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This veiled jal saheli & her all-women team revived a river. Their village is now thriving

Sharda Devi’s journey as a water warrior began in 2020. She was felicitated by the President for her water conservation efforts Saturday.

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New Delhi: Sharda Devi could not hold in her excitement, she was just felicitated by President Droupadi Murmu. She was one of the 56 women change-makers from rural India who were awarded the Swachh Sujal Shakti Samman 2023 at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan Saturday for their efforts in conserving water.

“I am feeling very appreciated and happy to reach this point. When I told my two children about it, they were very proud of me,” the 37-year-old said. Draped in a glossy turquoise sari, she made sure that her veil didn’t slip from her head even once during all the buzz.

Sharda lives in Vijaypura, a small, conservative village in Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur district. She moved there in 1999 after her marriage. She was 13.

The other villages in the district such as Deogarh had gained popularity due to the presence of ancient Hindu and Jain monuments and were bringing in revenue from tourism. But Vijaypura had been largely ignored and suffered from severe water scarcity. The lack of water had made farming impossible. The villagers’ health was also at risk.

“Since we couldn’t earn a livelihood by farming, we were forced to go to distant places for masonry work. Even then I was not allowed to go outside freely, I was always accompanied by either my husband or father-in-law,” she told ThePrint

But Sharda’s determination to give her children a better life led to the revival of a 13-km-long river. The Barua river has since become the primary source of water for the village. It has allowed farming to thrive.

Organised by the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Swachh Sujal Shakti Samman was aimed at celebrating women’s leadership at the grassroots level. The ceremony also kicked off the week of International women’s day, 8 March.

There were three categories — Jal Jeevan Mission and Swachh Bharat Mission – Grameen and National Water Mission. Sharda was felicitated under the latter.

56 women representatives, sarpanches, swacchagrahis, jal vahini, water warriors were honoured. The President awarded 18 of them, the rest received their awards from Union jal shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.

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Her journey as a ‘Jal Sakhi’

Her journey as a ‘water warrior’ began in 2020 when members of the NGO Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan visited her village. Parmarth has been working to mitigate the water crisis in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh since 1996.

They advised Sharda that she should become a Jal Saheli and mobilise more women to join the cause if she wanted to do anything about the water scarcity in her village.

Those who take up the role are trained by Parmath to conserve ponds, help build a network of check dams and undertake rainwater harvesting to recharge wells. They are also guided on how to collaborate with authorities or pressurise them to install water pumps where needed.

“I started a paani panchayat (village council on water) as advised by Parmarth and went from home to home to encourage more women to join me,” Sharda said.

It was not an easy task, the village required women to remain in purdah (veil), even at home, and she was trying to mobilise an all-women task force. “I was constantly taunted by my family and neighbours for wandering outside,” she said. But she managed to convince almost 40 women that such a panchayat would improve the quality of their lives.

The questions of why, where and what did not deter Sharda, she was set on escaping the gruelling masonry work and making sure her children, a 15-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl, would never have to suffer for lack of water.

She knew that once her effort bore fruit it would be a blessing for all. That would be her answer to all their taunts.

The Barua River originates from the Karenga River and joins the Jamini River.  It was on the verge of drying up due to incessant mining activities until Sharda intervened.

Sharda held the first ‘paani panchayat’ in 2021. The women decided to move against the mining of the river.

They won the support of the gram panchayat. The governmental support kept the illegal private miners at bay as the women cleared the river and the surrounding area of mining residue. They used rocks and sand to make a check dam on the river and planted trees on the river bank.

The project began in 2020 and the river was ‘inaugurated’ in June last year. Sharda’s determination and the dedication of all the Jal Sahelis led to an entire village’s revival.

Also Read: Shift focus from dams, what India needs is better water management: Top water conservationist

Her life today

Sharda’s husband doesn’t say no to her anymore. “He has seen how life has become better,” she said. Farming has become viable, people need not leave the village for a living anymore.

“The men in the family have taken up farming and they produce 12 quintals of wheat. My husband was so impressed with me that he now encourages me to attend different meetings and training sessions,” she said, adding that the village sarpanch and other farmers are also very happy.

Only formally educated till eighth grade, Sharda has inspired countless women in her village and beyond. She now travels everywhere from Delhi to Jhansi attending sessions on water conservation. “I am not questioned anymore,” she said.

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

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)


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