institutions as well as political party leaders.
With the exception of one, all party leaders soon realized that their political careers rode upon coming together under one banner to promote the issue of water rights for Mokhada. Hence, the Mokhada Pani Hakk Sangharsh Samiti (Mokhada Water Rights Struggle Committee) was formed. The committee was assigned two tasks. The first was to widen the membership to include representatives from each of the 16 villages indicated in the IIT study. The second was to call upon the candidates standing for election to the state assembly to openly declare their position on the Campaign for Water Rights, what steps they would take to further the campaign, and ensure that water rights would be established in reality, regardless of being elected or not.
Promises were made, and the task of making them a reality had just begun. Soon the monsoons would begin, and any further work would have to wait until mid-August when the farming population had tended to their crops and fields.
Picking up the Water Trail
After a long spell of delayed rain and the hopes of food security which kept the community preoccupied with agriculture, the Mokhada Water Rights Campaign renewed its course with a well-attended meeting on the 16th of September 2014. The meeting revolved around three actionable goals.
- Leveraging the water rights issue as an election issue and pressuring the candidates to take a stand.
- The formation of a core committee to take responsibility for the campaign process and draw other actors into the campaign.
- Planning for the campaign in the short term as well as creating an actionable plan for the elections to the Block and District Panchayats, necessitated by the bifurcation of Thane district into two districts; Thane and Palghar.
In the span of just four months from the Water Rights Convention, the community had begun to experience a perceptible shift around the narrative of water. While their initial dialogue had centered around the supply of water, the discourse at this meeting revolved around water as being a basic human right, and one that would be the deciding factor in going to the ballot.
The labour community of Mokhada provides the knowledge and the skill resources that sustain the fertile horticultural paradise of Nashik to the east, but has internalized ‘backwardness’ as an inescapable reality of the present and future. At this point, while the Campaign is centered around water rights, it might also provide the energy for the citizens of Mokhada to withdraw progressively out of the construct of backwardness that has been imposed on them for decades. The hope is that in the struggle for water rights, Mokhada could create a spring of new life for itself.
To empower and educate the people of Mokhada and to support them in their struggle, Barefoot conducts several training workshops to create Change Agents amongst the local population, focusing primarily on women and young adults. We also work with different levels of administration and, in the course of our work, we have extended our support to other government functionaries. We have conducted training workshops for
- Block Panchayat members
- Village volunteers
- Village women volunteers
- Mokhada Bazaar Women’s group
- Students of Khodala college, Dolara Junior college and Palsunde Junior college, in order to form student groups that could become mobilizers at the community level, collect data, and involve village youth in the campaign.
- Rogi Kalyan Samiti (Patient Welfare Committee)
- ASHA and Anganwadi workers of Asa Public Health Center and Vashale Public Health Center
Broadening the discourse on water
The training aimed at the Block Panchayat members is a continuous process that seeks to prepare them to submit resolutions to the MJP, motivate them to initiate the demand for the Upper Vaitarna water, and educate them on the causes of the water scarcity, climate change, mitigating the effects of climate change, planning for water in Mokhada Bazaar, saving and recycling water etc.
When activists began the session, their efforts were resisted by members, believing it to be a waste of time, however by the end the members were very appreciative and desired to continue the process on a regular basis. The effect of the campaign became obvious when the conversation around water evolved to look at related issues within the community.
A meeting was called by the Dy. Chairperson of the Panchayat Samiti, with members of the Mokhada Gram Panchayats and some other concerned residents regarding the contamination of Mogyachi Vihir, a large well which is one of the sources of drinking water in Mokhada Bazaar area, a very densely populated area and prone to epidemics. Sewage water seeping into the well had caused the contamination, and the well had been temporarily cleaned with the Cottage Hospital managing the sterilization of the water. However, everyone recognized that this is not the solution.
When the Campaign activists were approached by the Panchayat for help, they learnt how, as part of the Swachh Bharat Adhiyan, Adivasis had come from the villages to clean the bazaar but medical waste was collected and dumped on the outskirts of the town. Due to lack of understanding on waste management, the actions of the Swachh Bharat Adhiyan were creating large dumps of mixed waste in the backyards of other families and often on forest lands. The discourse on water management and security was broadened to include waste management and how drainage could be planned in the town. Further workshops have been planned on this topic.
Feminization of the denial of access to water
Women are the providers of water; it is their duty to procure water for the village. The possibility of reversal of the trend in water scarcity was grounded in the campaign for the emancipation and empowerment of the women of Mokhada. The interventions of the final phase are focused on the emancipation of women to take control of and ensure equity in the access and delivery of water. Numerous women have come forward to attend training workshops and public meetings where they discuss how to address the severe water shortage during the summer months and the type of demand they should make from the authorities to ensure that water pumped out from their area was also shared with local villages.
At the village level, activists have decided to focus on women so that they remain at the centre of the process of planning and monitoring water and sanitation schemes in their hamlets. Three tiers of volunteers were conceived of who would be
- women responsible for motivating and mobilizing 10-20 hamlets around their village
- women volunteering to share responsibilities in the campaign. (4-5 leaders at the hamlet level in each hamlet)
- women committed to take the water campaign forward in terms of developing protocols of use, reduction and recycling of grey water (water from any household source other than toilets), mobilizing mindset change of the women of the village on caring for a scarce resource.
The objective of these workshops is to develop perspectives, understand social oppression and economic exploitation as the dominant realities that determine access to resources, impart knowledge on the water issue, and also develop skills of working in the field. Since a lot of the young women suffer from a low self-image and also lack confidence, the activists also conduct exercises in personality development. The workshops are supplemented with one day monthly workshops in skills such as drafting applications, using Right to Information, practical skills of negotiating with block level officials and functionaries etc.
In Sendyachi Met, a village predominantly inhabited by Katkaris, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), the women identified three problems that could be remedied.
- Widening and deepening of the existing wells
- Repair of the dam in the stream flowing along the hamlet as all the water seeps through by February
- Construction of paths leading to the wells as they are situated downhill across the stream. The women have submitted an application to the Tehsildar, Revenue Head of the Block, to undertake these works. They have also applied for work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and have negotiated to work on the path themselves. They also mobilized other katkari women in Dhondmaryachimet and Sirsonichapada.
During the course of our meetings and workshops through the villages, the issue of water scarcity in the Primary Health Centre and Cottage Hospitals came up repeatedly. With the government emphasis on institutional deliveries and the cash incentives accompanying them, pregnant women are under tremendous pressure to deliver in government hospitals. However, they have to live under extremely unhygienic conditions due to the lack of water. Many reported that after delivery they were wiped down with their own petticoats and kept for three days without a bath. One woman from Dapti who delivered a low birth weight baby was shunted between three government hospitals for 21 days during which she did not have the opportunity for a single bath.
When inspecting the Cottage, Barefoot found that the hospital had a pipeline from Mogyachi Vihir, but the town’s people did not allow them to start the motor in summer as the water level had already reduced considerably. The hospital was therefore dependent on tankers.
Committee members have been working with them to monitor their funds better. An alternative source of water has also been found. The next step is to have a proposal put in place, which has also lead to taking on board issues of waste management, particularly that of medicinal waste, sewage drainage etc.
What More Can We Do?
Efforts are being made to create a booklet covering water challenges, the ways in which they are being currently addressed, and the costs actually borne by the tribal people. Volunteers hope that this will draw the attention of tribal groups to the fact that development funds are being drained to benefit a small group of water contractors. The booklet will also focus on the approach to the sustainable and efficient use of water, and the integration of the large and small, the modern and the traditional in the context of ensuring rural livelihoods and needs.
Water is an essential human need, and the use of water forms an integral part of our life, from fulfilling our biological needs, to cooking, washing, cleaning and for livestock. We have felt the need to keep a separate account of water used for these purposes, tracking it over time and location or season. This account should have the following information
- hamlet/ habitat grouping
- number of persons served
- appropriate season-wise information
- source type and identification
- water quality
- amount of water drawn
- water use
As we delved deeper into the issue, we have found, and are now convinced, that sustainable and equitable distribution of water goes far beyond supply and demand. During the course of our work, we have interacted extensively with local people, especially women, local politicians, contractors, government officials and functionaries, and experts who have worked on water issues for over three to four decades. Our understanding is still evolving, but we hope that we are moving in the right direction.