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Navigating groundwater quality: Challenges faced by farm women in Maharashtra

While the burden of managing water at the economic and domestic level still lies with farm women, has the lift irrigation scheme helped in reducing the burden on women from villages in Purandar subdistrict in Maharashtra? Leonardelli Irene, Kemerink-Seyoum Jeltsje, Kulkarni Seema, Bhat Sneha, and Zwarteveen Margreet explain

The Purandar Lift Irrigation Scheme
Pravah is a drought-prone rural village – receiving less than 350 mm of rain per year – located south-east of the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India. A number of villages in the area continued to suffer from poor water availability over the years and the Government of Maharashtra introduced an irrigation system called the Purandar Lift Irrigation Scheme in 2000 to provide relief from ‘water supply problems’ in 60 villages of the Purandar sub-district, south-east of Pune.

The main objective of the scheme was to offer “farmers latitude to change their cropping patterns to suit market demand”. The scheme transports water that is pumped up from the Mula-Mutha River – a river often referred to as a drain and sewer for the city of Pune which collects untreated water from the urban sewer system as well as industrial effluents from manufacturing units, construction sites, automobile garages, and hospitals as it flows through the city. Thus the Purandar water delivered to Pravah and other villages is highly polluted informs this paper titled ‘A feminist analysis of women farmers navigating groundwater qualities in Maharashtra, India’ published in Water Alternatives.  The functioning of the scheme is regulated by the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act and by the Maharashtra Management of Irrigation Systems by Farmers Act that focus on prioritisation of market mechanisms for allocating water while concentrating the entitlements or water rights “in the hands of those considered productive and economically efficient”.

Farmers who can afford to pay submit their demand for this water to the Irrigation Division of the Water Resource Department when their shallow dug wells used for irrigation dry out and the Purandar water is transported through a system of pumphouses and closed pipelines to the different villages. The water is released through gravity into private earthen ponds dug by farmers and water slowly percolates into their wells through these ponds. Once the wells are filled, farmers pump it up and use it for irrigation. The Purandar water released into the ponds does not only fill the wells, but also mixes with the groundwater of the village’s shallow aquifer. This is the aquifer that women in the village rely on as a source of water for bathing, cleaning, washing, and drinking.

The water managers of Pravah Village 
Women in the village are responsible for managing the available water, as in many other villages in rural areas in India – to meet their economic, health and household needs besides everyday farming work, including the tasks of irrigation. This is because their husbands and other male family members often work for wages in nearby towns. However, most of this work continues to be invisible and there is very little information available on how women navigate through their multiple responsibilities and try to make the best use of water available to them while dealing with the drudgery of household and agricultural work.

This study explores how women farmers in the village of Pravah practise groundwater management and make the best use of the available and often variable quality water resources to meet their economic (irrigation) and household (bathing, cooking, cleaning, drinking) needs. Farming is the main income-generating activity in Pravah and most farmers own less than two hectares of land. Before the implementation of the Purandar Lift Irrigation Scheme, which started functioning around 2011, the farmers of Pravah used to practise rain-fed agriculture during the monsoon season and cultivate small portions of land using the little groundwater available in their wells. The wells would run dry around January or February and since farming could not yield enough, men and women across castes also started working as agricultural labourers or as wage workers in industries or in government-sponsored employment schemes in nearby villages and towns. 

The Purandar Lift Irrigation Scheme makes it possible for the farmers to increase their irrigated area and cropping intensity. Hence, those farmers who can afford it now also farm in the dry season. Men across castes nevertheless continue to work as wage workers in factories and construction companies in nearby towns. While men take care of constructing and maintaining the irrigation infrastructures and selling the harvest, most of the agricultural work in Pravah is done by women. While farmers belonging to upper caste households are benefitting from the scheme,  as Purandar water percolates into the shallow aquifers through the earthen ponds, it also recharges the wells of other farmers who benefit indirectly from it although they cannot pay for access to this water. Thus a few women farmers belonging to Scheduled Castes have also started cultivating cash crops. 

The increased availability of water for irrigation has significantly impacted intra-household and intracommunity gender relations. Women have now taken up more farm responsibilities compared to in earlier years. As the Purandar water meets and mixes with groundwater through percolation, it transforms not only availability, but also the quality of water in the village. Women become aware of this in different ways, as they engage with groundwater both in and beyond the farm, using it for other purposes than irrigation. The study shows how women get to know and assess different levels of groundwater contamination in Pravah as the basis for deciding which waters to use for which purpose.

How do women assess water quality?
Paying attention to the health of their animals: One direct way through which women assess water quality is by paying attention to the health of their animals. Several women across castes have noticed that their animals get sick when they drink the Purandar water directly from the ponds where it is stored or from the nearby wells in which it mixes with existing groundwater. Women from the nomadic-pastoralist castes also complain that health of their animals deteriorates every time the Purandar water is delivered to the village. This forces them to seek advice from veterinarians and purchase medicines for their goats for which they need to spend money and time to find other sources of water. 

Growth of plants: Another way through which women across castes get to know groundwater quality is by paying attention to how the water they use for irrigation impacts the growth of plants. The nutrients that the Purandar water contains do not only boost the growth of the crops, it also triggers the growth of much less-wanted weeds. To deal with this, women have to do more weeding work, spending long hours under the hot sun to remove the plants and have also resorted to using more herbicides and pesticides.

Growth of algae: Women say that the organic matter that the Purandar water contains favours the growth of algae, which in turn causes the clogging of their drip emitters. The most well-off farmers of Pravah (mostly those belonging to upper castes) use drip irrigation systems to irrigate their crops – especially flowers. The drip pipes are connected to a small filter that purifies and cleans the water before it flows through the drip lines. Women farmers have noticed that the filter does not block smaller sediments and organic matter, which end up blocking the discharge of water through the tiny drip emitters. The organic matter in the drip lines has to be dissolved with an acid detergent, a task usually carried out by women. Women have to keep monitoring and clean the lines frequently, which puts an additional burden on them. 

By looking, smelling and tasting water: Before the Purandar Lift Irrigation Scheme was operational, women across castes in Pravah used to go and fetch water for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing at the main public dug well of the village. This well is called Sakarbai, which is Marathi for ‘sugar lady, which would however run dry at the end of the monsoon. When the Purandar Lift Irrigation Scheme started functioning, women observed that the water suddenly became dirty and turbid, its colour became greenish and its smell and taste changed and turned unpleasant.

By observing how water reacts with their bodies: Women get to know groundwater quality also through how their bodies react to it when they bathe, wash dishes and clothes, and clean the house. Women complain that this water often leads to skin irritations, rashes, hair loss due to chemicals contained in the water. Women use water from the outdoor taps present in almost every house in the main village of Pravah for domestic purposes other than drinking and cooking. The water released from these taps is pumped from a public well located downhill of the village, about one kilometre away from Sakarbai. This public well is located close to a large public pond that stores Purandar water for agricultural use. The water from the well is pumped to a public water tank located uphill from the village. From there, it is released through a system of closed pipelines to the household taps. Women consider this tap water to be highly contaminated, much more than Sakarbai’s water, because the Purandar water takes very little time to percolate from the pond into the public well that fills the tank . Most women use this tap water for bathing, laundry, and household chores as this is the most easily accessible water for most women as it flows every two to three days in relatively large quantities. Women also store this water in plastic tanks and buckets so they can use it at any time.

Challenges of accessing ‘clean’ water
Farmers who are better off have more means to treat the water before using it (for example, boiling, disinfecting), while they can also afford to buy medicines to cure their skin rashes or to purchase better quality water for bathing and washing. On the contrary, the pipelines that provide tap water to most houses in Pravah do not reach people residing far away from the main village. Hence, they have no other choice than to use contaminated groundwater straight from their irrigation well, including for bathing and washing. They do not have the financial means to access better quality water or to boil it, nor to add Mediclor-M to disinfect all the water they use. This is why they are more exposed than other farmers to contaminated groundwater, being forced to sacrifice health, hygiene, and taste for the sake of affordability. Men suffer less from such skin rashes because they do not spend as much time directly in contact with it as the women and children. 

Finding and accessing water that is clean enough for drinking and other domestic purposes is an ever growing challenge for women who have had to learn to assess which waters are suitable for which domestic use by paying careful attention to the colour, smell, and taste of water at different water sources or moments in time. Their search for clean waters has made them understand the different flows of water and different levels of contamination. For example, women have noticed that the wells located just next to the ponds where the Purandar water is stored are the most polluted, especially just after this water is delivered to the village. The wells located farther away from these ponds, in contrast, contain water that is cleaner or less polluted. The quality of the water improves as a function of the time as the soil purifies water, acting as a filter and the flow of polluted water gets diluted as it mixes with groundwater when it travels over a longer distance through the aquifer. 

Women thus consider Sakarbai’s water as less contaminated than the water in the upstream wells that they used for irrigating as Sakarbai is recharged by a mix of groundwater – the sweet, clean water that used to characterise her – and Purandar water that percolates from ponds located a few hundred meters away and uphill from Sakarbai. Around 2011, the gram panchayat arranged the transportation of water tanks from a nearby village and people who could pay for it, mostly people belonging to upper classes would buy and drink this water. It was decided to disinfect Sakarbai’s water with a purifying product to limit the health damages for those who could not afford to pay for other sources of drinking water.

Around 2017, the gram panchayat installed a water purification technology, a machine that pumps up and filters Sakarbai’s water through a reverse osmosis system (commonly called a water ATM). This machine is located just behind the main square of the village. The contaminated groundwater of Sakarbai is transformed into potable drinking water. People use this filtered water cautiously, as they have to pay for it.

Women who can afford it buy this water in small jars and store this water in a specific corner of the kitchen so that all members of the household know that it is precious filtered water. Most women farmers continue to fetch groundwater at Sakarbai’s well on a daily basis, which they filter through a plastic sieve after fetching it, boiling it, and then use it for cooking. Members of the less privileged nomadic caste residing about one kilometre away from the main village do not buy filtered water as the water ATM is too far away and they cannot afford it. They continue fetching water from their irrigation wells as they used to do before the implementation of the Purandar Lift Irrigation Scheme. Before drinking it and using it for cooking, they sometimes add a disinfectant called Mediclor-M, but this is less effective than reverse osmosis. 

The paper argues that the dominant techno-managerial version treats groundwater as an input for crop production, makes surface water and groundwater appear to be separate, just as it separates productive (irrigation) water from domestic water and polluted water from treated water. However, women farmers’ practices and experiences reveal that waters are not separate or separated. On the contrary, they mix and mingle, forcing them to assume the difficult and costly task of differentiating and sorting waters. It is thus important to value this unremunerated and invisibilised work in water management.

(Courtesy: India Water Portal/ indiawaterportal.org)

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