The Tale of a Water Warrior
There was a time when Leela Bai Panwar’s life used to revolve around only one thing – water. Although there was a water pipeline in their neighbourhood in Madhya Pradesh’s Memdi village in district Mhow, it did not connect to all the houses there. And the bore well in their neighbourhood under a government scheme was not properly maintained. Maintenance issues would often go unattended for days by the state Public Health Engineering Department PHED. Invariably, the task of fetching water from the distant hand pump fell on her and other women there. “We used to spend more than half the day fetching water from far away,” Leela Bai recalls. “It used to be quite scary to go alone to the hand pump late at night or early in the mornings…” Life was tough until she, along with other women of her neighbourhood, were able to take water supply and management into their own hands.
Interventions and trainings through WaterAid India and partner Samarthan enabled Leela Bai to form a committee with 10 women from her neighbourhood. Everyone was amazed when these mostly illiterate women were able to learn to operate and maintain the pump! Together, they prevailed upon the village Panchayat to install a motor on the neighbourhood bore well.
Today, as chairperson of the committee, Leela Bai operates the motor of the bore well. She and her dedicated band of water warriors periodically clean and maintain the area around it and regulate water supply as per their requirements. If any technical fault occurs, they immediately inform the Panchayat and PHED. They even haul the motor out of the bore well if it needs to be repaired!
Leela Bai is a member of the Jal Samiti and has undergone training for water quality testing, water safety and water conservation under the Women + Water Alliance project. “This has made me realise how important the testing of water is,” she says. Additionally, she is also a member of the Nal Jal Samiti of the village, which helps in the collection of monthly tax/fee for proper maintenance and the distribution and management of Nal Jal Yojana under Jal Jeevan Mission.
Leela Bai is pleased when she thinks about how improved access to water has transformed her life. “The bore well is only about 30 feet from my house,” she says, “and we’ve connected a pipe line from it directly to our doorstep.” Access to clean drinking water has also reduced the incidence of illnesses and the consequent spending on medication. “Also, earlier, too much of my time was spent fetching water,” she recalls. “Now that that time is saved, I’ve been able to go out for work on daily wages.” Also, she’s come to realise that as fetching water is always considered to be the woman’s responsibility by society, men do not even realise the problems caused by the lack of access to water. “Women are the ones who are most affected by water-related issues,” she says. “That is why I’m encouraging more and more women in the village to take charge of water distribution and management here. At first some men did not agree to let their wives come forward like this, but over time we’ve got success in this.” Most of all, spearheading her community’s quest for access to clean water has given Leela Bai an identity. She is no longer just another faceless wife/mother the village: “Today, people have started to recognise me because of my work,” she says proudly, “Not just in my village – but in the Panchayat, Block and PHED too…”