Women’s Livelihood and Water

By: Staff Reporter
The village of Sirpur, with one of the largest Buddhist complexes discovered, welcomes every explorer with cool wafts from the pristine blue of Mahanadi drenching the burnt red soils and verdant greens.
Gender Justice Water

In the first two or three decades after Independence, the thinking that dominated the irrigation sector in India was largely that of making water available for increasing agricultural production to overcome food shortages. This led to massive investments in large dams, storage structures and canal networks. The post -1970s period saw a spurt in groundwater resource development. The overriding concern in the water sector today is to ensure adequate, assured and accessible and supplies of potable water for livelihood security, particularly for the poor and marginalised groups.

Gender Concerns And The New Irrigation Thinking

The role of irrigation in improving agricultural production hardly needs any special mention. In the last few decades, most of the increased yields have been possible largely due to irrigation. Improved irrigation facilities, along with other agricultural inputs, have had a phenomenal impact on the overall development in agriculture. However, the many benefits are also accompanied by water insecurity for a large number of poor women and men. Expansion of irrigation to meet the livelihood requirements of the poor has rarely been on the irrigation agenda. The present policy thrust is focused on the pricing of water, recovery of capital costs, and decentralised management of the resource.

Pricing And Cost Recovery

As men increasingly come to see greater advantages in either selling or using the available water to generate cash incomes, there is the possibility that access to water for non-marketable produce or survival tasks will be restricted (Green and Baden 1995). In such a scenario, it is usually the ‘paying’ crops that get preference over the ‘non-paying’ food crops largely cultivated by women. Women have often informally used irrigation water for micro-enterprises concerning small-scale activities, such as goat rearing, cattle rearing, brick moulding and vegetable growing, that are crucial from the point of view of household consumption. In all these enterprises, the economic benefits are not very high, thereby forcing women out of irrigation usage.

Improved Productivity And Efficiency

Women’s use of irrigation water is seen in uses other than irrigating the ‘main’ crops. Indeed, informal withdrawal of water for small patches of vegetables or for domestic uses by women is not uncommon. However, from the conventional analyses of the irrigation efficiency model, this distraction from irrigating the main crops would very likely be seen as wastage. In most irrigated areas, it is evident that the obverse of improved productivity and irrigation efficiency is increased labour for women. Although there is a positive aspect to improved labour opportunities, often the increased burden of work for women does not substantially improve their status or relieve them of their domestic workloads.

A Gendered Framework For Water Sector Restructuring

Women are still not recognised as active, thinking members of the household, and their interests, needs and opinions are merged with those of the male members. The dominant idea today is that water for irrigation lies in the male domain. Water users are seen as the male heads of households, and therefore it is presumed that women do not require independent entitlements over water. The socio-cultural barriers to granting women independent rights over resources holds true in the case of water too. Rights to water and land usually translate into security and better bargaining power, both within the household as well as outside. Improving women’s access to this resource would lead to improved bargaining power for women within the household, but this is usually perceived as a threat to the current patriarchal order. While recognising that the household is a site of both cooperation and conflict between members, there is a need to see women as active and independent members with their own ideas and interests. Unless this perception becomes part of mainstream thinking, it might be difficult to forge the agenda of gender equity in irrigation.

Restructuring The Water Sector

The principle of independent water rights has important implications so far as access to livelihood resources is concerned. This creates an opportunity for women, the poor and the landless to sell their annual allocation, or at least part of it, thereby generating supplementary income. But more preferably, they could use their share to lease in land, on which they could utilise their share of water. In India, groups like the Pani Panchayat and Mukti Sangharsh Chalwal in Maharashtra have worked towards independent entitlements over water. Such a standpoint opens up the space to further the agenda for equitable access to water for women and other landless people. These sections would have the option of either trading their water rights or, preferably, using these water rights on leased lands or commons for meeting their livelihood needs. This was demonstrated by the experience in Khudawadi village in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra, where a WUA [Water Users Association] situated at the tail end of a distributary resolved to allocate 15 per cent of the water quota they received from the Irrigation Department to the landless and women’s groups in the village. The women then organised to plant trees and cultivate fodder on barren lands, using this water to meet their livelihood needs. Independent rights could also be used for micro-enterprises like brick kilns, small plot cultivation, kitchen gardens, fishing and livestock.

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