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How this farm labourer turned into a water activist and made her village a ‘Har Ghar Jal Gaon’

Anita Chaudhary says whenever she got free from her work in other people’s field, she visited door-to-door to spread awareness about the water supply scheme.

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New Delhi: It’s been a little more than two years since she took up this job but for her, the reality is yet to settle in. Every morning, armed with the water quality field testing kit or the FTK, Anita Chaudhary, 32 sets out to perform a job that’s critical to the health of her community. Her work space is Garhmau, a nondescript village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara district. Her employers the state’s water department authorities.

A farm labourer till 2019, Chaudhary is a member of Garhmau’s Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC). As a trained member of the committee, Chaudhary, who has studied till Class 12, is the village’s ‘water tester.’

With the FTK — a portable equipment to measure various chemical constituents in the water sample — that she carries, Chaudhary tests basic parameters like pH level of the water.

“One can test only very basic parameters with the kit but it is enough to tell you whether the water is contaminated, if the quality is good or bad. If the pH level is very high or low, I report it to the Jal Nigam office. The technical authorities then come to investigate and take remedial measures,” Chaudhary says.

Apart from routine testing in village households that have functional tap water connection under the Modi government’s flagship Nal Se Jal scheme, Chaudhary also attends calls from villagers complaining of poor quality water. Every day, she gets at least 3-4 such complaints.

Sitting in the front row in the plenary hall of Vigyan Bhawan, Chaudhary says, “Bahut maza aata hai mujhe yeh kaam karne me (I love doing this job)”, adding that “the feeling is surreal.”

She was in Delhi taking part in a dry run for the big event—on Saturday, President Draupadi Murmu felicitated Chaudhary and 17 other women change makers from rural India with the Swachh Sujal Shakti Samman 2023 for their contribution to the water sector.

From getting trained to test water for contamination, repairing hand pumps and fixing taps, women in rural India are at the centre of Modi government’s Har Ghar Nal Se Jal Yojana.

In all, awards were presented to 56 women representatives, sarpanches, swacchagrahis, jal vahinis, water warriors from village/Gram Panchayats/ blocks/districts/state and Union territories. Of 56, 38 were felicitated by Union Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.

Chaudhary was awarded under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) category for operation and maintenance (O&M) of piped water supply.

The Har Ghar Nal Se Jal programme, aimed to provide functional tap water connection to each and every rural household by 2024, comes under JJM, the ambitious scheme launched by the PM in August 2019.

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An accident that changed her outlook

Chaudhury, dressed in a grey saree with a pallu (free end of the saree) covering her head, is a bit overwhelmed among the Vigyan Bhawan crowd. It’s her first visit to the national capital, she says.

“I could have never imagined that my life would take such a surreal turn in such a short time.”

Till over three years ago, Chaudhury along with her husband used to till other people’s fields in the village. “We are farm labourers. We do not have land of our own. My husband still works in other people’s fields to feed our family,” Chaudhary says.

But this change came after a personal crisis. It was an accident involving her six-month-old son in 2018 that led Chaudhary to change her life track.

There was no tap inside her house back then and women from her village had to walk about half a kilometer, twice every day, to fetch water.

“It was a daily drudgery from which I had no escape,” Chaudhary says.

It was one of those evenings back in 2018 that Chaudhary left her six-month-old son on a mat on the floor in her small two-room house before going out to fetch water.

“There was nobody at home. Everyone was out in the fields. I had no option but to leave my son alone. I had kept the main door open so that the neighbours could come and check on my son,” she says.

As she stood in a queue, awaiting her chance to fetch water from a supply line, her son slowly crawled and went out of the house. “There was a bull just near the main door. As my son crawled towards it, he was hit by the animal and fell unconscious. My neighbour came running to tell me that my son had been injured,” Chaudhary says.

“I along with my neighbour took my son to the local medicine man,” she says.

Her son survived that day and a resolve took feet in Anita. The crisis forced her to work towards ending the daily agony of the women of the village.

She started working to conserve water and sensitising women in her village about the severe water woes they may face due to depleting groundwater level. “There was a government run water conservation programme going on in the village. I joined hands with them,” she says.

There has been no looking back for Anita since then.

Towards the end of 2019, the Har Ghar Nal Se Jal scheme was launched in Garhmau, a small village with a population of under 1,000.

“Pipelines were being laid everywhere. I went to the Jal Nigam office and told the authorities that I want to be associated with the programme,” she says.

Initially, she was told to sensitise the villagers about the need to conserve water and create awareness about Har Ghar Nal Se Jal. Whenever Chaudhary got free from her work in other people’s field, she visited door to door to spread awareness about the water supply scheme.

“I was given the charge of motivating the people to pay community contributions for the in-village water supply scheme. I collected Rs 2.8 lakh from the village,” she says.

“I did not get any money for this work. But I wanted to contribute in my own small way,” she says.

In 2020, the village elders nominated Chaudhary to the Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) under the Har Ghar Nal Se Jal.

The programme mandated setting up of a VWSC or the paani samiti, where 50 per cent of the members had to be women. The paani samitis had the mandate to decide the kind of infrastructure required for the respective village, manage the supply, fix and collect user charges to be paid by the villagers for the water they use.

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‘An eye opener’

Chaudhary says that it was only after she started testing the water that she got to know of its quality.

“The quality of water was so bad then. Earlier, I didn’t even know that it was possible to test water and check its quality. Now, in hindsight, I realise why people in my village used to fall sick so often back then.”

Today, the quality of water has drastically improved and villagers do not fall ill frequently. With 100 per cent tap connections at the household and institutional level, Garmhau has certified itself as ‘Har Ghar Jal Gaon.’

This is the first of a three-part series profiling three rural women who were awarded by the President for their contribution to the water sector.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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