#MadhyaPradesh: In this village, caste determines the distance you travel to fetch water
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#MadhyaPradesh: In this village, caste determines the distance you travel to fetch water

Adivasi families have no water to drink or bathe, and the lack of jobs only compounds their problems.

By Prateek Goyal

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Twenty-eight-year-old Sonu Adivasi sits outside his house, trying to play music on a cheap music system that uses audio cassettes and a pen drive. Nearby, his sisters Sadhna and Neelam daub cow dung on the floor outside the house. The temperature is a scorching 44 degrees Celsius in Maraa village in Morena, Madhya Pradesh.

Looking at Sonu’s dusty hair and clothes, and the façade of their 150 square foot home, a casual onlooker might not guess that wedding preparations are in full swing. Sonu’s not only eagerly awaiting his wedding day, but he’s also excited at the prospect of perhaps getting enough water to wash himself before the ceremony.

Welcome to the Morena Lok Sabha constituency of Chambal in Madhya Pradesh, where caste plays an important role in determining the distance one needs to travel to fetch water from a hand pump or water body. In 2009, Morena was represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Singh Tomar, who went on to become the MP from Gwalior in 2014 and is currently the Minister of Rural Development, Panchayat Raj, Mines and Parliamentary Affairs. In 2014, Anup Mishra, the nephew of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, contested from Morena and became the MP. As the 2019 Lok Sabha polls swing around, the BJP has fielded Tomar once again from Morena. The Congress has fielded Ramniwas Rawat.

Sonu’s wedding day is scheduled for May 12, the day Morena constituency goes to the polls. He tells Newslaundry: “My marriage is on election day. However, that is not an issue as people can attend the marriage after casting their votes.”

(from left to right) Sonu’s sister Neelam, mother Ramkali, and sister Sadhna.

What’s really worrying his family is the arrangements for water. Sonu asked the village’s Gujjar community to provide them with water on the day. They agreed to supply it—at the cost of ₹200 for a trolley of eight buckets. “They told me I’m like their nephew, so they will not charge much,” Sonu says. “I’m also happy because I can have a proper bath before my marriage so I will look clean.”

Though Sonu doesn’t mind paying money for the water, he’s well-aware of the fact that the Gujjars don’t allow his community to fetch water from the hand pump that is meant to serve every villager. This has amplified the workload on his mother and sisters, who spend almost 5-6 hours a day fetching water from a well that is about four kilometres away.

Sonu’s mother Ramkali is 52 years old. “Please don’t ask us about our water problems, you don’t know how we’re surviving,” she says. “We don’t have water even to drink, so forget about taking a bath and washing clothes. We bathe once in five days and then people say, ‘Adivasi maaderchod hain, gande rehta hain. Ab aap batao peene tak ka paani nahi hai hamare paas, hum nahaye kahan se (Tribals are motherfuckers, they are dirty. You tell us when we don’t even have water to drink, how should we take bath)’.”

She gestures towards her two daughters outside the house. “Look at their condition. They are young girls but can only bathe once in five days. Because of this, they develop diseases. We can’t even send our children to school as they look dirty.” She also points at a toilet that was built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan scheme to make villages open defecation free. A sign saying “Beti dena uss ghar main, shauchalay ho jis ghar main (marry your daughter into a home which is equipped with a toilet) is posted next to it. Ramkali says, “We don’t use these toilets because we don’t have water. We’re already living in dirt and sweat. We don’t have water to clean the toilet, so it’s better not to use them and make them filthy.”

What about the hand pump installed in the village? “Maybe the upper castes don’t want to share it with us as they themselves are not getting enough water from it. We don’t want to get into any kind of confrontation with them.”

Newslaundry asks her if candidates contesting in the elections from Morena have visited the village. Ramkali says, “Politicians are the biggest liars. They claim they have introduced many schemes for tribals, but we’re not benefiting from a single scheme. Why do they have to do this drama? They should not claim anything when they have no serious intentions of doing anything for us.”

Another resident of Maraa village, 60-year-old Sugra Bai, had an unpleasant experience when she went to fetch water from the hand pump. She says, “I came to my hut after collecting leaves from the jungle. When I reached home, I saw my grandchildren crying out of thirst.” Sugra Bai went to the hand pump, where she found a Gujjar man providing water to his cattle. “I asked him to let me fill some water as my grandchildren were crying from thirst. But he paid no heed, and told me, ‘Pehle maveshiyon ko paani peene de, uske baad bhar laiyyo (Let cattle drink water first and then you can fill it for yourself)’.”

Sugra Bai tried to argue with him but says the man “intimidated” her, so she went back home. “After that incident, I never went to that hand pump again, as it can lead to a fight which is not good for our community.” She says the village’s Gujjars consider the hand pump their personal property and use it for cattle, though it was installed for the entire village. “At my age, I have to walk 3-4 kilometres to fetch water from the well.”

Water woes are all-pervasive among the Adivasi families in Maraa. Samla Devi, 50, says it’s their biggest problem, compounded by the fact that Gujjars do not allow them to use the hand pump. “Politicians don’t care much,” she says. “They may be aware of our problems, but they don’t want to help. Nobody cares about poor people.”

The four-kilometre trek to fetch water from the well is also taking its toll. Rampati, 27, has to leave her children alone at home when she goes to get water. “My husband works as a construction worker; he hasn’t been home for the last five months as there are no employment opportunities here. I have to leave my children alone at home when I go to get water from the well.”

Rampati, 27, has to leave her children alone at home when she goes to fetch water hours away.

According to Uday Bhan Singh, a social activist working in the villages of Chambal, the issue of water is widespread in the area. “The problem is escalated by the deep divide of caste, and tribals bear the brunt,” he says. “It’s true that Maraa villagers aren’t allowed by the upper caste to fill water from the hand pump.”

With the help of the administration, Singh provided an alternative arrangement by installing a motor in the well. “But some people from the upper caste community stole it away. The tribals didn’t lodge an FIR because if they had, the upper castes would have beaten them. The police also don’t pay attention to their problems.”

Singh says like Maraa, in other villages too the tribal population buys drinking water from the upper caste community—despite having a right to the water. “Casteism is a disease which thrives in this area. The upper castes treat tribals worse than second-grade citizens. However, such issues are never a concern for politicians in the elections. Instead, they’re busy mudslinging each other. Please don’t mind, but the media is also not doing what it should, and is responsible for such conditions.”

Another issue is the water level in the villages has gone down to 80-100 metres. The hand pumps installed by the administration only penetrate to 40 metres. Singh says: “The administration is installing 20 hand pumps but what is the use of them when they are unable to pump out water? They are just doing it for the heck of it. They give contracts to water transporters who just send a tanker of water to the villages and charge for 10 tankers. The situation is really grim, but the administration and politicians are not ready to accept that.”

Maraa’s crisis of unemployment

The men of Maraa are struggling with the huge job crisis in the region. The majority of them work as labourers in big cities, struggling to keep their families afloat. The other factor contributing to the lack of jobs is the barren farm fields thanks to the lack of water.

Vinod Adivasi is 31 years old, and says they’re forced to go to big cities for work as there’s nothing in Maraa. “I work in cities like Bengaluru and Jaipur where I earn ₹300-350. We work there for three to six months and try to survive with our families on that amount for the rest of the year. This is not out of choice—no one likes leaving their families.”

Vinod has two acres of land but can do nothing with it, as there is no water. “Sometimes we sow bajra, but then the upper caste leave their cattle in our farms for grazing. We can’t even complain because if we do and the police arrest them, we have to face the consequences. The family of the arrested person will come to our house demanding money as their kin was arrested on our complaint. Sometimes they even demand our land as compensation.”

Vinod shows Newslaundry his job card, provided to him in 2008 under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Not a single column of the card has been filled with details of work. He says, “The job card was made 11 years ago, but not a single job was done here under the MGNREGA.”

Vinod Adivasi showing his job card.

Thirty-year-old Mann Singh from the village also goes to cities like Bengaluru, Surat and Ahmedabad in search of employment. However, he says they’re often duped by contractors. “I work on a contract of ₹300 per day which brings in a monthly amount of ₹9,000. But the contractors give us only half the amount, saying the remaining half will be deposited in our accounts—which hardly ever happens. And we can’t do much about it.”

The men struggle with living away from their families for months. Ramdhan, 27, who has studied till Class 8, says he misses his wife and parents, but has no options. “We don’t have labour jobs here, so we have to go to big cities. In order to survive, we live half our lives away from our families.”

Newslaundry asked the villagers if either the BJP candidate Narendra Singh Tomar or the Congress’s Ramniwas Rawat visited them. Some of them weren’t even aware of their names. They’re resigned to the fact that they’ll cast their vote, as always, but their condition will stay the same.

Note: Though Gujjars come under Other Backward Castes in MP, tribal villagers refer to them as “upper caste”, or “oonche log“, because they are socially dominant and forward.