The Hindu, Sunday May 31, 2009
The Other Half
One of the 59 women MPs elected to the 15th Lok Sabha, that incidentally has more women than in previous parliaments, is Shruti Choudhury from Bhivani-Mahendragarh in Haryana. She should visit the small town of Narnaul in her constituency and go to Nai Basti, a slum-like locality. Talk to the women of Nai Basti. They will speak without a moment’s hesitation if she asks them what should be her priority. Water, they will shout, followed by sanitation.
Even as the new government jostles over portfolios and the media engages in endless speculation about political equations, millions of people around India are going through another year without adequate water. Bhopal has already seen water riots. There are towns in Gujarat where water is provided for an hour every week. Millions of residents in urban India depend entirely on water supplied by tankers though the summer. And in villages, wells are drying up as the water is diverted, either to supply thirsty towns and cities, or industries.
Governance and development were the two mantras that the Congress Party believes brought it back to power so convincingly in these elections. But in its second term, will it continue to push these two crucial factors, where one cannot work without the other? The best of schemes falls flat because there are no systems of governance. And even where there are systems of governance in place, nothing changes if there is no investment in basic services like water supply and sanitation.
Narnaul is a good illustration of this. The town, with a population of over 60,000, is located just off the highway between Delhi and Jaipur and is typical of non-descript North Indians towns. Over 18 per cent of its population lives in slums.
I spent a morning with the women of Nai Basti, one of these slum colonies, well before the prospect of a general election had dawned. Women of all ages, their heads covered in brightly coloured dupattas, sat in the verandah of one of the houses and vociferously expressed their views about governance and development.
Their biggest problem was water. They showed me pipes peeping out from the ground that were proof that there had once been a plan to supply piped water. But the plan remained, literally, a pipe dream. The water never came, the pipes remained dry and there was no point attaching a tap to a pipe without water. Thus, the women lived with the proof of a dream, one that has yet to come true. Yet, on paper, they get piped water and thus have to pay a flat rate of Rs. 50 a month for water that is never supplied. So much for paper statistics.
“We did a lot of dharnas for water two years ago. We jammed the road, went to the District Collector’s office, sat there for three hours. Everyone came. The water came for two days and then stopped. It is the first time I heard the voices of women drown out those of men!” says one of the women. Despite this, there was little improvement.
How do they get water? The municipality supplies water by filling up tanks some distance from Nai Basti. On paper, this is supposed to happen thrice a week. In fact, the water comes only once a week. Women must wait their turn and fill up as much as they can carry. A couple of hand pumps make up the difference. But the amount they gather and fill is nowhere near their need.
“Gents can go to work. All problems have to be borne by women. We have to collect the water. Women are powerful because they have to bear everything,” says Birna Devi, once a municipal councillor.
You can see this at work as you watch how the women of Nai Basti use and save water. They recycle every drop of water, putting it to multiple uses. The soapy water from washing clothes, for instance, is reused to wash dishes. And water that cannot be used again is then used to flush the drains outside their homes. For, in addition to the absence of running water, Nai Basti has no sewerage. But because of the initiative of these women, the area is surprisingly clean.
So the primary lesson in governance that these women can teach our newly elected MPs is: talk to the women, listen to them, ask them about basic problems and learn from the solutions they have devised.
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