I can never forget Anupama’s (India Fellow alum) line, “Try and understand the pain point of the community.” It has been 11 months now that I am working with Project Koshika in the district of Panna in the Bundelkhand region. And it would be unfair to speak about Bundelkhand and not mention the water crisis in the region.
Every summer, Bundelkhand faces extreme levels of heat, forcing the women in the villages to walk great distances in quest of water. A couple of hundred tribal families in the villages of Panna Tiger Reserve are dependent on a Seha, to meet their daily quota. The seha is a local source where water falls from the hills and collects in a pond-like structure. For villages like Bilhata, where there are no wells and defunct hand pumps, the seha becomes the only source of water throughout the year.
On a scorching hot day in June, I spotted Mukesh Rani* from Bilhata village. Her lean, frail body was using all its might to get the hand pump working. I observed her from afar for 5 minutes while she tried to fetch water from the nearly dysfunctional hand pump. After putting in all her energy, she could fetch half a bucket of water before red, muddy water started pouring in. Dejected, she was returning back to her home when I stopped her and asked her how she is going to manage with barely a bucket of water which is not even fit for consumption. She told me it’s a matter of a few hours, then she’d go to the seha to collect water the next day. Collecting water from the seha is a difficult task for the 40-year-old villager, however, she is left with no other option.
The seha is about 3km away from her village, which means a 6km trek back and forth to fetch water. It certainly is dangerous work. Women in the community descend almost 100 feet to get water. They travel through difficult forest routes where there is also an imminent danger of tigers and other wild animals which is why women never venture out all by themselves. Usually, a group of 6-10 people collectively fill water and look out for each other. Mukesh Rani then adds, “Jungli jaanvar aam taur par subah ya shaam ko paani ke srot par ikattha hote hai, isiliye hum bhari dophari ko hi paani bharne jaate hai. Ek tarike se humari aur sher ki aapasi samajh hai.” (wild animals usually come here during the morning or evening time, that’s why we come here during the afternoon. It is kind of an understanding between the tiger and us)
In another conversation with our field health worker in Kathari village, it was brought to light that under Madhya Pradesh’s Kapil Dhara sub-scheme, a few beneficiaries in the village got a well/farm pond on their private lands to improve the quality of their livelihood. But most of the wells were incomplete, making the scheme redundant, at least in Kathari.
In a similar conversation with Vimla*, a habitat of Bilhata village, she mentioned, “Engineer sahab aur SDM sahab aaye the. Unhone hume bola ki ek hi tanki se poore gaon ko paani ki suvidha milegi. Cement, pipe, nalka, paint, tanki … sab hai bus paani nahi hai.” (The engineer and SDM came and told us that the whole village will get water from the same tank. Right now, there is cement, pipe, nullah, tank in our village but there is not water in it). Panna district fares somewhere at the bottom as far as water coverage in the central Indian state is concerned. According to Jal Jeevan Mission data, the total coverage of tap water supply in rural Madhya Pradesh is 40.50 percent as of 2022. Only 15.56% of rural households in Panna district have access to running water. Rural homes in this drought-prone region of Madhya Pradesh have taps installed and water pipelines connected as part of the government’s Har Ghar Jal plan of the Jal Jeevan Mission, but no water is available.
It might or might not be the sole reason but a lot of people told me that infrastructural work in their villages is not a priority for the government because of the Ken-Betwa river link project. To address the water scarcity issues plaguing many parts of the country, the central government has proposed a river interlinking project. The Ken-Betwa link project will be one of India’s first river interconnection projects. This project aims to increase the drinking water supply, and generate hydropower in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
If completed, the project will submerge about 6,000 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve. To compensate for the loss of forest land, the government is required to give up 4,300 hectares of land back to the forest department. This includes the territory of the villages of Koni, Bilhata, and Kathari, as well as 18 other nearby settlements. Since the Ken-Betwa link project cannot begin unless Panna Tiger Reserve receives 4,300 hectares of land, the villages must be evacuated. This explains why development projects have not yet started in these villages.
Similarly, most villagers are ready to vacate their homes but only if they get fair compensation in return along with a piece of fertile land. The Ken-Betwa link project was approved by the Union Cabinet in December 2021. In the meantime, it is the community that has to bear the brunt of no infrastructural development around access to water.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality