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Water tankers help, but not all women

A study found that water tankers helped in coping with water scarcity and reducing the drudgery of women, but only those from the rich upper castes while reinforcing gender stereotypes. Accessing water for daily needs has culturally and socially been considered as gendered domestic work and the task of collecting water in rural areas where water is scarce and fetching water is extremely tedious and time consuming

A paper titled ‘Women, technology and water: creating news waterscapes and contesting cultural norms’ published in Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for Development dwells on this question and discusses the findings of a study in western Rajasthan where water tankers have emerged as a new means of providing water at the doorsteps in water scarce and arid villages. The study aimed at exploring how gender, wealth, patronage, and dependency relationships shaped peoples’ ability to access water supplied through tankers carried on the top of tractors.

Information was collected from seven villages in the districts of Jodhpur, Barmer, and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The villages were selected on the basis of multi-caste composition of the community, availability of traditional water supply sources, as well as the use of water tankers.

Rajasthan, a thirsty state

The state of Rajasthan is severely constrained in terms of water resources with it having only 1.15 percent of water resources catering to the needs of 6.57 percent of the country’s population. Western Rajasthan is the driest part of the state facing recurrent droughts and is prone to water shortages.

Only 33 percent of the villages in Rajasthan are fully covered by rural drinking water schemes while only 26.9 percent of rural households have access to safe drinking water. Majority of the rural drinking water schemes in the state depend on groundwater that is drawn out through hand pumps while piped water supply schemes only cover around 5 percent of the villages and villages get water supply only once or twice a week.

Water was carried through tankers connected to tractors that got water mainly from the Indira Gandhi canal, nearby streams, or wells depending on availability and distance. More than 78 percent of villagers in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur bought water from tankers. The price of the tanker ranged between Rs. 250 and 500 ($ 3.7–7.4) depending on the water quality, availability, and the distance from the source of the water to the villages. Most of the households bought tanker water twice to thrice a month and spent an average of Rs. 800–1,000 ($ 11.8–14.7) per month. (Source: Adapted from data in the paper by Sarkar,  A. (2023) Women technology and water: Creating new waterscapes and contesting cultural norms. Journal of Water, Sanitation & Hygiene for Development, 13 (1), 31.)

Water tankers led to neglect of community managed traditional water harvesting structures

Water tankers helped in ease of access to drinking water. Villagers gradually started to neglect the traditional community water harvesting structures as a result of this. Thus water became ‘an economic and a private good’ from ‘a social and a common good’. 

Water tankers selectively benefited women from the upper castes

Water tankers greatly helped women to access water at their doorstep and reduced their daily drudgery of carrying water from long distances to their homes. However, it did not help ‘all’ women. It was only the higher caste women who could access them. It was found that access to water tankers was driven by economic considerations and favored only those who had the ability to purchase this water. Most of the households that bought the tanker water belonged to the high caste Hindu households who had power and means to pay for getting water from tankers.

For households belonging to low castes, the common property water sources were the only source of water for drinking and domestic use. Women from the Dalit households worked outside their homes as agricultural laborers and in the MGNREGA programmes to earn for the family and had to face the double burden of work. Thus, tankers did very little to reduce the drudgery of these women. 

Use of water tankers reinforced gender norms and left decision making in the hands of men

While the use of water tankers helped in obtaining water at the doorstep, it also reinforced the traditional norms of women being restricted to the house among the higher caste women. Women in high caste households did not go out for work nor did they have access to family income or cash. It was the men who fetched water in these cases as it required both cash transactions as well as interaction with male members who were mostly ‘outsiders’ with whom women were restricted from directly interacting. 

Thus while women from wealthier high caste households were powerless within their own families, they had easy access to the in-house water tankas (tankers) filled with water as compared to poorer Dalit women who did not have this luxury.  However, in poorer families, domestic water management became a cooperative venture between men and women, with both women and men taking up the task of fetching water. Women also used patriarchal norms to their advantage by invoking what was expected to be appropriate gender behaviour (confining in the house), and arguing that fetching water forced them to deviate from the norm  and that the issue could be resolved by investing in buying water. 

Thus, when tankers were used in domestic or private spaces, women could take decisions and use the water to their advantage and to meet their domestic needs and escape from the drudgery of carrying water. However, when it required the person using it to leave private and domestic spaces, gendered roles got reversed and men were found to be in control of the decision to buy water. When women walked long distances to fetch water, they were not required to handle cash nor necessarily interact with other male members of the society. Though they were required to enter ‘publics places’, they still operated in their ‘private or domestic spaces of work’.

Some women also thought of carrying water not as a physical, but a social activity that gave them the opportunity to get out of the confines of their residences and to socialise with others. However, several families avoided sending young girls to fetch water when they had the choice and resources to buy water. While some women associated fetching and lugging water as a ‘wish for the survival and well-being’ of her family members, others called it as a ‘despair’ that she has no choice but to carry out an endless and repetitious duty she resents.  life.

Thus, while tanker access gave women the choice to not to carry water, it also led to reinforcement of the traditional gendered norms that were prevalent in the area and restricted women further into their traditional household work roles while assigning space and work outside the homes to men.

Anandita Sarkar

(Courtesy: India Water Portal)