Gujarat: Water important survival and campaigning issue for women in Bhal community
Updated - Thursday 04 August 2011
Since 1981 Utthan has intervened for gender empowerment, livelihood security and conflict transformation for dalits, religious minorities, adivasis and poor in the Bhal region of Dhandhuka taluka, an area of the western state of Gujarat, India. Ashoke Chatterjee in his book Rising/Utthan describes Utthan’s journey into Bhal, one of the most difficult environments in Gujarat --- devastated by salinity, drought, barriers of caste and patriarchy as well as political neglect.
Utthan is a non-profit organisation, working in four water stressed and resource poor districts in Gujarat for the past twenty years.
Four young women fresh out of college ventured into this area to try and understand what options the communities might have for development and hope. Experience soon revealed that the key survival issue was drinking water, and that the burden of survival fell primarily on women, suppressed by a particularly harsh patriarchal society. A major experience in institution building than began, with drinking water as the catalyst. Utthan’s efforts commenced with identifying and working with local women with a potential for leadership and with stamina to face the physical, social and environmental barriers to change.
Fighting for water
Mr. Chatterjee focuses on the struggle of women and others to establish their rights over natural resources, primarily water, and their enormous achievements toward water security (including major technical breakthroughs with massive plastic-lined ponds to conserve and store rainwater as well as rooftop rainwater harvesting system) despite their efforts having been written off more than once as “hopeless”. A major part of this struggle has been to establish the right of women to take charge of at least some part of their lives and of local resources, often in the face of violent reaction from orthodox elements.
Keep water safe for consumption
Over the years, the struggle for water has transformed into campaigns for greater gender equity, family health, livelihoods and above all, for human rights. Sanitation emerged through strong awareness efforts to keep harvested water safe for consumption. Hygiene education has addressed the demand for dignity and privacy that women have expressed for years and that have remained unrecognised by the men in power and by official schemes that promote lowest-cost systems, rather than options that respond to needs and aspirations. An important example has been the inclusion of washing and bathing spaces as part of the sanitation package that women and families want and are willing to invest in.
One of the check dams
As Utthan’s work in water and sanitation accelerated, communities were mobilised around broader livelihood needs and around developing leadership among both women and men, and most particularly among communities left at the margins of local society. Forestry, fisheries and fuel production have been some of these efforts that now include a major thrust in lobster farming among fishing communities who are severely deprived. Watershed challenges in Utthan’s efforts have included the devastation of the 2001 earthquake and the 2002 pogrom against Muslim minorities in Gujarat. Relief efforts in both natural and man-made disasters underlined the critical importance of water and sanitation services that were equitable and gender sensitive.
Through these years, Utthan has been a major force in the water and sanitation movement in India, south Asia and globally, and has linked its work to issues of peace, conflict resolution and equity. Nafisa Barot has emerged as a spokesperson not only for the sector but for the human rights movement in this part of the world. For her and for the Utthan team, water and sanitation has been a gateway for a larger understanding of human rights, peace and the environment as foundations for genuinely sustainable development.
Currently, the book is available only through Business Standard Books, New Delhi. The overseas distribution of “Rising” is still being worked out by the publishers.
Ashoke Chatterjee is a volunteer working in the water and sanitation sector in India and overseas and with other development and educational institutions, including the Prabhat Education Foundation (Ahmedabad) for children with special needs. He was Executive Director of the National Institute of Design and President of the Crafts Council of India in a career that has also included the engineering industry, the International Monetary Fund and the public sector. Ashoke Chatterjee was one of the key authors and promoters of the Water for People Vision 21 in 2000. See the titles in our WASH digital library at http://www.washdoc.info/docsearch/results?lmt=20&txt=Ashoke+Chatterjee
Mr. Chatterjee and Utthan are from Ahmedabad.
Dick de Jong
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