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Forest laws complicate access to safe drinking water for tribal communities in Jharkhand

For many tribal villages in and around Jharkhand’s Saranda Forest, traditional chuas or shallow pits are the only source of drinking water. The water in these pits is deteriorating and polluted. The absence of a ‘community patta’ under the Forest Rights Act (2006), has created a hurdle to access safe drinking water for some of these villages, as the Forest Department only approves development projects, including water supply projects, to villages that have a community patta. The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation is taking steps to renovate the chuas and provide other alternatives for safe drinking water. This report is by Manoj Choudhary 

Residents of over 15 villages in the West Singhbum District of Jharkhand have been consuming poor quality drinking water from traditional chuas or shallow pits. These pits, about five feet deep, filled with stagnant water, are the only source of drinking water in these tribal villages, surrounded by the dense forests of Saranda. The water from the chuas is also used for cooking; the chuas are often filled by water diverted from a nearby river. Residents say that a few decades ago when the rivers around were less polluted, the water was safer for drinking.

“In the absence of water and other basic facilities (provided by the government), tribal communities depend on traditional sources of water such as the Koina River or shallow pits, created by local residents near the riverside,” said Anil Kandir of Kadodiha, a village of about 35 families, around 150 kilometres from the state capital, Ranchi. “The people have no other option,” says Amrit Bhuiyan, also a resident of Kadodiha, adding that they use it despite the bad smell and taste. “We have requested panchayat representatives to ensure safe drinking water, but no action was taken,” Pawan Jojo, another Kadodiha resident, told Mongabay-India.

A resident of Kadodiha, accessing the polluted water in the chua (shallow pit).

Other villages, with primarily tribal communities, such as Karampada, Jabaiburu, Dharnadiri, Marchigada, Kalaita, Chervalor, Balehatu, Nurda, Gundijora, Ratamati and Koinarbera consume chua water too. These villages with around 30 families each, came into existence during the Jharkhand Movement in the 1990s, when there was a demand for a separate Jharkhand State from the then Bihar. At the time, a large number of tribal families migrated from the districts of Santhal Division to Saranda. They moved towards the forest areas claiming their right on jal-jangal-jamin (water, forest and land). They found earning opportunities as daily wage workers at railway track sites in parts of Saranda. From then on, they started residing in these dense forest areas of now Jharkhand.

Forest rules and water projects
Over 15 villages came into existence in the Sasangda Range under the Saranda Forest Division in the 1990s, according to the Forest Department in West Singhbhum. The state government started providing individual and community pattas (conditional plot ownership right under the Forest Rights Act, 2006) between 2010 and 2012. Infrastructure development projects such as the construction of schools and roads and water connections, could be started in villages which had the community patta that allowed the government to undertake development work. However, a ‘no objection certificate’ (NOC) from the Forest Department was also required for any project to be started in such villages, as the area fell under the jurisdiction of the state Forest Department. The NOC aims to prevent unauthorised construction and deforestation in the forest villages.

Women in Kadodiha, Jharkhand. A large number of tribal families migrated from the districts of Santhal Division to the Saranda Forest area during the
Jharkhand Movement in the 1990s.

While the residents of some of the villages have individual pattas, the absence of a community patta under the Forest Rights Act (2006), has created a hurdle to access safe drinking water as water infrastructure projects have not permitted. The Forest Department had earlier, too, rejected the installation of water towers and other water projects in these villages under the Jal Jeevan Mission due to the absence of community pattas. Jal Jeevan Mission is a government scheme that aims to provide safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections by 2024 to all households in rural India.

Shankar Bhagat, Sasangda’s range officer, explained, “Village residents claim that they have individual and community pattas, but they fail to provide documentary proof. Hence, the forest department cannot permit development projects. In order to stop deforestation and curb forest encroachment, the department does not allow unauthorised construction in Sasangda. The Saranda Forest Division Office can provide an NOC for construction on a plot up to one acre, but community patta ownership is a must.” He added the department had provided an NOC for the construction of a two-kilometre road from Jambaiburu to Dharnadiri in 2022.

The state government is now taking efforts to restore these shallow pits and other sources of water, to enable easy access to safe drinking water. The pits are being renovated to improve the water storage capacity. The chuas have been lined with big rocks to help reduce contamination and their sizes are also being increased. Nitesh Kumar, assistant engineer at the department of drinking water and sanitation in West Singhbhum says that five such chuas have been renovated recently. “After verifying the water potential of the chuas, the department developed them to let tribal communities get safe drinking water from it.” The Forest Department also conducted a survey of a chua in Kadodiha Village and proposed renovating it into a deep boring site for water supply through a pipeline.

Water schemes for remote villages
The Water and Sanitation Department is organising gram sabhas (general assembly of people in a village) to identify plots for the installation of water towers in West Singhbhum. However, residents in remote forest areas of Saranda are less hopeful, as the Forest Department has objected to the installation of water towers on forest land. West Singhbhum Zilla Parishad Member Devki Kumari told Mongabay-India that around 15 villages in Saranda forest would be deprived of water pipeline or water towers till they have a community patta. “I am negotiating with the district administration to pave the way to let all the residents get safe drinking water under the Jal Jeevan Mission,” she adds. “Everyone has the right to safe drinking water.”

Kumar, meanwhile, added that the department has been providing water towers and deep boring in five forest villages of Saranda. Around 15 projects are under progress in Bhangaon, Navagaon, Karampada, Tholkobad and Baliba. “We are installing water towers in forest villages, situated near patta-based villages,” he said. “Tribal residents of such remote villages including Kadodiha could get water from their nearest forest village. We intend to provide safe drinking water to tribal residents of remote forest areas in Sasangda. The best way for this is to renovate chuas and look for other natural water resources.”

The Water and Sanitation Department is also working on water supply projects based on population requirements. Kamdev Oraon, a junior engineer at department confirmed that a solar-based water tower with a capacity of 2,000 to 10,000 litres is in the pipeline, to provide water for up to 10 to 40 families from each tank. A village may have seven to 10 solar water towers, based on its population. Water projects with tanks of 2,000 litres to 30,000 litres storage capacity are under construction as part of the Multi Village Scheme (MVS), which aims to provide full water supply coverage to rural areas, despite local water scarcity and increasing contamination of sources.

Marsi Topno a resident of Karampada, a village in Saranda Forest, where water access is only through the traditional chuas or shallow pits.

A total of 20 MVS projects are underway in Chaibasa and all of them would start functioning by the end of 2024-2025, Kumar said. In the next three months, 10 hand pumps would be installed in each panchayat, covering the Sasangda Range of Saranda Forest. “Water towers with capacities ranging from 30,000 litres to one lakh litres, are being constructed. They will supply water to several villages through pipelines,” a Forest Department official told Mongabay-India on condition of anonymity. “After collecting water from the nearest river, it is filtered and stored in tanks before being supplied to households. These projects are being designed to fulfill the requirement for the next 30 years,” they added.

While the state government intended to provide safe water to every household by the end of March 2024 under the Jal Jeevan Mission, only 50 per cent of the target could be achieved by February 2024, according to the Forest Department official. Earlier, Mithilesh Thakur, a cabinet minister in the Jharkhand Government, had informed the state assembly that 31.49 per cent of the target of the Jal Jeevan Mission was achieved by March 2023, covering over 19 lakh households. The target was to provide water to 61 lakh households by March 2024.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/ india.mongabay.com.)

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