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Friday, May 23, 2008

Bamboo water

When all attempts at alerting government to the water scarcity in Orissa’s Malkangiri district failed, a group of tribal women turned to an ingenious traditional solution – using bamboo poles to transfer water from a stream to their village Kamala Hentala has seen two sides of the world.

She used to live in a village that was displaced by the Machhakund dam project in Orissa’s Malkangiri district. There she had plenty of water. Then she was moved to a new location where she was promised fresh avenues of earning a living - all of which have eluded her. It’s an alien world for Kamala, and she is confronted with a myriad problems. The place she now lives in ranks among the 10 most underdeveloped districts in India, as assessed by the Planning Commission.

Government apathy
Until recently, Kamala had a lot of hope in the government. But with nothing ever changing in Mahupadar village, she and a group of women from the village decided to take their lives in their own hands, at least as far as solving their water problems was concerned.

Mahupadar village was not on the revenue map when Kamala and her fellow villagers decided to settle there after a long search in the jungles for a place to live. They received no compensation by the government that displaced them; they were simply left to fend for themselves. Mahupadar now has got revenue status but is still devoid of any basic amenities.

There is no proper road to the village, no hospital, no school, and no electricity. Ironically, the reservoir that displaced Kamala provides electricity to urban-dwellers and the elite. “We are still fighting for patta (land right deeds) of the lands we have settled on,” says Balaram Hentala, the head of this tribal village inhabited by primitive tribes like the Paraja, Rana, Gadra, Bhumij, etc.

Haunted by the fear of radical groups in the area and exploitation by outsiders, these simple villagers who earlier practised only shifting cultivation and forest food-gathering now faced a new threat in their new location - acute water scarcity. Each day, women and men negotiated over 2 km of rocky terrain to reach a stream to collect water.

“During the four summer months, we faced the worst problems,” says Kamala. Ratnakar Das, a local journalist, describes the scene: “Women holding pots and utensils walking along the hilly terrain, and the men following them with bows and arrows, as escorts.” “Our men had requested the nearby villagers and local political leaders for help. But nothing happened,” says Kamala who then decided to take the lead and change the fate of the villagers forever. “We convened a meeting of the women of five villages -- Mahupadar, Khilaguda, Balichuan, Kamadi, and Bandaguda, which face similar problems.” All wanted water, because collecting water took up most of their time.

Charting their own course

The women decided to bypass an apathetic government and devise a way to bring water from the stream to the villages. They decided to fall back on a well-known local technique. “We thought of bringing water from the stream to our villages through bamboo pipes,” says Gurubari Khila, a woman leader from Khilaguda village.

Over a hundred women from the five villages embarked on a project to cut, polish and join bamboo pipes that would transport water from the stream to the villages. The plan was successful. Soon, water began to flow to the villages through the pipes and the arduous trudge up the hill stopped. During summer, however, the bamboo pipes could not supply enough water to the villages, even though the stream had sufficient water flowing in it.

The women then began on the second phase of their project. They collected dry wood from the forests, cut the pieces into two equal halves and carved them into the shape of a boat. After joining the logs together, they were able to divert all the water from the stream to the villages. They built tanks in the villages to collect the water, and then transported it to their homes using bamboo pipes.

“These women have worked wonders, even without our help,” says Balaram. The simple yet effective plan is now benefiting around 800 tribal people in this remote area of India. There is now enough water in the villages not only for domestic use but also to grow millets and vegetables. Encouraged by this, the women have formed a self-help group and are trying to take up other issues.

“We will now form a pressure group and ask the government to help us set up schools and hospitals and get electricity to our villages,” says a happy Kamala. Let’s hope the government takes notice of such local initiatives and realises that big dams will not lift places like Malkangiri up in the development rankings unless the lives and economic conditions of the region’s tribals improve.

By Ranjan K Panda, an Orissa-based researcher and writer.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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