In the scorching 42 degrees Celsius heat, 10-year-old Amrita Muzmule walks back home with as big a step her tiny feet will allow without letting even a drop of water spill out of the pot poised on her head. She makes this 4-km trek to a well at least 10 times a day, along with other members of her family. Amrita is just one of the many children pushed into becoming ‘water fetchers’ for their families, trekking many kilometres a day multiple times in search for water. Not all of these ‘water fetchers’ are lucky enough to make it back home as death tends to catch up due to heat, dehydration or even falling into wells.
Welcome to Beed, the land of sugarcane cutters and home to some of the poorest labourers in Marathwada. Here, scarcity of water has led not only to deaths and migration but also illegal detention, innumerable marriage cancellations and dangers of human trafficking. Beed recorded 299 suicides in the year 2015, the highest in Marathwada.
Amrita’s day starts at six in the morning when she, along with her two younger sisters aged 7 and 8, accompany their mother to the well 2 km away. “We wait there till our turn comes, which can be within an hour or may take even four to five hours. We make four-five rounds in the morning, and repeat the same in the evening after 4 pm,” says Amrita.
Sheela Muzmule, Amrita’s mother, confesses her discomfort at seeing her little girls toil so hard. “I also feel bad to see my little daughters carrying heavy pots on their heads, but what else I can do? There is such shortage of water that if we don’t go the well to fill up, we will all die of thirst.” Every day, women and children have to devote over five hours to fetching water from wells, tankers or water pipes. The whole day, we have nothing but water on our minds,” adds Sheela.
Suicides due to failed crop and indebtedness are one thing, but if even the act of fetching water leads to fatalities, the tragedy is compounded. No less than eight children have died in Beed district alone in the last three months, while fetching water.
How does this happen? On the morning of 21 April, 10-year-old Sachin Khengre lost his life after falling into a well, while trying to draw water in Wida village of Khez tehsil.
Bapusahab Deshmukh, sarpanch of the village tells Tehelka, “Every family knows the risk in sending their kids to fetch water from deep wells. In our village there are four wells and we have instructed our village chowkidar to tell people not to send their kids. But it doesn’t work.” Filling water directly from tankers is not a good option as people get into fights with each other, adds Deshmukh.
While everyone knows about the scarcity of water in Marathwada, what opened the eyes of the state to its impact on women and children was the death of 12-year-old Yogita Desai, who died of heat stroke as she was fetching water from a hand pump in Sabalkhed village of Aashti taluka. This was her fifth round.
Dr Hanumant Kakade of Gurudutt hospital where she was examined, says, “She was suffering from fever for the previous 24 hours; on the day of her death she had vomited in the morning. She died because of extreme dehydration and sun stroke.”
Ishwar Desai, Yogita’s uncle says, “In our village, we have enough water for other purposes but there is a shortage of drinking water. Therefore everybody, including children, go to fetch water.”
In February 2016, 10-year-old Rajshree Kamble also died after falling into a well while fetching water in Baag Pimpalgaon village of Georai tehsil. Her father Namdev Kamble told Tehelka, “After having her mid-day meal at school, she went home to drink water as there was no water available in school. But at home also there was no water so she went to the well alone and fell down.”
Kamble registered a complaint against the sarpanch of the village in Georai police station. He mentioned in his complaint that, despite having enough water in the well (constructed under Jal Swarajya Yojna) the elected head had intentionally not released water in the pipelines going to Dalit settlements of the village. He says his daughter wouldn’t have died if water was released by the sarpanch.
When Tehelka contacted Sarpanch Satybhama Chitalkar, her husband Janardhan Chitalkar said on her behalf, “This is not true. Earlier when there was adequate amount of water, we used to supply water through pipelines but because of the drought we had to stop it. Now everyone takes water from the well. There is no discrimination.”
In January 2016, nine-year-old Komal Jagtap died in the same way in Jategaon village of Georai. She was staying at her uncle Satish Chavan’s place as her parents had gone to Karnataka for sugarcane cutting. “She fell down the well while fetching water from it. Her head hit the base as the water level was very low,” says Chavan.