Working with Ho tribal women to resolve the perennial crisis in Kalikaprasad village is as much an important personal journey as it is a professional journey.
Two large water pots - one on the head and the other clung to her waist seemed to overpower the frail frame of Kuni. Four other women were ahead of her in a slow-moving procession, a sight familiar in rural India. They greeted me warmly as I parked my bike near the village school. Later, at the Self Help Group* (SHG) meeting, I could not take my eyes off Kuni. She looked so pale. I touched her forehead. It was burning. I closed my eyes for a bit. Images of Ho people with their songs and dance, drums and festivals, impoverished yet happy despite their ragged clothes, broken mud houses, bulging tummies and visible rib-cages and skinny limbs of children, anemic and undernourished women, came flooding to my mind.
Kalikaprasad village is located in the buffer zone of the famous Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. Development has largely bypassed this village and villages in such hinterlands of India.
‘Three years!’ I contemplated.
I had been working in this remote rain-fed village with the Ho tribes to ensure food security and enhanced incomes from their farms for the last three years. Much had changed. The SHGs in the village, in these years, had grown in strength and there was a visible sense of new aspiration in the women. My own understanding of development from “a top-down initiative” had evolved in this period to “a people-driven empowerment approach”.
The issue of women travelling a kilometer to fetch water had always bothered me. Yet, I was unsure how to resolve that. That summer day I thought, ‘But today there had to be a start.’
I broached the issue of water scarcity in the village.
The women started talking together. It was something close to their hearts and an issue they faced every day.
“Let us work together to resolve it. There must be some way.”
“Do you want to have a look at the source of all life in this village?” Malti asked.
I knew what she was talking about. I smiled.
“Chalo, Chalo, let’s go”
Everyone got up. This was going to be a long walk. I requested Kuni to go home and rest. She refused to move even an inch in the other direction. We walked up the terrain to a stunning view of the Gurgudia mountains.
At 1500 feet, gushed out the elixir of life- Gameya Jharna, a perennial water stream. The women knew the solution. As someone working on rural development, I just needed to help them join the dots.
The plan was to bring the water from the mountains to the village through a pipeline.
Our mission was clear: water at doorsteps. The monsoon rains were coming soon. Work had to be completed before that. That started a whole set of frantic activities in the days that followed.
We utilized funds under the Mahila Kishan Samridhi Pariyojana** (MKSP). SHG women negotiated with vendors for PVC pipes for better pricing. Construction began but it was not without its share of hiccups. There was an elephant attack one night, damaging PVC pipes. Many meals were skipped in the hot summer but the spark of change had been lit. We were swept away in a wave of optimism. My cloak of just being a development practitioner was washed off even before the first rains. I felt an inexplicable bond with the women. I felt one with them.
And like magic, even before the skies opened up, flowed the first drop from the tap!
“We got our best return for the hardest of our labor when water came out from the tap. I touched it; it was so pure!” the happiness was visible on Kuni’s face.
Water, priceless water, was flowing near their homes for drinking and into their backyards.
The tedious march of women with large pots on their heads has finally stopped at Kalikaprasad. Kuni and I walk up to the Gameya Jharna one evening.
“Source of all life”, she whispers.
“Reaching your doorsteps”, I whisper back.
And we can’t hold back our smiles. Or our tears.
* Self Help Group (SHG) is usually a collective of 10-15 poor rural women, which meets periodically to save small sums of money. As this pool of money grows, they inter-loan to cater to emergency credit needs, thereby reducing their dependency on money lenders. SHGs also provide a platform where PRADAN engages with the community to improve their livelihoods, ensure year round food security and work on other pertinent issues.
** A government program