When pipe dreams become a watershed reality

Posted: 21 November 2008

Author: Soma Mitra

Even until two years ago, in the Indian village of North Chandrapura, Tripura (a state that adjoins Bangladesh and Myanmar), clean water was a luxury and water-borne diseases a way of life. This was, of course, until a group of women in this village - which lies about 75 kilometres from Agartala, Tripura's state capital - got together and launched the 'Jal Ano' (Bring Water) movement a few years ago.

Milan Das Sarkar, 47, mother of two, who took active part in the Bring Water movement, shudders to even recall the severe water problems of a few years earlier and the ill-health they had to battle. "It was a nightmare. Our children suffered from all possible water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and what not?" she remarks. She recalls, "Every year politicians used to come before the polls and promise us drinking water. They forgot about it as soon as the elections were over, but we never gave up and continued our fight."

Women in the village of North Chandrapura, Tripura, fetching tap water
Women in the village of North Chandrapura, Tripura, fetching tap water
Women in the village of North Chandrapura, Tripura, fetching tap water. Even until two years ago clean water was a luxury in the village. Photo credit: Soma Mitra/WFS
The seeds of the water movement, which changed the lives of the villagers forever, were sown by a motivated group 10 to 15 women, who decided to take matters into their own hands instead of waiting for the administration to do what it was supposed to do.

Milan, who was with the movement from the day it began in 2002, takes a trip down memory lane. "It was a scorching summer day and we had the first meeting in my courtyard. Even before we chalked out a plan of action to tackle the problems, we resolved that we would not give up on our dream under any circumstance. As long as there was no water in our taps we were going to fight. In the first meeting itself we decided that we would go from door to door and campaign for our cause to garner support and motivate like minded people to join in." Astonishingly, even though most of the initial members of the movement were school dropouts, they started their work with an agenda and sense of purpose.

In North Chandrapura it is difficult to find even a single woman who has not been associated with the movement in some way or another - from the initial 15 members, today the number has grown to 500. Before approaching the state government for help, the women did a survey of the village asking people what they felt about the water problem and how it could be tackled. They also organised group meetings at different places in the village so that everyone got the opportunity to learn about the initiative. Interestingly, the movement was peaceful at all levels and never created any law and order problems. After the first phase of advocacy, they worked on a charter of demands and then submitted it to all the government bodies - starting from local panchayat (village council) to the District Magistrate.

Clean water for every house

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the women, the first water tank in the village was installed in 2006. "Water flowing from our taps... it was a sense of victory. We could not stop our tears," recalls Thirthabasi Nama. Now every house receives clean drinking water through pipelines that have been laid down by the government.

This has come as a big relief for everybody, but for the women most of all. Their earlier life had revolved around completing their domestic chores, the most laborious of which was the collection of drinking water, because there was no source within a little more than a kilometre radius of the village.

During the dry season, the situation would become worse, since most of the nearby wells would dry up. The villagers had no option, therefore, but to drink the little water left in the deep mud-wells and ponds, which led in turn to the spread of water-borne diseases that resulted in frequent deaths, especially among the children. "We had to walk more than one-and-a-half miles to collect a pitcher of drinking water and it took around two hours if not more. But in the lean season things got really dreadful," recalls Laxmi Das, a mother of three children, next to whose house the water tank has now been installed.

The supply of clean drinking water through pipelines has totally changed the lifestyle of the women in North Chandrapura. Sonabati Nama, 50, smiles and says, "Never in our dreams had we thought that we would get direct water supply to our home. Half our day used to go in fetching water and one had to wait in long queues after walking for miles to get clean water. Now our lives have been transformed."

More time

Sarabala Lama, who earlier used to spent more than five hours a day to collect water from a tubewell near National Highway 44, puts it this way, "Now I have time to support my husband to earn some more money for the family." Sarabala's two sons go to the village school. Earlier she hardly had any time for the boys, now she can devote her evenings to them.

Of course, it is under the government's Swajal Dhara programme that the village got its overhead water tank and pipeline network. The Swajal Dhara Programme supports community-managed schemes in villages for drinking water supply. Local communities provide 10 per cent of the funds while the rest comes from Government of India. In some places non-governmental organisations (NGOs) help communities to plan the schemes which are technically controlled by the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED).

Tank maintenance room in Chandrapura
Tank maintenance room in Chandrapura
The maintenance room of the overhead water tank at North Chandrapura in Tripura. There is one pump operator who has to fill up the tank twice daily. Photo credit: Soma Mitra/WFS
The total cost of the RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) overhead water tank was Rs 125,898 (US$ 2,680), with the expenditure to lay the pipeline being extra. "Today, there are arrangements for door-to-door water supply through pipes for which each consumer pays Rs 30 every month. Moreover, there is one pump operator who has to fill up the tank twice daily. A monthly salary of Rs 300 is paid to the operator," informs Anil Chakraborty, the village Pradhan (head).

Other than ensuring water supply to every home, the panchayat has also set up 13 hydrants, 14 tube wells and four sanitary wells, among others in the village. "All this has helped North Chandrapur immeasurably. It has helped a population of 2025 people to achieve 100 per cent success in manufacturing health supportive lavatories and better its literary levels. Today there are no drop-out cases here," Chakraborty adds.

Incidentally, the Bring Water movement has also ensured that there is a minimal wastage of water. The villagers know that they have pay for every drop used, so they are careful. In fact, they are even recycling the water utilised for washing and bathing to irrigate their kitchen gardens.

The 153 families of North Chandrapur may now realise this adequately, but they have a small group of dedicated women to thank for their new-found sense of well-being. - Women's Feature Service