Providing reliable access to safe drinking water in Adivasi dominated villages in the least developed states of India raises a range of questions. Whose responsibility, obligation and duty is it? These questions are intrinsically linked to drinking water management and contingent to the complexity of our societal commitments. Experience has taught there are no absolute answers.
At the same time, people cannot wait for international conventions asserting for them the right to safe, reliable and regular drinking water; their most pressing problem needs to be solved. A number of non-governmental organisations (ngos) have understood this and started drinking water development projects in Adivasi dominated villages. It is widely recognised that gender plays a crucial role in equitable allocation of drinking water. Most ngo workers share this assumption.
Things are different In reality, things can be quite different. The common belief that the institutionalisation of women's roles in water user bodies improves their status is a gross simplification from a sociological standpoint. In order to comprehend the implications and impacts of empowerment strategies for women in this sphere, this author conducted a dozen case studies in the homeland of the Lanjia Sora tribe, in Gajapati district, Orissa. Here ngos set up gravity flow water supply systems. The water user bodies had women representatives in their committees.
Women of the Lanjia Sora tribe enjoy much better status than many of their non-adivasi counterparts in most parts of the country. However, it would be misleading to believe that women are men's equals. Lanjia Sora society is organised according to patriarchal norms and women are generally excluded from the traditional village-level decision-making process, do not enjoy property rights and are mostly not involved in public life. So has the inclusion of Lanjia Sora women in water user committees resulted in any change in their status and livelihood? The results of my case studies suggest that the availability of fresh water in the villages has improved the socio-economic situation of the community members since new work opportunities have been generated; in particular, the work performance of women increased, since they do not have to fetch water from long distances.
Decisions expressed by women members of the water-user committees are still subjugated to the influence of their male counterparts. What good is participation in water user committees if it's not accompanied by the full endorsement of new responsibilities? An additional barrier to women's involvement in managing drinking water supply systems is the lack of essential skills. Management requires certain core competencies: most importantly, the capability to articulate problems in public. If the ngos in Gajapati district really intend to empower adivasi women through drinking water management, they must instil in them confidence to question their status and position within their communities or families since they have completely internalised the ancestral role models, rules, practices and customs constituting the social, legal and institutional framework. A further problem here is that the Lanjia Sora have a concept of water usage, which differs from modern utilitarian notions: they believe no one is the patron of water, or can control the very elementary resource of life and therefore question the rationale of institutionalised water management. Thus water user bodies alone cannot solve gender disparity; women in these newly founded institutions should be empowered.
There is one question left. Shall the cultural heritage of tribal societies be sacrificed on the altar of women empowerment? Processes such as modernisation and democratisation, triggered by initiatives like the inclusion of women in the decision-making process, are hiding the risks of eroding the legal and institutional setting of these communities and ultimately generating cultural disorientation and alienation, jeopardising their social continuity. Is it possible to empower the Lanjia Sora women without disturbing the water usage traditions of this community? This is one of the core questions ngos adopting women's empowerment shall address in their discourse.
Birgit R Buergi is a sociologist