Three-year-old Rani and her siblings, residents of Kautha village in Maharashtra’s Akola district, have travelled over a kilometre to a dried river bed in search of water. Her mother walks down an impromptu shallow well that has recently been dug up by the villagers. There, amidst the dirty, muddy waters, a small hole has clear water. Scores of women have lined up there to collect that water, one small bowl at a time.
Rani's mother jostles with the crowd to fill one bowl of water and feed her children.
"We know this is not the safest drinking water, but we do not have water in the village. Rani was thirsty and crying so I brought all the children here to drink water, while I fetch it for the house. This has been a daily affair for the last one year," she said.
In Maharashtra's Vidarbha region, drinking water scarcity is grave and is pushing people to desperation. While the government's promise for piped water for all rural homes will take a while, people in Kautha village are forced to dig dried river beds in the hope of finding drinking water. Most times they just find stones, sometimes they are lucky.
Kautha village has been drought hit since last year. The ground water table has gone down 800-1000 feet in certain areas. Bore-wells don't find water and are termed a money-wasting effort by the villagers. Even if it did, being part of a salt pan region, most ground water is saline, making it unfit for consumption. Desperate villagers in Kautha dig deep down the dried bed of river Maan for a pail of water.
"We have approached the panchayat and even the district collector. But nothing has changed for us in the last one year. We haven't got any drinking water supply," said 28-year-old Soni, who was at the dried river bed to fill two buckets of water.
Forty-year-old Ajja was there with her daughter, both carrying two pails each of this drinking water they filled from the hole. "We had gone in a train to meet the collector, requesting for four bore-wells, two for potable drinking water and two for other purposes for which salinated one would also do. But nothing has happened. We can't keep missing our daily wage work to line up at the collector's office. So we didn't go again," she said.
Filling water for the family is the women's job in most part of rural Maharashtra, while also working on the fields or as daily wage labourers. Summer season means family's water consumption goes up and so does the number of visits to this dried river bed to fetch water and the hours spent there.
"Currently the water level is still good, but on most days we have to keep digging and keep waiting for hours for the water to show up on the surface."
As part of the drought mitigation efforts the government acquired bore-wells in the village, but it hit saline water, like many other bore-wells in the region, and hence not potable. Requests for a water purifier unit or an RO unit has also not been met, say villagers. While the affluent buy water tankers, for the poor the struggle for a glass of water is inevitable.
"We just demand drinking water supply at our homes. Other villages have piped water supply but for us even piped water supplies salinated water. What do we do for drinking water? We have to come here."
Villagers, especially women, in Kautha are very angry. Numerous requests for potable drinking water have not been met. And because it is the women who come to fill water several times a day they are the ones bearing the actual brunt of the drought, water mismanagement by the government and administrative apathy.