Huddled together at a tube well in the scorching summer heat are a group of women in colourful cotton saris. They are waiting their turn to fill water in the multiple utensils they carry. The long and arduous walk from home to tube well is a daily routine for these women in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, and some of them do it several times a day.
Mamta, washing clothes at the hand pump, said she made the trek at least five times a day. “Getting water is our main priority. There is hardly time to do other things.”
In this region, the menfolk mostly go out to earn daily wages or as farm labour, in many cases migrating to cities such as Delhi or Mumbai in search of work. It is the women who fetch water for cooking, drinking, washing utensils and clothes, and even bathing cows and buffaloes.
Not far away, a group of men performed a nukkad natak (street play) on the importance of water conservation, as part of an awareness initiative. But there were few villagers in the audience, and no women.
In both Jhansi and Mahoba districts, posters claiming that women are the primary beneficiaries of the Centre’s Jal Jeevan Mission, with its promise of 24-hour water supply to all homes, adorn the walls of villages.
Both Mahoba and Jhansi are part of Bundelkhand, a drought-prone region of Uttar Pradesh. It was in Murata village in Jhansi, considered the capital of the region, that Chief Minister Adityanath inaugurated the mission in 2020.
On August 15, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the mission nationally as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The deadline for the mission has since shifted several times, from 2022 to 2023, and now November 2024. The allocation for the mission in the 2023-24 Budget was an impressive Rs.70,000 crore—the cost shared equally by the States and the Centre.
For the lucky families who have got tap connections under the mission, the experience has been life-changing. But for the majority, water is still a long trek away. In some cases, the main pipelines have not yet been installed, in other cases the taps have no running water. And in this region, where in summer even hand pumps and tube wells run dry, fetching water is taking up every drop of energy.
According to Sanjay Singh, a water activist in Jhansi, Bundelkhand is reeling under the impact of climate change. It has led to a drought-like situation with low groundwater recharge and caused an agrarian crisis.
According to the mission’s report on the “status of tap water supply in rural homes”, as on October 26, the government had provided Functional Household Tap Connections (FHTCs) to 69.77 per cent of the 19.24 crore rural households in the country, that is 13.42 crore households. In Uttar Pradesh, the mission said it had covered 1.74 crore rural households, that is 66.46 per cent of 2.63 crore households. This is a significant rise from August 15, 2019, when the mission was launched, when Uttar Pradesh had only some five lakh rural households with tap water connections.
But these numbers often do not tell the full story. The goal of “Har Ghar Nal Se Jal” (tap water for every household) sounds simple, but its implementation has been rocky. While Uttar Pradesh aspires to be a role model as far as the mission is concerned, it still has a lot of ground to cover. While tap water has reached 97 per cent of households in places such as Lalitpur, in places like Mirzapur it has reached only 26 per cent of households.
In Mahoba district, the government claims to have reached 98 per cent of rural households. As on August 15, 2019, only 1,612 of the district’s 1,32,489 rural households had tap water connections, but that number had soared to 1,29,263 as on October 26, 2023.
While this sharp spike in numbers may create the impression that all of these households have uninterrupted access to tap water, the women at the hand pump tell a different story. In several villages, the households that the mission has certified as “connected” have no water flowing in the taps. Even in villages officially certified as having 100 per cent coverage of FHTCs, households have no taps or have taps but no water.
Of the households that do have water in their taps, even in the best-case scenario it is only for two hours a day. For instance, at Shivhar village in Mahoba’s Charkhari block, residents with houses marked as having FHTCs said they received water only for an hour or two in the mornings.
Roughly 150 km from Jhansi is Jaitpur block in Mahoba district. Fallow farmlands, water scarcity, and a lack of big industries are the main issues here and in other districts of the region. In Bacherar Khurd village, with a population of about 4,500, water pipelines were installed over two years ago and a water tank over a year ago. But the main pipeline has not yet been connected to the tank, so the taps are dry.
In nearby Lamora, a village with around 3,000 residents, people complained that water had not reached them either. Raja Bhaiya, a local farmer and activist, said: “There are tanks. There is a water pipeline. Taps too have been installed. But what is the use if they don’t have water?”
Residents of Jaitpur block (population 20,000) said that at least 40 per cent of their block was not yet covered under the mission. As a result, many still pay Rs.500 to Rs.1,000 a month to get water from households with private borewells.
“When we complain to officials, we are told the same thing over and over again, that they have taken notice and will investigate further. But that never happens,” said Mujeeb Khan, a resident of Lamora.
Lamora, like the rest of Mahoba district, suffers from groundwater scarcity. In Kardev mohalla, even the hand pumps run dry for weeks. The Jal Jeevan Mission installed taps in the government-run Junior High School, but there is no water in them. “Students rely on water from hand pumps. Sometimes they even fall sick,” said a teacher at the school. Ram Lata Kushwaha spoke of the poor quality of water. “It is salty and unfit for drinking,” she said.
Many villagers complained that the authorities had taken their Aadhaar card details but had not installed taps in their houses. One villager, Asharfi Lal, was suspicious that their data was being manipulated. “They took our details and uploaded them on their computers to show that water has reached us, while in reality it hasn’t,” he told Frontline.
- Women in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand face daily water challenges due to lack of access to clean tap water, mainly caused by climate change and poor groundwater recharge.
- The Jal Jeevan Mission has made progress in the region, but many households certified as “connected” still lack water in their taps, and in some cases, the supply is limited to only two hours a day.
- Villagers express frustration with contractors and middlemen who are believed to be misusing funds, while government officials acknowledge the challenges and aim to complete the project by the end of November.
Water history of Mahoba
Mahoba, a water-scarce region with a rocky subsurface, has historically relied on lakes and ponds for irrigation, but perennial sources of groundwater are few.
The Jal Jeevan Mission’s aim is to provide piped water sourced from dams and rivers to rural homes. To ensure this, the Mahoba administration commissioned five large water treatment plants. But clearly, the plan has not kicked in yet.
Mahoba has four blocks: Charkhari, Jaitpur, Panwari, and Kabrai. Charkhari block has 48 villages with 24,037 households, all of which are marked as having tap connections. However, in Asthaun village, only half of the 420 households had taps, and even those were dry. The village still relies on hand pumps, even for drinking water.
Ganpat Ahirwar of Lamora said that the government only worked in areas close to the main road and not in the remote villages. His family still relies on a hand pump nearby. “The queue at the pump starts forming at 4 am. Some 35 families depend on this one pump. Most houses have no water pipelines. Those who can afford it get a private borewell; it costs about Rs.50,000,” he said.
Jhansi has changed in every sense over the past few years. There are signs of development everywhere, with malls and big company showrooms dotting the city. Here, the government claims to have reached 96 per cent of households with tapped water.
Rajpur village (population 5,000) in Babina block is roughly an hour’s drive from Jhansi. Water pipelines have been laid here—the roads that were dug up for the pipes are still in ruins. But there is no water. Jaswant Yadav took us into his village on a tractor. The tap in his house, he said, was fixed two years ago, but “it has not given us water even a single day”. Only around 40 per cent of the village appears to be getting tapped water as of now. He believes the funds released by the government were misused.
Shivam Verma, 18, will vote for the first time in the Lok Sabha election next year. He said he would vote for the BJP because the party had reduced crime in the State. But even he wonders if the funds for the Jal Jeevan Mission have gone missing because water has not yet reached his home. A student, he struggles between studies and trips to the tube well to fetch water for the household.
The anger of the villagers is mostly directed against middlemen, in this case the contractors the government hired for the work. A majority of the villagers believe the government’s intent is good. “The government is doing good work, but the middlemen are eating up the funds,” said Sumit Gupta of Rajpur.
Jhansi’s Bamer village had a similar story. Pipelines have been laid and taps installed, but more than 80 per cent of the village does not receive water. Kala Devi was on her way to a nearby hand pump when we met her.
Zubair Baig, Additional District Magistrate of Mahoba, said: “All the pending villages will be covered very soon.” According to him, awareness programmes are being run to make villagers aware of water conservation. Baig also said that villagers were often suspicious of tapped water. “When we tour the villages, we ourselves drink the tap water to show them it is safe,” he said.
Several village water sanitation committees have been formed to oversee the project, each with 15 to 20 villagers and the sarpanch as members. Officials spoke of how the village sarpanch and children were often brought to water treatment plants and shown the process so that they could educate others.
According to Anurag Shrivastav, Principal Secretary of the Namami Gange and Rural Water Supply Department, the implementation of the Jal Jeevan Mission was being done in three phases. “The first phase, which includes the construction of water pipelines and other mechanical and technical work, is almost fully complete,” he said.
The second and third phases, which involve bringing water from a treated source into water tanks, are still in progress.
Shrivastav said the government was penalising companies that have not delivered. He said the government aimed to complete all three phases in most villages by end-November.
Despite its ambitious aims, the implementation of the Jal Jeevan Mission has been fraught with challenges, and the struggle for clean tap water continues. In Bundelkhand, the age-old sight of women trekking with large water pots remains a common one.