„Water for Life“: Marching to the beat of their drums

The Bhils – India’s second-largest tribal community – believe that time gets wasted the minute you want something from it. But life becomes magical if one savors the beauty of time, enjoying its ebb and flow regardless of whether it gives something or not.

I don’t know whether all of this necessarily refers to my time in Jhabua. I used to work here for the Daimler Group and Caritas „Water for Life“ cooperation as program manager at Indo-Global Social Service Society. However, for sure is: time does move at a different pace in this part of Central India.

Feeling like a stranger

I remember my initial visits here in 2011: waiting at New Delhi station for a train that finally leaves late in the night; anxiously looking for a small station called Meghnagar the next morning. Sixteen kilometers away lies Jhabua – according to statistics, the most backward tribal district in Madhya Pradesh. The field team is from the local Bhil community. I felt I was like an enemy and subservient for them. For a long time I was still the outsider because of the differences between the field team and me. Even as an insider, it is hard to be accepted as one of their own.

Breaking the ice

We travel to the villages together. The topography is unfamiliar. The terrain is hilly. I hear the women talking about how far they have to travel each day to get water. The hamlets are now separated by maize fields – the crops are growing so high that you can’t see beyond. We continue walking, stopping occasionally to meet groups on the way.

The women congregate wherever they can; whenever they can. In ‚ghoongat‘ (veiled), their voices sound loud and clear when they speak about their lives. They work almost 16 hours a day – at home and in the fields. To break the ice, I talk instead of my home and my dreams. I make my personal motives as clear as I can. I try to explain that I am here for professional reasons and the motive for my stay. And that there are no promises and no immediate gains that will accrue. The responses are mixed and muted during the early days.

Development with the help of Daimler

Six years later, I find myself back in Jhabua, my erstwhile watering hole, ironically on International Women’s Day. A lot has changed here – the Bhil women’s watch group has been recognized as torchbearers by the Ministry of Rural Development with the financial help of Daimler and Caritas Germany.  The newer women’s groups are working on strategic control over water resources, organizing themselves into Water User Groups (WUG) alongside the men.

Each WUG carries the responsibility of sharing, managing and maintaining the water bodies in their respective village. They tell me that 14 groups have been constituted in ten villages, with 179 active members overall. They also tell me how one can become a voluntary member – the criteria is the intention to provide time and resources for the management of common property resources.

Capacity building is a dynamic process that is based on the specific needs of the WUGs. It moves from functional skills of formation and strengthening of groups to issue-based information and awareness-building. And finally to higher cognition and conscientization for collective action and sustained engagement. The women speak proudly of an increased awareness of aspects of low cost water and soil conservation. They are planning the positions of water resources within a particular topography and a more judicious management of available resources.

Recent successes have included the coming together of communities, facilitated by the groups, to contribute labor and resources for the renovation of seven bodies of water in these villages. Because of the development, another 60 hectares of land are now being irrigated for cultivation.

WUG members of the Semliya and Gadwada villages have presented a responsible model of water management. This summer, they want to allocate water, especially and systematically, for livestock. The rule will provide relief to the animals and support for off-farm-based livelihoods, aside from irrigation in agriculture.

Mirror of my personal journey

Looking at these women, I am filled with hope. All these processes seem to mirror my own personal journey. A connection established over the last six odd years. Much has changed in my life as well: from a young angry feminist struggling to find her place in this fractured landscape to someone who learnt to ask questions and to acquiesce to the inevitability of social change processes. From a development worker seeking meaning and direction to someone who is claiming her own space in her own way.

Returning to Jhabua on International Women’s Day has been a reliving of a deeply personal, yet collective celebration of moving forward.

She is Head of Programs at the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), a national development organization based in New Delhi.