From solar power schemes to behaviour change solutions, the spread of water projects in Rajasthan is making a difference for tribal communities
“All our household chores would be planned around procuring water. Even cooking food had to wait.” Methi Bai is matter of fact while recalling how life used to be in her village, Kuran in Rajasthan’s Pali district. “There were so many things to do. We women never got any rest.”
The water story, and the woes attached to it, was similar for Sita Devi from Nai Jameen village in Sirohi district. “We had to make two-three trips every day to get our fill of water,” she says. “I would go in the morning soon as I woke up, then before going to work. And yet again in the evening after coming back from work.”
The drudgery of it all is a distant, if still unpleasant, memory for Methi Bai and Sita Devi, two among many thousands of women whose lives have changed for the better thanks to a range of water programmes nurtured by the Centre for microFinance (CmF), an associate entity of the Tata Trusts, in the Sirohi and Pali districts of Rajasthan.
CmF got started in Rajasthan with its water-for-wellbeing endeavour in 2016 through a water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) initiative that has reached more than 12,000 households in about 200 villages. In 2019, it seeded a ‘community-managed safe drinking water supply project’ — where the emphasis is on solar-powered solutions — to help 67 habitations in 51 villages access potable water.
Also in the CmF mix has been an extensive behaviour-change programme, driven by creative social-art campaigns, to educate at-risk villagers of the dangers posed by fluorosis (a medical condition caused by the intake of fluoride in excess from drinking water). Through colourful stage shows in rural settings, these campaigns have reached nearly 28,000 people.
Community mobilisation, participation and ownership have been central to the success CmF has secured from its water-themed spread of initiatives for these rural folks, the majority of whom belong to the socially backward Grasiya and Bhil tribes. Water-user groups (WUGs), pani samitis (water committees) and training in the maintenance and operation of water infrastructure are essential features in the quest to get village communities deeply involved in the wider effort.
The first and most important part of CmF’s implementation process is to form a pani samiti in each hamlet where the scheme functions. This ensures the community’s support and ownership. A pani samiti, typically, has five responsibilities: operation and maintenance of water infrastructure; collecting tariffs from users; cleaning of equipment and water chlorination; record-keeping; and conducting meetings regularly.
The overarching objective of the Trusts’ water mission in Rajasthan, as elsewhere, is to improve the quality of life of vulnerable communities. Having the villagers themselves in charge of their affairs translates into equitable access to water and a superior shot at sustaining the endeavour.
The lessons learned from the initial WaSH thrust — which included a menstrual hygiene component that covered 48,000-plus women and adolescent girls — were incorporated in the subsequent safe drinking water project. Among the additional elements are the development of water sources, pipeline and storage improvements, water purification and, not least, solar-powered water systems.
The idea of using solar power seems inevitable in hindsight, given that electricity supply from the grid was erratic at best and non-existent at worst, and expensive to boot. “Our WUGs were struggling with the electricity issue, charges were on the higher side and malfunctions were common,” says Pankaj Papnoi, a programme manager with CmF. “The solar power option came at the right time and was instantly adopted by village communities. The dependability in water supply now has led to improved health, hygiene and sanitation outcomes.”
There is a deliberate gender bias in CmF’s water programmes, and a welcome one too. “Women are the key beneficiaries of our water initiatives,” adds Mr Papnoi. “Having a functional tap connection in their homes means they no longer have to endure the burden of fetching water from faraway sources. It saves them two-three hours every day.” Methi Bai and Sita Devi would surely agree.