Jhansi: In some villages barely a few kilometres from the Uttar Pradesh town of Jhansi, people haven’t had the time and “luxury” to worry about the Covid-19 pandemic. These villages have a much bigger crisis to deal with — water scarcity, which has peaked along with the summer, like every year.
For nearly two dozen villages in this Bundelkhand region, water scarcity is common at most times of the year and reaches its peak in the summer months of April to June.
Most hand pumps in the region have stopped running water, and wells have dried up.
And Covid-19 has only heightened the stress — not in terms of infections, but due to the impact of the lockdown.
According to district administration data, nearly 40,000 migrants have returned home across Jhansi since the nationwide lockdown was enforced in March. While there is no break-up available, it is being speculated that over 15,000 workers have come back to the water-scarce villages.
With inadequate water, local residents and social activists claim, the return of these workers has increased the stress on the existing water resources.
Tankers come to the villages but the water they bring is not free. The villagers are finding it difficult to pay for the water during this period of economic hardships, with many people having lost their jobs during the lockdown.
According to government-approved rates, the tankers charge Re 1 for each can or a big jar of water. But during shortage, local residents alleged, the tanker operators double the rate. Speaking to ThePrint, many residents said they need to dish out nearly Rs 80 per day for the required quantity of water, which is not easy for them to manage.
When asked about the crisis, Uttar Pradesh Jal Shakti Minister Mahendra Singh told ThePrint it will be “resolved soon” as steps were being taken to mitigate the problems.
Hand pumps running dry, no water in wells
More than two dozen villages in the Jhansi district are facing problems of water scarcity, according to Sanjay Singh, national convener of Jal-Jan Jodo Abhiyan and prominent social activist in Bundelkhand region.
These villages include Kilchawara, Baidora, Mathurapura, Durgapur, Koti, Murari, Amarpur, Baruapura, Mah, Gudha, Bajna, Bamer, Chhatpur, Parasai, Bachouni, Khaira, Imilia, Badanpur, Basai, Khurd, Dagarwaha and Naya Kheda. Many villages in Lalitpur and Banda districts of Bundelkhand are also facing similar challenges.
The region does not get piped water supply at homes. The state government had last year announced plans for a project to take piped water to nine most water-deficient districts in Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions.
In January this year, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said work was on to provide drinking water facility to Bundelkhand.
Speaking to ThePrint, Anil Sen, a 30-year-old resident in Raksa village, 12 km from Jhansi, said, “Over 20 hand pumps are installed in and around the village, but not more than one or two yield water at any given time.”
With no water in the pumps in their villages, residents are forced to walk several kilometres looking for hand pumps with running water.
Sen said potable water is supplied by tankers, which people buy and drink. But those who cannot afford to purchase the water are left with no option but to walk the long distances.
Geeta Prajapati, 42, who lives in Raksa, said she walks 2 km thrice a day with a pot to fetch water. “It’s not feasible to walk with three pots at a time, so multiple trips are required. This same situation has been prevailing here for the last several years.”
Ramavatar, 52, who lives in nearby Punavali Kala, said the village well has dried up completely and scarcity is at its peak.
“Quite often the person who brings the water tanker charges up to Rs 2 or Rs 2.5 for each can. It is proving to be very difficult to pay for the water,” he said.
Ramavatar said his son lost his job during the lockdown, and it is now difficult for them to make ends meet.
No Covid cases, thankfully
In a relief for the region, there have not been too many Covid cases to make things worse. The Jhansi district had reported a total of 88 Covid cases as of 19 June. While 43 of them recovered, 11 died.
ThePrint last week visited Raksa, Punavali Kala and Khajraha — three of the over 20 villages facing water scarcity in Jhansi district. None of these has reported any coronavirus case so far.
At Raksha, residents said all the samples collected from the village tested negative.
However, there is fear.
With the state government and local authorities frequently issuing advisories to check the spread of the pandemic that has claimed 12,573 cases so far, with 3,80,532 total cases and 1,63,248 active cases as of 19 June, the villagers are worried as they are hardly able to follow the safety norms.
Speaking to ThePrint, residents of the villages said adhering to the health advisories is next to impossible amid the problems they are facing.
Anil Sen of Raksa village said one should wash hands several times in a day according to the guidelines, but where do they get water for that when there is little for even drinking.
“What can we do? For us, the water crisis is far bigger a problem than corona will ever be,” he said.
When a tanker arrives, villagers can be seen rushing to get their containers filled before the stock gets over, throwing social distancing norms to the wind.
“After the lockdown was enforced, I was initially too scared to come out of my house. But I am helpless,” said Geeta Prajapati of Raksa.
Devvati from the Khajraha village added, “What can people do when they are always afraid that they will be left with no water to drink? Hand pumps mostly yield dirty water, which cannot be used for drinking. People cannot stop buying water due to corona scare.”
Many villagers also said no help came for them from the authorities to tackle the big health crisis.
“When there is no money in the home, how can we buy items like hand wash, masks and sanitiser?” Sahuri Devi of Khajraha asked, adding the government should have distributed these items for free.
No progress in drinking water project launched in 2019
On 15 February last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Jhansi to lay the foundation stone for a drinking water project.
Under the scheme, drinking water from Betwa, Ken, Mandakini, Jamni and Dhasan rivers will be transported to the rural areas of Bundelkhand through a water pipeline project. Water from various dams in Jhansi, Jalaun, Lalitpur, Banda Mahoba, Hamirpur and Chitrakoot districts will also be used.
A sum of Rs 5,459 crore has been earmarked for this scheme in Jhansi division and another Rs 3,563 crore for the Chitrakoot division. However, the project has seen little progress since.
Minister Mahendra Singh said work on the project will pick up soon, adding that the Yogi Adityanath government is looking to find a “permanent solution” to the problem.
Protest being planned against ‘no action’ on water crisis
Social activist Rajendra Singh Rajput, also a resident of Raksa, said he has been writing letters to the administration for the last several months regarding this severe scarcity, but no action has been taken so far.
They are now planning to stage a protest, maintaining social distancing norms.
According to Rajput, people purchase water at the rate of Re 1 per can. “A common family needs to spend Rs 70-80 per day on water, which amounts to approximately Rs 2,500 per month. So, you can easily understand the situation of those who have no money left to spend. Every day, they wander to nearby villages carrying big buckets in search of hand pumps that are still functional,” he said.
Two pump houses were built around the Raksa village, but the situation didn’t improve.
Sanjay Singh of Jal-Jan Jodo Abhiyan said his team has visited several villages to make people aware about water conservation. But it’s crucial that the plans and decisions made at the administrative level are implemented on the ground.
He added that the paucity of water is not a new phenomenon. Several governments changed, countless officials deployed and transferred, but the ground situation remains the same.
“In Jhansi, water is supplied from two dams. The organisation responsible for supplying water claims to be providing it at full capacity, yet water supply remains pathetic,” he said, referring to the local government body.
Will resolve problem soon: Minister
Speaking to ThePrint about the crisis, Jal Shakti Minister Mahendra Singh said, “We will resolve this problem as soon as possible.”
He said three-tier control rooms have been established during the lockdown for supply of water in 12 districts of Bundelkhand region in the state, including Jhansi and Banda. These control rooms monitor situation at the district, block and village levels.
This mechanism has been created for constant monitoring in those districts where the ground water level is too low or there are other water-related problems.
According to Singh, tankers reach various places in these districts within half an hour of complaints being received at these control rooms.
“In the last three years, all kinds of efforts have been made to solve every water-related problem under the leadership of CM Yogi (Adityanath). The government is extremely sensitive to this issue,” he said.