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Women map their lives

By Pamela Philipose

The women of Itaha Kalpi, a drought-hit village in Bundelkhand, UP, came together across caste lines to map water and other resources available in their village in rangoli, and then on paper. In the process, the barefoot cartographers also learnt to map their inequities, their aspirations and demands, and began to voice these

The women of Itaha Kalpi

At 11 am, Itaha Kalpi, in Uttar Pradesh’s Jalaun district, could be any village in the vast, rolling heartland of India: A few neem trees, a cluster of tenements, the majority of which are still tiled in the old-fashioned way, tethered buffaloes peaceably chewing their cud, some scuttling hens guiding their broods across stone-paved lanes. Add to this list the ubiquitous sight of women at handpumps, endlessly filling up their buckets and canisters for home and hearth, and you get a snapshot of Itaha Kalpi.

For the women here, procuring water has emerged as the single biggest task of their day. Ask them when they get some rest and they will ironically retort, “Only when we die.” Their words reflect the crisis confronting this village, and many others like it that fall in the drought-hit Bundelkhand region of UP.

Itahi Kalpi’s women understand the crisis of water because it has come right into their homes. Some of them can even map it for you, thanks to the efforts of the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, a civil society organisation based in Orai, the headquarters of Jalaun district. Says Mamata, a cluster coordinator with Parmarth, who has been regularly visiting this village for the last three years, “In 2008, when I first came here, we set up a discussion group and the main issue that figured was water, especially drinking water. Women complained they spent all their time collecting water, even up to five hours a day.”

Parmarth now hopes, through a project supported by the European Union, to build awareness at the village level and lobby with the authorities at the district level to establish the principle that women in Bundelkhand must have first right to water. It is also working to forge a network of Jal Sahelis, or water friends, between the women in the region, to put this agenda on the table.

Reveals Mamata, “At first, nobody sat together to talk. We also found that the women were too shy to speak before the men, and retreated behind their long ghunghats.”

When Mamata asked the local women how many houses there were in the village, they hadn’t a clue. The also didn’t know the existing water resources. They couldn’t tell her how many handpumps there were and how many wells. Women who had come to the village as brides a quarter of a century ago, just could not perceive their immediate neighbourhood in any precise way. “I then told them, the government does not listen to one woman. But if all of them came together as a group, they had a better chance of being heard. By themselves they were nothing, but if 20 of them speak together, it becomes an issue.”

That was how the women of Itaha Kalpi came together across caste lines and set up a Self-Help Group (SHG). They also became barefoot cartographers. As Mamata explains, the idea of mapping the neighbourhood was to help build awareness, “We put together our knowledge of the village by drawing it on the floor. Once the map took shape, everybody could see for themselves the lie of the land. They could see that while one locality in the village may have a couple of handpumps, another had none. How some wells had brackish water and how that means that the women using it have to go further in search of drinking water.” Slowly, the number of those who lived in the village became evident. The women discovered that there were 427 males and 397 females in the village; that there were 98 Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and the rest were dalits.

The women in Itaha Kalpi had always done rangoli patterns outside their lintels, especially on festive occasions. So they brought this talent to their map-making. Different colours were used to denote different things: Black from charcoal powder denoted pakki sadak, or paved roads. Brick powder indicated bricked roads, while pink chalk powder was for mud tracks, or katchchi sadak. Green dots indicated houses, blue circles represented wells, and blue arrows pointed to handpumps.

Explains Munni Devi, a local, “In this way we got a complete knowledge of our village. We understood why it took some of us so much longer to fill our buckets than others.” The women then decided to make their maps portable. “First we drew our map on the ground, literally like a rangoli, and then put it on the chart paper that our children used in school, so that we could take it around and show it to others in the village - and most importantly – to administrators and decisionmakers in the district.” 

In 2009, the village women petitioned their pradhan and the authorities agreed to fill up a dried up pond with water. That was not all. A dharna (sit-in) was organised outside the district magistrate’s (DM) office, during which the women took their empty clay pitchers and broke them before the DM. This was in 2010 and the action had an immediate impact: Two handpumps were re-bored and two wells were cleaned.

“Earlier nobody ever saw themselves as being able to argue their case before the authorities. That changed. A lot of inhibitions were shed,” remarks Aarti Devi, who assists Mamata. “They got a good idea of what their resources were and what they can expect from the government. They could now talk about wages on government worksites and explain that while they were supposed to receive Rs 100 a day, they got only half of that.”

Hemlata, another village resident, excitedly interrupts her, “We shouted at the officials, saying it is our right to get our full wages.” 

The map on the floor, meanwhile, began to grow. Says Akanksha Devi, 15, “We would now draw pakka ghar (bricked homes) and kachcha ghar (mud huts). We drew the mandir, the school, the local tank. We drew trees – neem, peepal, mango, eucalyptus and jackfruit. We also drew to show our fields and the crops that grew there, including wheat, channa, masur, moong, arhar.”

One issue did emerge very strongly in all this map-making: The need for education. Says Akanksha, who goes to the local school, “Women who could not write anything, learnt to write their own names. The feeling in these parts is that a kisan (farmer) doesn’t need education. But actually we understood why we needed to educate ourselves.” She herself plans to go to college after finishing high school. Her friend, Akilesh Kumari, 18 – who stitches garments to make a little extra money – has now started going to college twice a week and hopes to get a Bachelors degree in Hindi in three years’ time.

All the women in Mamata’s circle recognise that in order to live better lives they need, first of all, access to water; and that since women have had to spend a good part of their lives collecting it, they should have the first right to it. As one woman put it, “If we spend all our time hauling water like cattle, we become cattle. So it is time they gave us water -- water to drink, water for our animals, water for our farms.”

The maps of Itaha Kalpi have taught the women here many things and Mamata hopes that they will continue to do that. “Now we plan to make maps of the resources of each household. From there we can talk about the sharing of resources. In fact we plan to map everything that impacts our lives.”

Women's Feature Service, September 2011