Life is wilting in large swathes of southern India under an unrelenting drought, but a motley crowd of ordinary women are also helping hope to sprout with their doggedness in the face of adversity.
Scores of them have come together to dig wells in Kerala’s Palakkad district and rewrite their destiny amid the unprecedented dry spell. Successive monsoon failure has left their land parched and robbed them of their livelihood. Though many are going hungry, very few are thirsty, thanks to the unique initiative by the women’s collective.
Since October last, when the first signs of a prolonged drought became more visible, the women of Ottapalam block have been furiously digging wells with spades and shovels rather than let despondency take over. By last count, they have dug 180 deep wells, ensuring adequate source of drinking water for those in the region.
P Ammini is one such beneficiary. Even at the best of times, she had to trek three kilometres to fetch a few pots of water. But now that the situation is dire, things actually have turned for the better for her. A well has been dug nearby and she has access to clean water for drinking and even a quick bath.
The sleepy village of Pookottukavu has many such stories to narrate. Last year, at the peak of summer, housewife Sathyabhama was forced to sell her two cattle calves as she had run out of both fodder and water. This year, she had just bought three of them.
The women well-diggers say desperate times brought in dramatic changes in them. “We never had any experience of digging wells. But our collective spirit helped us learn the trick easily. Now we have warmed up to it and most of us get into 80-feet deep without any fear,” said K Radha, drenched in mud as she came out of a well holding a shovel.
Packing her children off to stay with relatives at distant places was a annual practice with Radha to beat the water scarcity. This year, her sons have stayed back with her.
In tiding over the water crisis, the Ottapalam women have also breached what was perceived to be a male bastion. Digging deep wells was seen a risky job requiring hard labour and special skills that only men possessed. But sporting coloured lungis and shirt, the women are venturing deeper in their search for water and pulling down long-held beliefs.
The current drought has been particularly bad. South-west monsoon was deficient by 33.7% and the north-east monsoon less by 60% last year. A majority of the 44 rivers that cut across the state, acclaimed as God’s Own Country, are either dry or near-dry, hitting the farming and plantation sectors hard. Locals are left to fret and fume since power supply has also been hit with generation of hydro-electric power severely curbed for want of water. An otherwise booming realty sector is staring at a harsh reality: severe restrictions on the usage of water have halted much of the construction activity.
Locals say they had a sense of the shape of things to come since last year when peacocks and wild animals began raiding villages near the forests last year in search of water. “We sensed impending danger when flocks of peacocks arrived in our locality. When they strayed earlier, they used to fly back, but now they made our countryside their permanent habitat,” said a villager. Then followed the elephants and wild boars and by December the villagers were bracing for a debilitating drought.
The womenfolk have, however, given Ottapalam something to cheer about amid widespread despair. “When we started in last October, most of our workers were unskilled. But they turned experts in no time and now at least 300 women are engaged in digging wells,” explained panchayat president K Jayadevan.
The women do not dig for free and are paid under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). But the wells work out lot cheaper: against the average cost of 60,000 rupees for a well, the ones dug by the women cost half the amount.
Palakkad MP MB Rajesh is ecstatic with the results. “It is a classic example of how best to use government funds. When monsoons failed, the women rose up in style,” he said.