Earlier, Mandabai Shyamsai Hidko, now in her 40s, would spend hours each day, waiting in line to fetch water from a single borewell that was situated in her village. Her forest village had several water bodies nearby, but Hidko could not access them. The forest department which controls forest areas in India, prevents tribal people from accessing forest resources in absence of rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
“Since we couldn’t access it, most of the water bodies were left in despair,” said Hidko, who belongs to the Gondi tribe in India.
However, in 2013, her village, Paulzhola, achieved receipt of rights over the forested land. In the years that followed, the villagers desilted the water bodies, carting away the debris and improving the groundwater recharge. Since then, villagers have been collectively managing water bodies. As the water availability in the village increased, more water is now available for irrigation.
“Because of these ponds, fishing has increased, which has introduced a more protein-based diet among the villagers. And, for women, ponds have eased their burden, which saves time as they don’t need to wait in line to fetch water,” said Lalit Bhandarkar, a project coordinator with the Vidarbha Nature Conservation Society, which is working with villagers.
“Villagers have started consuming more fish now than before,” said Bhandarkar.
According to a UNICEF report tribal children have higher levels of undernutrition compared to other sections in India. “About 40% of tribal children under 5 years of age are stunted and 16% are severely stunted,” the report noted. Tribal women with poor intake of protein and energy are likely to give birth to a low birth weight infant.
For tribal people, like Hidko, water scarcity has been one of the most pressing issues both for drinking and maintaining good livelihoods. And, as most farm activities are rain-fed, crop failure is a common challenge.
Water bodies are, therefore, important sources of water that can ease the impact of floods and droughts by storing large amounts of water and releasing it during shortages. They also help in replenishing groundwater levels and influencing the water quality, thereby preserving the biodiversity and habitat of the surrounding area.
When Manglabai’s husband, Shyamsai Hidko was young, he volunteered to dig the water bodies near his village, in the forest area.
“There are three-to-four water bodies,” Shyamsai said. “which we volunteered to dig, to help meet villager’s water needs.”
While the villagers have traditionally depended on these water bodies, under the Madhya Bharat Zamindari Abolition Act, 1951, the government transferred ownership of the water bodies to the irrigation department. The department would auction the water bodies to traders for fishing.
“Because of unsustainable fishing, most were left redundant when we got back the rights on it,” Shyamsai said, now 51- years-old.
“There were other water bodies too, which despite getting rights, the traders refused to give us control over.”
In 2019, under the leadership of Shyamsai Hidko, the villagers filed a police complaint against the private entities that still controlled these water bodies. The case was transferred to the higher office and ultimately the verdict came in favor of the villagers.
Since getting the ownership of the water bodies, the villagers desilted the water bodies from the forests with the funds from the village level governing bodies and with the help of some private entities who sponsored under corporate social responsibility.
Once the water bodies were desilted, some villagers took to fishing full-time in these village ponds. The fishes that are caught are sold collectively by the village governing body and the profit divided equally among the fishers.
“In this way, the village’s governing body is, not only, in control of the maintenance of the village, but it also ensures that there is no overfishing,” said Shyamsai.
Access to water also made life easier for the women of the village by reviving and improving groundwater recharge. Manglabai said that now it takes her much less time to fetch water. “The time saved can be used for other household chores,” she added.