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Water scarcity heightens caste tensions in India

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 30 Jan 2014 09:15 GMT
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A policeman standing guard near a well that was damaged by upper caste villagers in Rasooh, Jammu and Kashmir. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Ashutosh Sharma
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KATHUA, India (Thomas Reuters Foundation) – The sleepy village of Rasooh in Jammu and Kashmir is surrounded by arid, rocky hills, denuded of trees. But its placid air belies generations-old tensions between caste groups  - tensions which are being exacerbated by a scarcity of safe drinking water, threatening the health of the most socially marginalised villagers.

Rasooh is located in the Siwalik foothill region known as the Kandi belt, in the industrial district of Kathua. The belt extends through the northwestern states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana.

In rural areas of the Kandi belt, residents are largely dependent on wells and ponds for water, which in recent years has become a scarce commodity.

Amrish Vaid, programme coordinator at Kathua’s District Farm Science Centre, said that the water table has been affected by erratic rainfall over the past 20 years. And Sonam Lotus, director of the Meteorological Department in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, confirmed that the area is experiencing unpredictable and fluctuating levels of rain.

Even though the Jammu region recorded above-average rainfall last year, in villages like Rasooh the water crisis is a daily reality. While the waterways of the Kandi belt can be raging torrents in the rainy season, these streams slow to a trickle or are completely dry in summer.

Experts and villagers say that the erratic rainfall is one of the causes of growing water scarcity, along with more denuded hills, high levels of soil erosion, a lack of proper water management and the disappearance of age-old systems of water harvesting through village ponds.

Increasingly, social tensions in Rasooh are coming to a head over water, particularly access to the remaining working drinking water wells.

DALITS ASSAULTED

The most marginalised residents of the village are Dalits, a low-caste minority still treated here as “untouchables”. Dalits say that upper caste communities have become increasingly hostile and belligerent whenever Dalits try to use village wells – something they have often been banned from doing, but have little alternative to in seasons when streams have run dry.

“In my village, the upper caste villagers don’t allow us to share water from clean water wells,” said Sardari Lal, a Dalit man. He said the supply of water delivered through pipes laid 20 years ago was irregular and often brackish, contaminated and unfit for drinking.

“We gave many representations to government officials and held protest demonstrations too but to no avail,” he said, adding that some in his community who were financially better off had left the village to settle elsewhere.

In 2012, the State High Court, following an incident in which a number of Dalit women were reportedly assaulted for attempting to take water from a village well, ordered water deliveries to ease tensions.

“The court got samples of the piped supply water tested which proved that the water was not safe for drinking,” Sardari said. “It directed the local administration to arrange a tanker to ensure a regular supply of clean water to the Dalits as an interim solution. But after a few months of providing a regular supply, the tanker now comes to our village only occasionally and we are again facing the worst kind of drinking water scarcity.”

A middle-aged Dalit woman in Rasooh, who did not want to give her name, was one of the women attacked when they tried to use the community well.

“Our children were falling ill after drinking unsafe water. When it was brought to her notice, the District Development Commissioner visited the village and encouraged us to use water from the clean wells,” the woman said.

“But after the official left, when a group of women neared a ‘forbidden’ well, we were roughed up and our clothes were torn by upper caste people,” she said.

HIGH CASTE PRIORITY

After that, police officers started to guard the well. But the well then was damaged by a group from an upper caste, “sending out a clear message that caste barriers on sharing natural resources were here to stay,” the woman said.

“Clean drinking water is the most precious commodity to us. Usually, we use stored water provided by the tanker that comes to the village once in a while but at times we take water from any source and use it for drinking after boiling it,” she added.

While Dalit women are dependent on the water tanker or upon ponds or sources abandoned by the upper caste villagers due to the poor quality of water, upper caste women continue to enjoy a monopoly over fresh water wells.

And on the increasingly rare occasions when the water tanker comes to Rasooh, and villagers jostle to collect as much water as possible, the enforcement of caste codes means higher caste groups get priority, local people said.

Rahul, a local activist who uses only his first name, said that while there are laws against caste prejudice, “these laws need to be implemented in letter and spirit. It’s only through development and education that the society can be made caste-neutral.”

A study by the National Institute of Hydrology confirmed that “while the government claims that almost all villages in the Kandi belt have been covered under drinking water schemes, the reality is something different. When demand for water sharply rises in summer, villagers often turn to the ponds for drinking water, which is not fit for human consumption. Quite often the same pond serves as a drinking water source for cattle.”

The study found that water-bearing aquifers in the region were deep and difficult to reach, meaning ground water was inadequate. It stressed the need for rainwater harvesting to meet domestic and agricultural needs.

Taj Chaudhary, executive engineer of Kathua’s Public Health Engineering Department, said he was not aware of any acute water scarcity facing village Dalits due to erratic supplies. But he said steps would be taken to ensure a regular supply of water.

Ashutosh Sharma is a freelance journalist and media fellow with National Foundation for India based in Jammu and Kashmir.

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