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To fetch a pail of water

Society: Villagers in a distant village in Uttar Pradesh crawl 40 metres through a dark, dangerous, narrow tunnel

AJAY UPRETY in Lucknow
The Week, July 12, 1998

The sky was overcast even though it was 1 p.m. We, photographer R.K. Mishra and I, abandoned our vehicle at the Gangolighat tehsil and started the gruelling seven-kilometre climb through the rugged and hilly terrain to the Gantola village of Pitthoragarh district in Uttar Pradesh.

Fatigue made us stop several times during that arduous trek through the thick forests. It was not before four in the evening when we reached the tunnel, which the villagers respectfully call the Gupt Ganga, their only water source.

One had to stoop very low to enter the tunnel which is just two feet high and three feet wide. It was fairly dark inside and before my eyes could adjust I stumbled as the boulder under my feet gave way. It was a strange feeling as I crawled on my palms and toes, it was more than claustrophobic.

My clothes became muddy but that was hardly a worry. Here I was, totally exhausted after covering barely 15 metres and there was no sign of water, only mud. Perhaps the villagers were wrong, water must be miles away and perhaps I would never reach it. Mustering all the energy, I persisted for another 10 metres before I finally found some muddy water, but barely enough to fill a vessel. I dipped my fingers and tasted the water, and how sweet it tasted!

But it wasn’t time to relax yet. The villagers had warned me against venomous snakes and sharp-edged boulders. As I proceeded further, I found it difficult to breathe. As the uneasiness increased I started retreating cautiously but couldn’t prevent the boulders from peeling off the skin of my hand and feet. The yellow-grey walls covered with moss became narrower at places and this made my progress laborious. I was out of the tunnel after nearly an hour.

The rugged villagers can do it much more efficiently but many of them like Jasuli Devi, 60, have to repeat the process many times a day. At two in the morning, when the whole world sleeps, she traverses the inhospitable, hilly terrain, carrying along two heavy bronze gharas (pots).

She has to climb a hill to reach the tunnel before starting the 40-metre crawl. Finally, she emerges with one pot of water, keeps it on the mouth of the tunnel and again disappears into the tunnel to fill the other container. After an hour’s labour she hurries home only to return for more water. This time she has to wait as Dan Singh is already crawling. The tunnel can only accommodate one at a time. Thus, Jasuli literally has her hands full till three in the afternoon.

Around 200 villagers of Gantola have to suffer this ordeal every day for drinking water. Perhaps nowhere else in the country do people have to undergo such hardships for water as they do in this Thakur-dominated village 6,000 feet above sea level. It is not only grown up people but also children who crawl and carry heavy containers back to their homes on their heads. In fact, generations have exhausted their lives drawing water in this peculiar fashion.

No one knows how there is water in the Gupt Ganga, so called because water lies hidden and is perennial. Villagers believe that it is replenished by some unknown river stream meandering through hills. According to Dan Singh, 50, who has been collecting water from the tunnel since his childhood, its mouth was narrower but a saint had broadened it about 50 years ago so that people could use the water.

Often, the villagers have close encounters with venomous snakes inside the tunnel; they use locally available herbs to treat snake bites. As it is dark inside, the villagers have to carry torches or lamps. Nowadays, they have laid wooden planks on which they slide their filled vessels.As the area is surrounded by thick forests, the villagers have to be on their guard against wild animals, which can even hide inside the tunnel. Then, of course, there are the boulders with their razor-sharp edges.

Yet another threat, especially during the rainy season when muddy water seeps into the tunnel from outside, is posed by water-borne diseases. But it is the rainy season that gladdens the villagers. For, the level of water in the Gupta Ganga rises and comes almost to the mouth of the tunnel. They need not crawl at all during these four months. On the other hand, as water recedes during summer, they have to crawl 50 metres.

It is the women who are hit the hardest. Besides obtaining the water, they have to do all the domestic chores. “We are almost dead by the end of the day. Because of the water problem we can hardly sleep even two to three hours,” says Manjuli. Many families have left the village for good and settled elsewhere. Others still look forward to the day when their miseries will be over but there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Said Laxman Singh, the pradhan of Gantola: “Two surveys were conducted in 1994 and 1995 by the engineers of Jal Nigam who had made a promise to solve this problem. But their reports must be gathering dust somewhere as no action has been taken after that.”

Two years ago a sub-divisional magistrate had visited the village. Since then, there has been no response from the authorities to the various reminders by the representatives of the villagers. Even two months ago, the pradhan submitted an application in this connection.

The only way to bring water to Gantola is to lay pipelines connecting it to the nearby village, Bhama. The Jal Nigam demanded a no-objection certificate from the pradhan of Bhama so that they could start such a project. The villagers did submit one such certificate but the authorities did not accept it for reasons best known to them. Now they are insisting on a fresh no-objection certificate, according to Laxman Singh.

“Will there be a day when we will get tap water?” asks Chandan Singh, 10, with blisters in his palms and despair in his eyes.

Thirsting for a solution

The hills of Uttarakhand region may seem quiet but they are simmering and the tremors could be felt soon. Acute scarcity of drinking water and failure to harness the tremendous water potential of this Himalayan region are the reasons. Though blessed by the presence of the Ganga, Yamuna and their several tributaries, about 8,800 villages in the region are reeling under a severe water crisis. It is a common sight to see people walking several kilometres to fetch water.

The Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO) and Gharat Samiti have now launched a jal andolan (water movement) in the hills of Uttar Pradesh. Though devoid of political support, this movement is fast spreading to the interiors of Uttarakhand. The leaders demand a separate water policy for the region. The movement had organised two padyatras last year to highlight the water problem; they even submitted a memorandum to President K.R. Narayanan. “The marches drew an overwhelming response from the villagers,” said Dr Sunil Kainthola of the HESCO.

Those associated with the movement say that the government has always been preoccupied with building huge dams and never bothered to harness the water banks in the hills. The leaders of this movement want a separate water policy for Uttarakhand. They demand that all water mills be included in the district plans and all micro-hydro electric plants be free from licensing. They also want a separate grid for small hydro-electric plants.