In Bikaner district, Rajasthan, two feisty women leaders are struggling hard to resolve seemingly intractable water problems. Parmeshwari Devi Gosain, 52, Panchayat Up-Sarpanch (Vice-President of panchayat), is working to bring safe drinking water to her village, Piperan, while Ashi Devi, 56, Ward Member in the adjoining Kitasar village, is trying to get sewage pipes laid for the removal of stagnant water.
Ashi Devi admits that in the first year of her tenure as Ward Panch (member of panchayat) she did no work, because she "did not know what to do". In 2006-07, she joined a one-year training course for elected women representatives, run by Aagaz Academy at Bikaner. Her training gave her the confidence to begin monitoring government services. She got pensions for widows and the disabled sanctioned, along with other welfare schemes. In September 2007, encouraged by Aagaz Academy's Ganga Gupta, Ashi Devi applied for an Aagaz Academy Fellowship. The Fellowship came her way the following year and has proved crucial in helping her in her campaign.
Ask Ashi Devi why there is stagnant water in her neighborhood and her answer is very informed. Says she, "There is an open square between Wards Three and Four in Kitasar village. It is situated lower than the rest of the village. Dirty water from the entire village collects here. During the monsoons, it fills up with water, which even enters homes. The main road in the village gets blocked, people fall into the water, camel-carts topple in it, goats drown and diseases spread. Things get so bad that children are unable to go to school. Women have to hold their skirts high to move through the water. It is shameful, especially since some men sit around and stare at them."
During the monsoons, the water can rise to a level of six feet. About 100 families are severely affected, most of them from the marginalized communities - Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who work as wage laborers. Ashi Devi calls them the "bhookha (starving) wards". She herself emerges from among them, being an OBC from the Nai caste.
Ashi Devi has long realized that collective efforts are required to solve problems. For instance, because the local authorities are not paying heed to her demand for a sewer line, she now plans to take a delegation to Bikaner - and even to Jaipur if necessary.
The Fellowship, awarded in February 2008, enabled her to take up the issue in campaign mode. Meant for elected women representatives to implement exceptional projects, each Fellowship is within Rs 35,000 (US$1=Rs 50.15) and is available for a period of six to nine months.
Parmeshwari Gosain's activism, too, started with organizing people to overcome the problem of stagnant water. She convened Ward-level and Panchayat meetings, and got a memorandum passed on the issue, demanding that land be leveled and pipes laid. It was then sent to the concerned government departments. She mobilized Ward Members, the Sarpanch (Panchayat President), and a committee of affected citizens, to visit the offices of local functionaries like the local Block Development Officer, the Tehsildar, Member of the State Legislative Assembly (MLA) and others. When several weeks passed without any action being taken, Gosain took the campaign to the District Magistrate in Dungargarh. Villagers sat on a one-day 'dharna' (protest sit-in), to draw public attention to this issue and demand urgent action.
Ashi Devi and Parmeshwari Gosain present two faces of local activism. Ashi Devi, who ekes out a livelihood from a patch of land, cultivating crops like 'bajra' (a course cereal) and 'gvar ki phali' (a local variety of beans), has to sometimes leave her Panchayat work to attend to her field. Married at the age seven, she has four daughters and three sons. She became the sole breadwinner for the family after her husband died. Now her sons and daughters-in-law supplement the income she brings in. Incidentally, she is also known for her skills as a traditional midwife. Over the past 25 years, she has handled most of the births in her village - and this was an important contributory factor for her victory in the Panchayat elections!
The dauntless and determined Parmeshwari, also awarded a fellowship by Aagaz Foundation, seems to have managed to get matters moving much faster. Known as a wise and seasoned village leader, she regularly monitors Panchayat work, and has got the local Anganwadi (centre for childcare and pre-school education) to function properly. "Drinking water is the main problem for about 100 families living at the margins of Piperan village. The rail track runs through our village, and poor Dalit families live on the other side of the track. Ward No. 2 has Naiks and Meghwaal, while Ward No. 3 has Gvariya and Sansis. They have to drink untreated water. Water-borne diseases are rampant, and children are dying. At times they have to buy water at Rs 250 per tanker. For them, water is as precious as 'ghee' (clarified butter)," she says.
To resolve the water problem, she passed a resolution in the Panchayat demanding the laying of water pipes over a length of four kilometers to bring water from the Indira Gandhi Canal to the village. A women's committee took the demand to the Water Works Departments at the tehsil and block levels. On May 1 this year, the local women held a one-day 'dharna' in front of the Water Works Department office at Mahajan, the tehsil headquarters. The department promised to take action within one week, but when no action was taken, 40 women held another 'dharna'.
When the laying of water pipes was finally sanctioned, the Junior Engineer (JE) said he didn't have a vehicle to transport the pipes. So Parmeshwari hired a vehicle. Then the JE said he did not have laborers, so the women began loading the 119 three-inch pipes themselves and, when they grew exhausted, Parmeshwari hired two laborers.
Parmeshwari telephoned the JE every day to monitor progress, to the extent that he exclaimed, "Do not ring us again! We will do the work!" When the work eventually started, the men realised they needed five-inch pipes as well. So, Parmeshwari went and bought those as well.
The pipes are now being laid and the work will be completed in a few weeks' time. Parmeshwari supervised the route ensuring that the pipes are laid from high to low ground. She has also applied for community taps in the village, and connections for the local school.
Parmeshwari has 12 children - seven sons and five daughters. She is illiterate and has to get her grandchildren to help her with the reading and writing part of her campaign. The family is quite well off and although she herself is not personally affected - her part of the village got a water pipeline much earlier - this has not stopped her from fighting for potable water for those who have always been ignored by the powers that be.
Both Ashi Devi and Parmeshwari Devi are waging significant struggles for the common good, in the best traditions of public service. Impressed by her dynamism, people now want Parmeshwari Devi to become a Sarpanch.
As for Ashi Devi, although she is formally responsible for only one Ward in her village, she works for all six Wards that fall in the area. She explains: "In two wards there are male Ward Members, they do nothing; in the third, Ward Member Janibai is 70 years old; the fourth has many disabled and needy people who need my support; in the fifth, people constantly ask me to take up their issues; and the sixth, well it is my own!"