Water Inequality in India & the COVID-19 Pandemic

The linkages of the caste system and access to water are still thriving. Neoliberal reforms of water governance have only strengthened caste distinctions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world’s attention back to the need
of equitable access and provision of clean water. The WHO in its Interim Guidance
on water, sanitation, hygiene, (WASH) and waste management for the COVID-19
virus states: “The provision of safe water, sanitation, and hygienic conditions is essential to
protecting human health during all infectious disease outbreaks, including the COVID-19
outbreak. Ensuring good and consistently applied WASH and waste management practices in communities, homes, schools, marketplaces, and health care facilities will help prevent
human-to-human transmission of the COVID-19 virus.”

A report by WHO/UNICEF mentions that in 2017, 785 million people across the globe lacked access to the basic drinking water facilities or depended on unimproved
water sources. In the context of access to safe drinking water, sanitation facilities and hygiene practices, the same report highlights the prevalent inequalities among countries, the gap between the rich and poor population, and the gap between the rural and urban population. Like many other countries, India too must go a long way to provide access to safe water to a significant portion of its population.

According to a 2018 WaterAid report, 163 million people in India lacked access to clean water near to their home. In the rural parts of the country 63.4 million did not have access to the clean water. A news article in Time, which reported on the country’s annual per
capita water availability forecast ,gives cause for alarm. It explains, “water available per
person is dependent on population of the country and for India, water availability per capita is reducing progressively due to increase in population.”

Caste and Unequal Access to Water

On March 20,1927 Dr. B R Ambedkar led a movement and reclaimed Chawdar Tank, the only public source of water in Mahad. The Dalits were forbidden, by the upper castes in collusion with the colonial government, to use or even touch the water from the tank. The practice of untouchability created several barriers in accessing common water resources.
93 years after of this act of resistance, Dalits and other socio-economic backward
communities still face discrimination and violence. Caste-based violence and discrimination is not only present in rural parts of the country, but also is manifest in the urban centers of India.

A study in 2015 explored the relationship between caste hierarchy and access to
drinking water in the rural parts of five states. The Schedule Castes (SC) face a variety
of challenges in accessing drinking water. Most of the SC households did not own any water
resources such as open wells, hand-pumps and household tap water supply. This resulted in their dependence on public or common water resources. Around 27.8% of the Scheduled Caste households surveyed faced discrimination while fetching water from public resources. In few incidents, few Schedule Caste households that were in a slightly better position in their economic status discriminated against those at a lower socio-economic strata.

The study also highlighted the caste-based vulnerabilities of Schedule Caste women who generally go to fetch water. To mitigate this discrimination, one of the measures suggested was to employ a robust water supply system designed with the principal of equal access and provision. The economic changes in 1990s or neoliberal reforms are often touted as champion of caste-equalisation. But often such well-intentioned systems are trumped by the dominance of those who belong to the upper rungs of the caste ladder. This is illustrated in a study conducted in the rural parts of Rajasthan where the investigators found that neoliberal reforms of water governance did not diminish caste distinctions but rather strengthened them. The authors note; “market mechanisms actually assisted dominant caste groups in seizing public resources.”

The linkages of the caste system and access to water are still thriving. A news article from February 2020 recounts the horrors of the caste system in a village of Uttar Pradesh: “On February 16, however, more than 50 members of a Mehtar family lost their only potable
water source — a hand pump near a forest post — as foresters shot dead Madan Balmik
while his family drew water from there.” At the outset of COVID-19 pandemic these conflicts are anything but absent. A National Geographic article reports water scarcity problems in relation to COVID-19: “Caste politics, which are especially strict in Bundelkhand, compound the problem: Upper-caste people control most of the water, Kesar Singh explained. Every village has a small colony at one end for lower caste Dalits, and these colonies typically have next to no sanitation facilities. In Kaithi’s colony, there is one tap for 400 people.”

In the face of dwindling number of freshwater resources across the country,
inefficient and mismanaged water supply systems, climate change, and now the
pandemic, water equality might seem a far-fetched idea. But this should not stop the policy
makers to formulate solutions to ensure equitable water to everyone. Neither it should deter the marginalised communities in the country to demand and fight for their basic right of access to clean water.

Read Next: Corona Crisis & the Workers’ Movement- The Labour Report on the Lockdown

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