'Jal Sahelis' of Jhansi to try electoral luck in UP panchayat polls

Abhishek Shukla

New Delhi, Apr 12 (PTI) Till 2017, women in a village of Jhansi district in Uttar Pradesh had to walk for miles to bring water as their pleas for the restoration of the main water source for the village, a pond built by the Chandel kings, fell on deaf ears.

Geeta Devi, a resident of Manpur village in Jhansi's Babina block, decided to change the status quo in 2016, when she joined the movement of the 'Jal Sahelis', which mean female friends of water, run by the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, where she came to know about the works that can be done at the panchayat level, rights of women and techniques to revive water bodies.

One of the first volunteers to join the water brigade, she started forming 'Pani Panchayat committees' with the help of the organisation, where women chalked out strategies to put pressure on the village mandarins for reviving ponds and bringing piped water supply for drinking purposes.

After a number of petitions, endless rounds of offices of civic bodies, protests and 'shram daan' (manual labour), the Chandela pond was finally revived, ending the miseries of the women and enabling the cultivation of two crops a year, which was unimaginable for decades. A water tank was also erected and at least 70 houses in Geeta's locality got piped water supply, Shivani Singh, state coordinator of the Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, told PTI over the phone.

The panchayat polls on April 15 in the parched Jhansi district in the Bundelkhand region will see the maiden attempt of 11 'Jal Sahelis' including Geeta, who have been fighting for water conservation, of taking a plunge into an electoral battle normally dominated by cash, caste and liquor in order to bring the discourse back to the issue of water.

There are seven rivers in the Bundelkhand region, which spreads across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, including prominent ones such as the Yamuna, the Ken and the Betwa, with one of the largest concentration of dams in the region, yet the area has seen 13 drought years in the last 17 years, Sanjay Singh, secretary, Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, said.

The problem is in the topography of the area, which has extremely fertile land, but the river bed is made of granite, which does not allow any recharging of water, leaving very little ground water for use. Thus, the only solution is to conserve water in ponds, he said.

The story of Meera Devi from Simrawari village of Babina block is no different. The village faces an acute water crisis in spite of its proximity to Jhansi city.

Meera (45), who won the Union Jal Shakti ministry's Jal Prahari award in 2019 for her efforts, mobilised women through 46 self-help groups, connecting them with rural livelihood mission schemes to tackle the water crisis. Her efforts resulted in the repair and revival of old hand pumps and new ones being installed.

After scripting similar success stories, Rajkumari from Satpur Koti, Jyoti from Bamer, Vati Khangar and Meera from Khajuraha Bujurg, Meena from Simrawari, Sharda Devi from Ganeshgarh, Mamata from Imalia, Manju Rajak from Khaira and Rajkumari from Badanpur have also jumped into the electoral fray with Geeta and Meera, contesting from their respective villages.

'It is true that money, liquor do play a role, but these women have no such things to offer to the voters. They are contesting the elections on the basis of their popularity, commitment and struggle for water, which their folks have seen for years,' Singh said. PTI ABS RC