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Dalits Face Torture, Their Drinking Water Contaminated With Shit In Parts Of Maharashtra

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Water scarcity has become one of the most complex conflicts in Maharashtra, where three individual stressors interact together to shape the conflict. The stressors can be understood as vertically-arranged layers.

The upper-most layer is ‘climate change‘, often perceived as an immediate cause. It plays a prominent role in the creation of water shortage. But, one needs to understand the other two layers as well—social stressors and gaps in policy—to understand the full extent of why water-based conflicts are becoming common.

Representational image.

Understanding the complex relationship of the layers is a must because today, authorities have a tendency to cite climate change as a soft ‘excuse’ for acute or chronic environmental hazards. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar blamingnature’s fury” for the floods in Bihar is a recent example.

Social Stressors

This stressor forms the more hidden and rigid layer. Caste boundaries continue to form a very saddening reality in India and are more visible in rural areas. People belonging to historically marginalised castes have a separate neighborhood in villages, known as Harijan or Dalit vasti (settlement).

Water scarcity at the village level operates differently for people from Dalit communities. The so-called upper-caste neighbourhoods are ‘prioritised’ for supplying piped water in the village.

A woman collecting water from a pit from riverbed due to drought in Maharashtra (Drought, Profile). Last year, over 29,000 villages in Maharashtra were declared to be drought-stricken by the government. This is the second simultaneous year for the state to be facing drought. (Photo by Prashant Panjiar/The India Today Group/Getty Images)

During environmental stress, water sources for people from Dalit communities are more unreliable and subject to unavailability. Their difficulties intensify relatively more. To avoid fetching water from distant sources, polluted water is often consumed in such situations.

Drought affects everyone, but, the so-called lower-caste families are worst affected. This is so because they are the ones who mostly don’t own land, have limited water storage capacity, and lack resources to ‘purchase’ water from tanker suppliers or transport it from distant sources. They are the ones who are forced to stand last in the queue for tanker water supply.

Representational image.

There are multiple registered atrocities agains Dalit communities in the name of ‘water-based conflicts’. Water sources are ‘owned‘ public structures by Savarnas, and people from Dalit communities are threatened in different ways if they try to access water or demand rights for water.

For example, Paranjpe et, al. (2007) who studied this conflict in the Konkan region of Maharashtra wrote about how sources of water used by people from Dalit communities are contaminated by putting human excreta.

Threats, torture, and violence faced by people from Dalit communities for accessing water have been a common occurrence. In villages like Vantakli, Kusumba, and Ghodka Rajauri, Dalit women were targetted, abused and assaulted badly while accessing water.

Cases show how Dalit people have been tortured through verbal abuse, blaming them, jealousy for the schemes they can avail, a ‘conspiracy’ within the village against them and brutal violence-all around water conflicts.

Representational image.

Not only at the village and micro-level, but caste also drives private-sector lobbying and political connections. From the beginning, when Yashvantrao Chavan started the Maharashtra Sugar Cooperative movement, only 96-clan Maratha caste persons ruled the sugar lobby of Maharashtra.

Others were selectively not allowed to be part of this lobby. The lobby has a large network of cooperative banks, societies, farms, traders, police, and politicians. This lobby has played a major role in unequal water distribution at the macro-regional levels.

The Climate Change Layer

Climate change has been altering monsoon patterns and generating acute weather events (like flooding) and chronic weather conditions (like drought) in nearby geographic areas at the same time. The state of Maharashtra has witnessed both events this year parallelly.

One the one side, the Western Maharashtra region including Kolhapur, Satara, Sangli, and Pune have faced flash floods. While on the other side, districts like Beed, in the Marathwada region has been reeling under drought conditions.

For representation only.

Water scarcity has become a chronic condition for Maharashtra due to increasing air temperatures, delayed and irregular rainfall, and depletion of groundwater.

Gaps In Water-Related Policies And Implementation

The story of the globalised Indian society today tells us how the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.

The story repeats itself in case of the water policy too where unequal distribution of water has led to a shortage for economically vulnerable sections of society.

Several reasons cause this unequal distribution. Lobbying by sugar factories often helps them ‘steal’ the water resource.

The word ‘stealing’ here, is self-explanatory about the state of sugarcane production in Maharashtra. Sugar and sugarcane industries are owned or controlled by politicians and political representatives and have always received privileges.

Addressing The Problem

Urgent action to resolve water conflicts must consider the extent of the three stressors. Action must range from structural measures like systematic rainwater harvesting in the rainy season, water management at the regional level, to non-structural measures like identifying economic, social inequities as the root of the problem and also raising collective voice through pressure groups.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

Featured Image For Representation Only.
This post is also a part of YKA's first user-run series, Water Wars, by Zeba Ahsan. Join the conversation by adding a post here.
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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