In a village named Koilihai in a region known for perennial thirst, lives a woman named Chamela. The parched patch of land spreads across two states, culturally defying administrative boundaries. And the woman who grew weary of walking every day to a distant well looked at the pump that lay rusting over three years and decided to fix it. The region is, of course Chitrakoot, and Chamela its first woman hand-pump mechanic.
Chamela is a Koli Dalit, and what this usually means is circles. You step carefully so as not to transgress the invisible circle drawn around the hand-pump allotted for the ‘Baaman’ part of the village. Once in her work as a mechanic, she was called to Bhawari village. There the hand-pump was by the village pradhan’s house and he had just realised she was Dalit. “That Baaman beckons me frantically. He says, Listen, listen, listen — don’t touch our hand-pump. You are a Koli Chamar.”
Chamela looked at the pump, lying out of order for the past five years. “Shit and piss had collected around it. After I fixed it that Baaman came to see, and I told him, the courtyard of my house is much cleaner than yours, mister,” she recalls with satisfaction.
These days everyone in the adjoining villages knows of her repute as the only woman hand-pump mechanic in Manikpur—a far cry from the early days when they would say, “Chhoti jaati ki aurat kaise hand-pump banana jaanegi, ye toh gobar uthaane vaali hai.” (How will a woman from a lower caste know how to fix hand-pumps, she’s the one who picks up dung and is fit to do just that.) Chamela’s husband too doubted her ability to lift a heavy hand-pump with her slight frame, but with her characteristic cool, she waved this away. She carries a dozen bundles of up to 75 kgs of chopped wood on the regular, so why not this? The weight of one pump could be easily divided among eight women — women who like her, are the ones responsible for water.
Elsewhere in Chitrakoot, Rajkumari, another woman hand-pump mechanic found that the dominant caste men of the village that solicited her work, refused to help. Then the women came to her in a group, the women who make that long walk. Wrench in hand, sari hoisted, Rajkumari and the women of the village dug up two bore wells. There is a saying here. It goes, my pot shouldn’t break even if my husband should die. It’s a joke. Sort of. Water changes things.
In drought-prone Bundelkhand, where several regions such as Mahoba are ‘dark zones’ — areas where overexploitation of groundwater is acute and withdrawal exceeds recharge — water is a perennial preoccupation. Who fetches it, who is denied it, where the hand-pumps work and who is allowed to use them, whom the local government gaslight, and so on. Water is survival, dignity, transgression — all wrapped up into one essential need. Water changes things.
From picking up a wrench Chamela developed a taste for learning. She can tell time now. When she returns with her bundle of cut wood, she knows that it’s 2 in the afternoon. She knows about the water cycle —Wahe paani bhaap ban ke ud jaat hain, aur wahe paani neeche aawa aur jamawa jaat hai, she says with some residual wonder. (The very same water that flies away, becoming steam, falls down as rain, and collects in wells.)
Her ideas of the sun, the land and its literal orbit has shifted. “Prithviya ghumaati (the world turns),” she says. “I used to think the sun moves from one side to the other through the day — hahaha,” she breaks off into laughter. Chamela has learned about the whole world.
In the world contained by the borders of Bundelkhand, caste and gender predominantly mediate access to water and the labour of collecting it when it does not gush easily out of taps and showers. The hand-pump, the well, the lake — these symbolise very real sites of contestation where dominant castes still enact their ideas of ‘purity’ and pollution. There are countless stories from Chitrakoot alone.
In 2014 the hand-pump in Prasiddhpur village’s Dalit colony lay defunct for over two years and in Gahur village, insects grew in the local well even as the village heads went about unconcerned. Five years later in 2019, Khatkan, the Dalit basti in Itwa village, home to the Chamar community of cattle-skinners, continued to be skipped over by water-tankers that supplied the dominant caste settlement of Brahmins and Thakurs. Pradhan, Devidayal told KL the hand-pump would be fixed soon, adding “There is no untouchability in this day and age. People are educated now.” Meanwhile, Soni Devi, a resident of Khatkan told us that Devidayal himself swore at them when they asked him to repair the defunct hand-pump in their basti. When women or children braved an attempt at the hand-pump in the dominant caste settlement, they were met with lathis (sticks) by the sentinels standing guard.
Dalits are denied access to water in 48.4 percent of villages and over 20 percent of Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water in India. “I have grown old witnessing this struggle over water,” Soni said. The women of the Dalit basti walked over a kilometer outside the village to fetch water. Rural Dalit women in the far interiors are the most impacted, the most thwarted in their attempt to access this essential.
Transgressing the proscribed caste-boundaries of water-sources can have terrible consequences including murder. Just last year in February, not so far from Chitrakoot, Madan Balmik, a Dalit man in Fatehpur village, Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh was shot dead by Thakurs of the village for drawing water.
An installation showing Ambedkar drinking water from the Chawdar Tank. Source: Forward Press.
On 20 March 1927, Dr. B.R Ambedkar led a march of thousands of Dalits in Mahad, Maharashtra who did a very simple thing: they dipped their hands into the Chavdar public tank and drank the water. This assertion of Dalit right to dignity was met with brutal retaliation by dominant castes in the region. They also mixed large earthen pots of panchagavya — a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, ghee, curd and milk — that was then poured in to ‘purify’ the tank.
In his statement at the time, Dr. Ambedkar said, “Why do we fight? It is not simply for drinking water; drinking the water will not give us very much. It is not even a matter of only human rights, though we fight to establish the right to drink water. But our goal is no less than that of the French Revolution. This was fought for the reconstruction of society, for the eradication of the old society based on feudal inequality and the establishment of a new society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. Similarly, we want to end the old inhuman caste society based on inequality and reconstruct the world, reconstruct society on the basis of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is our goal!”
The landmark event, pivotal in the history of efforts towards annihilation of caste in India has been celebrated as Mahad Satyagraha since then. In her art installation, ‘What is the caste of water?’ visual artist Rajyashree Goody marks the event with an installation of 108 glass tumblers containing dried and diluted panchagavya, and two plastic bottles with cow urine.
Walking for Water
However, the fetching water — one of the most time consuming chores — is a highly gendered ritual across castes. Perhaps because it clubs neatly into tasks perceived as ‘housework’ and therefore ‘not real work’. Water is required not just for irrigation of crops but also washing, cleaning, cooking, bathing children — all of which traditionally fall into the woman’s domain. Therefore women and girls — who drop out of school to help with household chores, are the ones who bear the burden of the water-crisis. According to a 2015 report by Dasra Foundation, nearly 23 percent of girls drop out of school after puberty due to lack of water and adequate sanitation facilities during menstruation.
Everyday Belamma, a goat-herder in Chitrakoot walks through a forest known to be populated with dacoits to reach the closest water-source. On her shoulder, an axe on a stick nearly as tall as she is. Her line of goats follows, bleating and thirsty. “You can put up with hunger maybe but not thirst,” she says. The goats need their water.
Once at the well, the pulley screeches as the bucket is reeled up, and up. Khat-khat-khat it goes, as a young woman bends over pulling it up with all her strength. That same one-two, one-two, motion that Bipasha Basu popularised as a dance-move eons ago, in its actual source. “I wouldn’t have agreed to marry someone from this village if I had known about this water problem,” laughs a new bride. She’s only half-joking. Water, it changes things.
In Behla village of Manikpur the tap-water is contaminated. “If you fill a container,