Politics of Water: Dynamics of Caste and Gender in Water Scarcity

One’s social location in terms of caste and gender affects their access, affordability and usership of water, especially so in times of water scarcity.

Water Collection
Picture Courtesy: Jahnvi Dwivedi

In the home male arrogance
Sets my cheek stinging,
While in the streets caste arrogance
Splits the other cheek open.

-Challapalli Swaroopa Rani

One of the globally faced problems is of climate change at a larger level and water scarcity in particular. ‘Scarcity’ need not be unilateral and natural but can also be
multifaceted and manufactured.

Lyla Mehta in her ethnographic work on water scarcity in the region of Kutch, Gujarat – The Politics and Poetics of Water: Naturalising Scarcity in Western India’, marks a shift from perceiving and understanding scarcity as just natural in its occurrence, exploring the connotations of it being socially mediated as a result of socio-cultural, political and institutional processes. I considered Mehta’s work as the core reference for understanding water scarcity in the region of Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh.

The region has encountered severe periods of lack of rainfall and droughts. It is also to a great extent divided along the lines of caste and gender. The marginalized are denied access to resources and are the most affected during times of scarcity. Thus, water and scarcity of water cannot be understood in isolation, devoid of its socio-cultural, economic, and political structure of the society. I attempted to gauge the primary role of women who are perceived as natural collectors of water, the effect it has on the wellbeing of the women, especially the position of marginalized Dalit women with an intersectional approach. Also, I attempted to understand the prevalent practices of discrimination in the village society that impacts the location of a Dalit household in terms of access to water resources.

My interactions with both, affluent and marginalized communities in villages of Mamna and Bangra in the Hamirpur District (one of the 250 backward districts of India) in terms of their socio-cultural and political location revealed that there is the existence of a palpable differentiation in the experience of water scarcity along the intersections of – caste, class, and gender. This brings forth the relational aspects of water, where scarcity is socially and politically constructed along with diverse knowledge systems of water scarcity and social differentiation.

In the context of the relational aspect of water, it is important to look at the location of the Dalit household to understand the denial of the access and usership of water resources. Though the situation of the water resources is quite different in both villages, caste-based discrimination was common between them. Discrimination is practiced by the upper castes.  The two main subcastes Chamars and Basors within the SC community face the brunt of being discriminated against and are the bearers of the untouchability in various forms. However, a similar model of discrimination is practiced even within subcastes. The Chamars are traditionally involved in leather works are placed above on the social ladder. The Chamar subcaste from the SC community discriminate against Basors who traditionally make baskets or rear pigs and occupy the lower position and face stigma. Basors continue to face the double brunt of systematic injustice and discrimination at the hands of both – the upper-castes and Chamar communities. Thus, the sub-caste divisions and the locational disadvantages associated with it also affects one’s access to water as a natural resource whose scarcity is not natural.

Water Collection by a woman
Picture Courtesy: Jahnvi Dwivedi

It is to be noted that one’s social location in terms of caste and gender affects access, affordability and usership of water. Shouldering the responsibility of water collection in general and in the added times of scarcity solely has pushed women to further marginalities in addition to their immense burden completing household chores and providing labour at agricultural fields. They experience sleepless nights when water isn’t available for days and they constantly feel helpless and uncertain having. Amongst these, women face added brunts due to the prevalence of untouchability. Though Dalit men in few instances might help women fetch water, this practice is rear. Also, men never head load water. Most of the upper castes are not directly affected by the scarcity of water. They control the land and water resources making it difficult to challenge power structures.

Policy frameworks that incorporate a decentralized model of water governance through community participation only augment the burden on women. Since women are seen as the natural collector and preserver of water due to the widely prevalent association of women and water, scarcity of water for domestic purposes affects women which also reinforces the gendered division of labour.

Models of Jal Sahelis incorporated elsewhere and in both the villages along with its organization and expected role of Jal Sahelis to own-up the task of water management calls for a critical analysis. While few Jal Sahelis report development of agency and mobility, it is mostly seen as a burden because the work is voluntary and is not paid for. Even within the organization of Jal Sahelis, caste and subcaste discrimination is widely practiced where women from the OBC communities (Other Backward Castes) and Chamar communities occupy top positions. Although Basors are part of the organization, they are pushed below.

Individuals from the Dalit community, particularly from the Basor community asserted their caste identities. They understood that it is not their fault to be born in the caste which is assigned by the society due to the kind of labour they or their caste group engaged is in.  Though Chamars are discriminated against by the dominant castes, they discriminate against the Basors. Both Chamars and Basors share a sense of fear to collect water from the resources controlled and hegemonized by Upper Castes. There is a sense of awareness that denial of access to water and other resources is a manifestation of caste-based discrimination. However, this is deeply internalized and naturalized that the power structures remain unchallenged.

Naturalization of water scarcity and gender-based division of labour concerning water remains uncontested even when caste-based denial of access to water is challenged. This has led to gender remaining subtle but one of the most impenetrable dimensions of difference in relation to water. Inconspicuousness and invisibility of women in formal decision-making structures of ownership and legal provisions of water and land arrangement are striking because the autonomy of women even if in fragments would disturb the patriarchal social structure. Gender is not seen as a distinct area of difference and mostly is avoided under the larger umbrella of caste issues, as participants somewhere view it as caste-based and not gender-based discrimination. Thus, the perceived and prime category of discrimination in the village arise due to caste differences and not because of gender. Gender inequalities pertaining to water remain to be taken for granted.

Therefore, when water as a resource is controlled by the dominant communities, scarcity of water feeds not just into the established social structures of caste and gender but further excludes, marginalize, and segregates the already marginalized caste and sub-caste groups and women belonging to these communities. One cannot get out these structures until and unless its core and existence are not seen critically. The socio-cultural and political set-ups translate the natural scarcity of resources into a manufactured scarcity to maintain the caste hegemony vis a vis alienation of particular communities and this must be questioned.

– Jahnvi Dwivedi holds a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from TISS-Hyderabad. Views are Personal.

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