Water a tool for practicing caste-based inequality: Women’s role in overcoming ‘water oppression’ in Gujarat

dalit women“If you need our support then you have to drink a glass of water or tea from our hands”. This is a statement of any Navsarjan worker if a non-Dalit, i.e. a person from the so-called upper caste community, comes to seek legal support from her or him. During its journey in fighting-caste based system and empowering Dalits, i.e. the so-called untouchables, by ensuring that they get social justice, Navsarjan used this principle in attempting to reduce caste-based inequality. Manjula Pradeep, executive-director, Navsarjan, takes a look:  

The core question that comes in the mind of majority of Indians, whether they live in rural or urban areas, when they take or are offered a glass of water, is: What would be the caste of the person? The only reason is they are afraid of getting polluted or defiled.

Caste system is sanctified in Hindu religion. It is used as a powerful weapon by the dominant communities to keep the caste system intact and existing up till now. Water is seen as pure and sacred. Therefore, it is used by the non-Dalits to purify them in case they get polluted or defiled by the touch of the Dalits.

The Indian Constitution has clearly mentioned in its Article 15 (2) that “no citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of state funds or dedicated for the use of the general public.”

Article 17 says: “Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of “untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.

To protect the rights of the Dalits and Tribals in India, Prevention of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) Act was enacted in 1989. Section 3-1(13) of this Act says that if a member of non- SC community corrupts or fouls the water of any spring, reservoir or any other source ordinarily used by members of the SCs or STs so as to render it less fit for the purpose which it is ordinarily used, then the person would be punished under this law.

Despite of the legal protection and affirmative action, untouchability exists in various forms, and one of the major causes of atrocities is untouchability related to water. Below is the list of places where water related untouchability exists in public sphere:

  • Village well/s
  • Water tap/s located in non-Dalit area
  • Public tap/s
  • In the school
  • In the panchayat
  • At the village pond, washing or bathing places
  • At the bus stand

The Bengal census of 1901 says, “Even wells are polluted if a low caste person draws water from them, but a great deal depends on the character of the vessel used and of the well from which water is drawn. Masonry well is not as easily defiled as one constructed with clay pipes, and if it exceeds three and a half cubits in width so that a cow may turn round in it, it can be used even by the lowest castes without defilement”.

A study of untouchability practices going on in the work areas of Navsarjan was compared with the 1971 survey on untouchability conducted by late IP Desai. From the comparison it came out that in 1971, 44 villages had separate water facility for the SCs near their localities. Two villages had been added to this list in 25 years. Untouchability is not experienced in normal times, but when water is scarce, the SCs experience difficulty and discrimination in taking water from high-caste localities.

In the remaining 23 villages in which untouchables take water from the common source, untouchability is practiced in 61 per cent of the villages. In most such villages SC women take water after upper-caste women, or their tap, or position on the well is separately marked. In seven villages (11 per cent of the sample villages) the SC women are not allowed to fetch water from the well. They have to wait till the upper caste women pour water into their pots. The upper-caste women who shout at them constantly humiliate the SC women: “Keep your distance, do not pollute us!”

The practice of untouchability in the private sphere is much more prominent. Some of the gestures of the dominant communities towards the Dalits are:

  • Pouring water from the above to the Dalits.
  • Non-Dalits keeping a separate vessels (i.e. on the roof or outside house) for the Dalits to offer them water or tea when they come to their house.
  • Sprinkling water on the money given by the Dalits in the shop owned by the Non Dalits.
  • Non-Dalit landlord sprinkling water on the fodder brought by the Dalit labourer to his house.
  • Many dominant communities in order to purify themselves sprinkle water while entering their houses, or dip one of their fingers in the dirty water, on getting defiled by the touch of a scavenger person, i.e. person whose main occupation is to clean filth and human excreta.

Navsarjan’s journey into Dalit movement

Navsarjan began its journey into the Dalit movement by addressing the issue of drinking water. In 1990 when Navsarjan started its work in five villages of Dholka, the rule was simple: Fight against incidents of oppression and with the help of this activity, create people’s organizations. Work in five villages helped Navsarjan to create an atmosphere.

At that time, two or three incidents of oppression regarding water came to Navsarjan’s notice. We thought that instead of rushing like a fire engine to a place of fire, this problem needed a close scrutiny and it was also important to find out in how many villages such incidents had occurred. Instead of taking up one or two cases we decided to focus on the problem of water in the entire area. From the survey undertaken by Navsarjan we came to know that water problem mainly relating to drinking water was serious in 42 out of 50 villages.

After the survey, Navsarjan for some time stopped taking up individual cases and started discussing with people of all those villages that faced water problem. We went from house to house, called meetings, discussed the problem with people and made plans about how to go about. To provide a collective shape to the movement, the Dholka District Prevention of Water Oppression Committee was formed. Under this committee, on March 23, 1992, a silent rally was taken out to the District Administrator’s Office (DAO). In this rally Dalits, mainly women, carried in bottles samples of polluted and dirty water that they had been drinking.

Dalit women told only one thing to the district administrator, “If you can drink this water (bottled) then we have no other demand.” In Dholka taluka the question was not of scarcity or shortage but of unequal distribution. The dominant castes who were the residents of the village got water in abundance. Only Dalits had to face hardship and insult for getting water. To resolve this problem certain conditions were stated in the written memorandum:

1. Make arrangement to supply immediately potable water to acute scarcity affected villages of Utelia, Lakshmipura, Bhetawada, Saragwada, Samani, Keshargadh, Begwa, Vejalka and Gangad. Supply hygienic, clean potable water at the rate of forty liters per person.

2. Form a committee under the district administrator’s supervision comprising women members of the villages under the Prevention of Water Oppression Committee. This committee should also involve district’s DYSP officials and representatives of voluntary organizations in formulating water supply plan. This committee should meet every month and attempt to resolve the problem of drinking water and issues arising out of it. The government should provide the committee necessary funds. Periodic testing of the purity of the water should also be undertaken.

3. Women are most affected by water problem, so in resolving this problem, the government should consider its cooperation very important. In discussion of issues like number of stand posts, taps, their location etc. decision should be taken giving due importance to women. The Village Women’s Committee should be given the responsibility of operating the bore well, cleaning of water tank, spraying of medicine etc. For this women should be given necessary training, and adequate funds should also be allocated to them.

4. Separate water arrangement should be made for Dalits at places indicated by them. Dalits should also be taken into confidence while deciding location of separate water stand post and its level. The issue of social justice of the Dalits should be given priority.

5. Only those who pay water tax to the panchayat should get water. There should be control on the use of water for irrigation. All those fistful of people, who at present use water from public lakes and make maximum use of water for personal use, should be taxed.

Efforts to prevent water injustice

With the efforts of Navsarjan and the programmes conducted by the Committee for Prevention of Water Injustice, the district administrative officer (DAO) got active. The officials who used to keep away from Dalit colonies started visiting them. The committee started holding regular meetings. The DAO accepted the alternatives regarding water management suggested by the committee, and in spite of many hurdles the organization — the Committee for Prevention of Water Injustice — was successful in implementing them. The water problem — the root cause of Dalits’ oppression —  got resolved in about 30 villages.

In more than 20 years of its existence, Navsarjan has covered around 3,100 villages of 56 talukas in 18 districts of Gujarat. We have seen that it becomes difficult for Dalits mainly in the summer season or when there is drought situation to even get enough water to drink, forget about water for other purposes.

In the Saurashtra region, there are some villages where Dalits have to buy water in the summer season. There are some villages where non-Dalit youth stand with sharp blades in their hands. When Dalit women come to fetch water from water tanker, they cut the thread of their ghaghras i.e. long skirts. There are many villages where Dalit women get up very early, i.e. 4 am, and walk for at least 3-4 km to a dry pond. They dig the pond and then fetch the water in their pots. It takes almost 2-3 hours to finish this task.

Navsarjan, through its legal aid cells, has been dealing with the issue of atrocities and violence on Dalits, women and other poor. Below are some of the cases of atrocities based on untouchability related to water, which were dealt by us:

  • Rekha, a Dalit woman of village Rojid in Barvala taluka of Ahmedabad district, was insulted and beaten up when she went to fetch water from a public tap. She filed a complaint under various sections of IPC and the atrocities Act. Due to this the entire Dalit community was socially boycotted by the so-called higher castes. Following the complaint police arrested the accused. Five persons, including three women, were sentenced to imprisonment of 3 years while one of the accused was declared innocent. The government was forced to provide alternative drinking water arrangement to Dalits.
  • The wife of the complainant Kantibhai Kachrabhai Rohit of Jalundh village in Khambhat taluka of Anand district was severely beaten up by the accused Bhailalbhai Trikambhai Patel and others when she had gone to a well owned by a so called higher caste person to fetch water. She was also prevented from drawing water from the public well to water her crops. When the complainant came to the rescue of his wife, he was also beaten up and abused. Other family members were also assaulted. Kachrabhai Kalyanbhai Rohit, a Dalit, succumbed to his injuries in the incident. A complaint was filed with the police pursuant to whom the trial court convicted some of the accused to varying terms in jail. The accused went in appeal against the conviction.
  • The Borsad municipality had persistently refused to supply water to the Dalit area of the area of Borsad town for more than 20 years. Petitioner Kamlaben Govindbhai Makwana and Navsarjan Trust made a number of representations to various authorities but to no avail. Ultimately, the petitioner and Navsarjan were constrained to file a writ petition in the High Court of Gujarat and obtain necessary orders. Navsarjan’s local workers were o0ffered Rs .25,000 to withdraw the writ petition. The volunteers did not fall in their trap. The defendants then tried to break the unity of the victims by providing hand pumps to some of the Dalit families.      Even after the Gujarat High Court passed orders directing that Dalits be supplied with water through pipeline, the defendant authorities did not comply with the same. It was only after the petitioner filed a contempt petition in the High Court that the defendants complied with the orders of the court.

Availability and non-availability of water both has created problems. But the most degrading practice that exists all over India, including Gujarat, is the practice of manual scavenging, i.e. cleaning of human excreta and filth manually. This occupation is very much caste based and done mainly by scavengers who are last in the ladder.

There are dry latrines in Gujarat which are cleaned manually by removal of the human excreta and putting in a basket or tin. The government denies its existence. The flush latrines have also resulted into another inhumane practice, i.e. cleaning of man-holes by going inside it. It results in death of the manhole cleaners due to the inhalation of carbon-monoxide.

A peep into history: Dalit liberation

Finally I would like to bring back the history of Dalit liberation in Gujarat. The story speaks about Dalit liberation to end untouchability against all the Dalits in Gujarat during that time. Although history, dominated by the Brahmins and the dominant castes did not recognize either Mahya or his struggle against untouchability, this history is alive in the lives of Dalits today.

In earlier times, untouchables had to tie a pot in their neck to spit, a broom at their waist so as to wipe off their footprints and have an extra sleeve on their shirt to proclaim a distinct identity of an untouchable.

Gujarat was then ruled by King Siddhrajsinh Solanki and the capital was Patan. Patan was under the grip of drought and people were dying without water. Astrologers suggested to the king that, if a perfect man was offered in a step well, the water would spring from the earth. To hunt for the perfect man ended a person named Mahya, who hailed from Ranoda village in Dholka taluka of Ahmedabad district, was identified. Mahya agreed to die, provided three demands were met:

  • Untouchables thereafter shall not be required to hang the pot (kulladi) in the neck.
  • Untouchables thereafter shall not be required to tie the broom (jhadu) to their waist.
  • Untouchables thereafter shall not be required to wear the third sleeve (fadko) on their shirt.

The demands were agreed to and Mahya was offered in the step well which is present in a ruined condition in Patan city of Gujarat (India) today.

When Dalits construct the house today in rural areas of Gujarat, they put a copper pot in the foundation. On the door of the house they tie a green festoon (chundadi), since Mahya was a bachelor, and they tie a piece of cotton on the central horizontal pillar (mobh) of the roof whenever a new house is constructed to keep the history of Mahya’s struggle against untouchability alive.

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