In unequal measure

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Residents of a Dalit colony in Bhatambra village in Bidar district collect water at night from a cistern, which is filled with water from a borewell. Photo: Gopichand T.

The Dargah bawdi or the Chuachuth ki bawdi in Chitta village in Bidar district. The square well has four chambers, each for a section of society, Photo: Gopichand T.

As Karnataka reels under a severe drought, social and economic divides undermine the little relief that the government has provided.

A DROUGHT, or any other natural calamity for that matter, is a good time to test whether social and economic inequities are worsening or not. What is happening in Karnataka, which is reeling under a drought for the third successive year and which has suffered an unprecedented shortfall in rainfall since January, appears to indicate that the grave social and economic inequalities have further shrunk the already limited access that marginalised communities have to water during this period of acute scarcity.

The government’s relief effort, especially in the form of the supply of water for domestic use to households, has been patchy. The effort, it appears, ignores the underlying social structures in rural Karnataka that deny especially marginalised social communities such as Dalits, tribal people and other backward castes access to relief. The social geography in rural society determines who lives in which part of the village, and social hierarchy determines where “public” water sources will be installed. To make matters worse, other relief measures such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which might have helped in the creation and maintenance of assets that could provide some insurance against similar episodes of acute scarcity in the future, shut the door on those who are at the margins.

Between January and April 30, the State received just 10 mm of rainfall, which left a 71 per cent deficit compared with the normal of 34.8 mm. However, even this average, like all averages, hides the true extent of the crisis. In the coastal districts, the deficit was close to 90 per cent, and, in the hilly terrain of the Malnad region, which is home to plantation crops such as coffee, the deficit was almost 75 per cent. Although by May 10 the situation had moderated, the average deficit in the State was still 50 per cent. By May 16, although the rainfall deficit had narrowed down to 33 per cent, the 13 major reservoirs in the State held just 16 per cent of their combined storage capacity of 860 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft). The extensive depletion of groundwater in many parts of the State has shut the option of using water from under the ground to compensate for the shortfall in rainfall.

A uniquely shaped well in Chitta village in Bidar district, of medieval vintage and built by a Sufi saint, captures poignantly the story of how segregation prevents Dalits and other marginal groups from accessing water. The well consists of four squares within a square-shaped well, each reserved for a section of society. Although local folklore has it that Multani Baba Shaheed never intended to divide society on caste lines, he was forced to design it thus. “It is known as Chuachuth ki bawdi [well of untouchability],” said Mohammad Jaffer, a farmer in Chitta.

Bidar, one of the most backward districts in the country, has not fared too badly this season; in fact, the district received “excess” rainfall during the January-May 2016 period. But the statistics from this perennially dry district in northern Karnataka hide the extent of the ongoing distress, which is worsened by the social geography in its villages. The public access points for water are mainly located in the central part of the village, which, not surprisingly, is where those at the top of the social and economic hierarchy live.

A recent survey undertaken by the Welfare Party of India (WPI) lists some villages in Bidar district where it noted caste discrimination in water supply. Residents of villages or of areas where the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Muslims form the majority suffer owing to neglect. “We have seen several villages where the distribution is lopsided. These villages have enough water, but water supply is better in upper-caste areas and not in those where the lower-caste people live,” said Mujahid Pasha Qureshi, district president of the WPI. He also observed that upper-caste areas tended to have a denser network of water sources such as borewells compared with areas where Dalits or people from the minority communities lived.

Although the State government has released Rs.50 lakh to each taluk-level task force to take up new work like drilling of borewells or open wells, the decisions are often arbitrary because caste and economic clout play an important role in determining what gets done where. “The task force is headed by the local MLA, and political affiliation or caste determines the location where a borewell is dug,” a senior Zilla Parishad officer told Frontline. “It is very difficult to find out what they are doing, let alone monitor their work,’’ he remarked. Villagers contest the official claim that they are receiving a minimum quantum of 20 litres of water per day per capita.

Suryakanth Singe, a Dalit writer of Aurad, said that in villages like Kherda, each family hardly got around three pots (15 litres each) of water a day. “How can a family of five or six live off 70-80 litres of water a day?” he asks. He pointed out that while rich, upper-caste families bought water ferried by tankers plying from the towns near by, the poor could not afford this luxury. “I have cousins in nearby villages who are taking a bath just once in a week or so,” Singe told Frontline.

Vaijanth Wadde of Aurad has even more fundamental questions about the normative standards for the quantity of water supplied. “Why does the water used by people in cities need to be three times more than those in the villages?” he asks. “Have these officers ever tried to live off 20 litres of water per capita a day?” Many village residents say they do not get more than two or three pots of water a day for the entire family.

In Lanjawad in Bhalki taluk, which has a population of 2,000, a tanker fills the open well once every morning. The trick is to reach early with as many members of the family as possible. S.R. Chauhan, whose wife is a member of the Zilla Panchayat, supplies the tanker and gets paid for it by the Zilla Parishad.

Most parts of Aurad town have no provision for piped water supply. The government has put up cisterns at street corners for people to collect water. These are connected to either a borewell or an open well, but most of these sources have dried up and people are forced to buy water. Now water comes in tankers. “Whenever a tanker appears on the street, people rush towards it as if they are attacking the enemy. It is a frightening sight,” said Manmathappa Swamy, a resident of Aurad.

Rural Social Geography

In the Malnad region, rich planters living in bungalows get tanker-tractors carrying water on a phone call, whereas the poor go in search of private borewells or handpumps. Proximity to power and socio-economic status are among the factors that work in the process of providing relief. Facilities to access the scarce resource are distributed unevenly, reflecting the social chasm. Bandihalli is a predominantly Dalit village of about 130 families in Hassan district. It has one overhead tank with a capacity of 12,000 litres, which gets filled from a borewell. Neighbouring Jammanahalli, a village with just 40 houses, has a tank of the same capacity. “Our village is bigger than Jammanahalli, but they get more water,” said Keshava, a resident of Bandihalli. He said that the disparity arose from the fact that Jammanahalli had more upper-caste residents who had considerable influence with the people’s representatives. “If the overhead tank in Jammanahalli is connected to at least 30 to 40 houses of Bandihalli, the problem will be solved, but that will not happen,” rued Keshava.

The social geography of village life comes into play in determining who gets access to the limited water that is distributed. For instance, Dalit “colonies” are most often at the tail ends of water supply networks. Even in the distribution of water through overhead pipes, cisterns and tanker-tractors, the socially backward classes are the losers. In most villages, Dalit colonies are separated from the core areas, which is where overhead tanks are located. “While the residents at the core of the village get water taps running at full blast, taps in the distant colonies run slow, if at all they do,” said Kamalamma of Bandihalli village. Water supplied by tankers also does not reach the most vulnerable. “As soon as a tanker-tractor enters a habitation, people stop it at the entrance and those residing nearby surround the tractor to fetch water. There are situations when people in remote corners of the village go without water,” said Kamalamma.

Two women, Eeramma and Dyammavva, belonging to the Holeya community (Scheduled Caste), were seen fetching water from a drain in an agricultural land at Iguru, about 30 kilometres from Sakaleshpur town, when Frontline visited the village. The village had received pre-monsoon showers, and some drains in the area were filled with rainwater. “It is true the water is not suitable for drinking. But what to do, we don’t have other sources,” said Eeramma. She uses a piece of cloth to strain the water.

Two years ago, the Zilla Panchayat provided funds for an open well in Iguru, a village with 70 households. The yield in the well was insufficient from the day it was commissioned. “Now, a four-year-old borewell is the only source of water. Water in the borewell is also insufficient,” said I.M. Paramesh, former vice president of Iguru Gram Panchayat. Paramesh and his family have dug an open well, anticipating financial assistance under the MGNREGS. He is spending about Rs.2 lakh and expects to get around Rs.70,000 under the scheme.

The irony of caste discrimination is that in the rare instance when Dalits have access to a water source, upper-caste folk have no qualms in queueing up for the scarce resource. Residents of Yaragalale, Kuregal and Kittageri, three habitations in Mallapura Gram Panchayat in Alur taluk, have been depending on two private borewells for the last two years for drinking water. One of the borewells was drilled by a Dalit under the Ganga Kalyana Scheme, meant for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe people. People of all castes use it. “Last year, we drilled five borewells to provide water for these three habitations with over 150 houses. Surprisingly, all five borewells failed. We had no option but to depend on private borewells. We are providing a nominal fee of Rs.800 a month to the borewell owners,” said K. Harish, Panchayat Development Officer.

Unfortunately, programmes such as the MGNREGS, which could offer some relief in times such as these, are also proving ineffective in providing relief. The case of Shaila, a landless Dalit in Dhannura village in Bidar district, is an example of the ironies of schemes that target “beneficiaries”. She does not have the prized job card, but the local “zamindar” whom she works for, and who owns 16 hectares of land, has one and a BLP (below poverty line) card, too. Recently, Munish Moudgil, MNREGA Commissioner for Karnataka, stayed overnight in the village and conducted a work order Abhiyana (campaign) and found that in a village of 1,600 families, only 600 had job cards.

With inputs from Rishikesh Bahadur Desai in Bidar and G.T. Sathish in Hassan/Chikkamagaluru.