The ghaghras (skirts) of the Bagariya women of Kotri in Ajmer bear the unmistakable brownish stain of period blood in various places. During their menstrual cycle, the Bagariyas restrict their movements as much as possible, curling up in one place and going about all of their daily chores sitting down. Faced with acute water shortage, they limit the number of their showers to one every three days, severely compromising their menstrual health.
It is a choice born out of compulsion, generations of Bagariyas have lived their lives in perpetual water scarcity coupled with all-encompassing poverty. There is never enough water to drink or cook, let alone to wash themselves or their stained clothes.
In the ghetto that The Red Cycle visited as a part of its ‘Apna Time Aayega’ project, 13 families of Bagariyas, a nomadic tribe spread across various parts of Kotri, know little of a life beyond the daily struggles of rationing their limited water supply to serve their various needs. Living on the fringes of Sambhar lake, with its flourishing salt industry, providing them cheap labour, the Bagariyas have been robbed of their right to live by the same salt pans that provide them with a source of livelihood.
Studies by Manthan Sansthan, the NGO working closely with the community, show that the salt industry has parched the already semi-arid desert regions of Kotri and Ajmer. Centuries of invisible exploitation by the authorities that chose to turn a blind eye to their plight has hit the women in these communities the hardest.
“I have to work in the fields and cook for the family even when I menstruate. It is not tabooed, we do not have the privilege for that. All I have to take care is that the same part of my ghaghra is stained, there isn’t enough water to wash the entire ghagra”, laments Sundari (name changed).
The Bagariyas have had to apportion a considerable part of the meagre incomes they make, mostly through MGNREGA work, to buy water. The tanks they store this water in was donated by Manthan Sansthan. There have been no attempts to draw groundwater from this region.
The salt pans have reportedly been a contributing factor in ruining their water table-turning every last well in their area salty. They are forced to buy water at exorbitant rates averaging about Rs. 450 per 1500 litres. The purchased water is in some instances reported as being ‘khara’ (salt water) and hence of non-potable quality. Deaths from diarrhoea, due to the shortage of safe drinking water have been widely reported among the community.
This particularly affects their younger members in their developmental years. With over 12-20 members per family, the quantity their paltry incomes will buy is far from sufficient, every surveyed member testifies. The amount is less than an entire day’s wage for most of the Bagariya households, with only about 7-8 earning members in families with up to 20 members. The unusual number of dependents per family also alludes to the scarcity that is limiting employment opportunities in Kotri.
During the vast majority of the year when MGNREGA work is not available and when incomes start to dwindle, Bagariyas like Chanchal Ji (name changed), for example, heading a household of 16 people cannot provide for his family with the Rs. 350 he makes daily while purchasing water at Rs. 450 per 1500 litres.
A life centred around an eternal water crisis and the repercussions of it’s scarcity, has on a ‘normal existence’ provide little opportunities for development for the Bagariyas. As it is, little in the name of development has trickled down to the Bagariyas.
Though the crisis has not differentiated between male and female members, women have borne its brunt being as they are, at the lowest level in the social ladder. A significant number of Bagariya women practice open bleeding. The only other options available are to use cloth or undergarments to hold the menstrual blood. Majority of the surveyed population were reported to be living in pukka houses, ironically, however, none of them, housing on an average 4-5 menstruators, contain a bathroom or a toilet.
According to a TBI report that came out in 2013, a few toilets constructed under various government schemes are dysfunctional or are in shambles. Little had changed when The Red Cycle’s volunteers visited the area last year.
Needless to say, expensive sanitary napkins do not figure as a viable option. Most Bagariyas possess not more than 2-3 pairs of clothes, meaning the soiled clothes are used multiple times after washing it with the little water available. Those practising open menstruation wipe off their period blood with pieces torn off from the garment they wear. The quality of this cloth also has a telling effect on their menstrual health causing rashes and infections. Buying new clothes to replace the stained ones is out of the question.
While menstruating, the women are forced to make the difficult decision of using the purchased water to clean their private parts or to save the water to cook for their family later.
The privilege to make menstrual health and hygiene a priority does not exist for the Bagariyas. The unavailability of water imperils the menstruators’ health in multiple ways. Dehydration is quite common in Kotri’s semi-arid plains. This, in addition to the unsanitary conditions they are exposed to due to the water crisis, takes a toll on the health of these women. The menstruating population consists of girls as young as 12- 13-year-olds, all of whom share the fate of their elder female relatives.
The girls live their pubescent years deprived of options to maintain basic menstrual hygiene, not to mention adequate water intake, endangering their reproductive health in particular and overall well being in general. Being of the school-going age, these girls are some of the community’s first generation of learners. Lack of availability of menstrual products forces them to drop out of school as they begin menstruating.
Some of the married girls in the community are as young as 15 years old, girls who have dropped out of schools and who now engage in a myriad of small jobs hoping to provide for their family. The only source of employment for the Bagariya women comes through MGNREGA, while the men guard the fields, the women are employed as agricultural or contractual labourers in construction sites.
The seasonal employment interspersed with vast periods of unemployment eats into their limited savings. With the limited avenues available for employment or any kind of development, for that matter, education has, since the beginning of time, so to speak, being the least of their priorities for the Bagariyas. None of the employed Bagariya women has any educational qualification to their credit. The only lessons they need are the ones to survive the scarcity. Every new generation is born into a world where everything revolves around a perennial drought.
Over the years, barring some noteworthy interventions by Manthan Sanstha that shed light on the lives they lead, the plight of the Bagariya households have largely eluded the gaze of policymakers and administrators. A part of the problem, it turns out, are the legal hurdles; an often overlooked deficiency in the fundamental rights guaranteed by our constitution.
According to a paper published by legal expert Jayna Kothari, the Right to water is protected by the Indian Supreme Court as a fundamental right under the larger Right to life guaranteed under Article 21. That is, in the Indian context, the Right to water, though inalienable, is a negative right. What this means in layman’s terms is that Article 21 merely guarantees recompense in the event of pollution of a water body or its destruction by industrial activity, mining etc. and comes as an extension to the Right to clean environment.
Therefore ensuring the availability of water is not an obligation of the state. In short, under the current laws, Bagariyas have little to expect from the authorities; they may sue the burgeoning salt industries if there is credible proof of the destruction to their water sources by them. This is not to say the state is justified to have shrugged off responsibility for years, but the legal hurdles surely need to be cleared.
The Red Cycle’s ‘Apna Time Ayega’ project is structured to address these issues and to seek solutions to their problems from within the community itself. Repercussions that stem out from the scarcity are many, as has been evidenced. The Red Cycle envisions a collaborative effort along with Manthan Sansthan at the grassroots level to help mitigate the water scarcity in totality and with an added focus on the women’s menstrual needs, and often sidestepped aspect of the crisis.
About the author: Anjana Kesav is a volunteer at The Red Cycle. She is a final year engineering student at NIT Calicut.