Amid acres of arid, brown land, a patch of bright sunflowers stuns the eye.
Sangeeta Damukhatke, who owns the five-acre field in Mahijalgaon village in Ahmednagar district, about 400 km east of Mumbai, was forced to leave most of it barren this year despite the decent rainfall in this drought-prone area.
The 3,000-odd residents of the village depend on her well for water. Every day, around 400 women and children walk across the sunflower bed, balancing steel pots on their heads, to draw water from the well.
“If I had used the water to irrigate the field, what would people of my village have used for drinking water?” asks Damukhatke (35).
She would not have needed to make this sacrifice if a 19-km canal pass that was to bring water to Mahijalgaon and other villages of the Karjat-Jamkhed region, where about 2.5 lakh people live, had been constructed.
In late-1997, the state government approved an irrigation project to bring the waters of Pune’s Kukdi River to the Sina Dam in Karjat. A network of small canals was then supposed to bring the dam’s water to Mahijalgaon and neighbouring villages.
The day the project was announced, a local lawyer, Kailash Shevade, decided to discard his footwear until it became a reality. Today, Shevade still walks around barefoot.
Local Shiv Sena MLA Sadashiv Lokhande claims the canal is almost done, but until then, the villagers will remain prisoners to the whims of the rain gods.
Mahijalgaon’s 50 wells filled up this year, but that is all that the villagers have to irrigate their fields, quench their thirst and carry out domestic chores.
Since July, the two dozen makeshift community taps installed under the state’s Drinking Water Supply Scheme for 17 severely water-deficient villages have been just relics.
The pipes, installed by a government-appointed contractor, developed cracks almost immediately.
“Even before the taps dried up in July, water used to come only once a month for some time, and even that was murky,” says Shantabai Shinde (65).
The arthritis patient and her nine-year-old grandson Hari walk to the well in Damukhatke’s field every evening for water.
Shinde can recount many stories about the “wars waged over water”. In the summer of 2005, a group of men had got into a brawl as they scrambled to fill water from the tanker and ended up in the police lock-up. A few years before that, two girls fell into a well and drowned while trying to draw water.
Mahijalgaon’s sarpanch Omkar Chable (52) had gone to the office of the zilla parishad, the district-level council that is implementing the state scheme, to complain.
“They said: ‘The taps have arrived, the water will too,” he says.
Successive legislative assembly members from the region have failed to give the residents water.
But liquor flows freely before every election. “The candidates host night-long drinking parties at fancy hotels to get votes,” says social worker Jayesh Kamble.
South Ahmednagar has remained backward compared with the northern part of the district partly because, for 32 years, the constituency has been reserved for scheduled caste candidates; it has been de-reserved for the upcoming election.
The Parliament and Legislative Assembly members rarely visited the villages after the election, while those in northern Ahmednagar worked to ensure that dams were built and drinking water supplied to every home.
“We did not have any godfather,” says Dr Raj Arole, who runs a health project in Jamkhed. “This time, we hope to elect someone who will actually work for the development of the region.”
The water scarcity has, however, done one good thing over the years — it has dissolved the caste divide. People from the upper and lower castes have no choice but to drink water from the same wells.
A 1996 Marathi sign on the wall of a well in Mahijalgaon reads: “This well is open to everyone, including untouchables.”