“It’s a women’s drought”, declared Avik Saha, my partner in imagining and designing this padyatra, and now my co-passenger. This was the third day of our padyatra in Marathwada. We had just gone past yet another queue of women and girls waiting for water with their pitchers and cans.
It took some time for his formulation to sink in. Avik is always on the lookout for a way to summarize what we have seen. I guess his astonishing range of experience – a high-flying real estate lawyer, a humble organic farmer, the patron of a classic guitar society and a connoisseur of indigenous seeds – accounts for his knack for thinking a step ahead of everyone else. I had learnt not to let his remarks go past me.
So I pocketed his remark and carried it with me, like my glasses, till we concluded the yatra at Mahoba. Wherever we went, it enabled me to see many faces of this drought, that would have otherwise escaped my attention.
The one thing that could not have escaped my attention was the sheer presence of women in all the meetings. Women dominated the show, even in Bundelkhand — with all the remnants of feudal culture and taboos about women’s participation.
With so many men migrating in search of jobs, the presence of women is more noteworthy in the villages. They were in purdah, using their fingers deftly to open a slit for a one-eyed view of the meeting. But they were there.
And they were not silent. Women led the way in the discussions on water, ration and mid-day meals, and took a lot of interest in discussions on employment and animal fodder. They were less informed about crop loss compensation and crop loan restructuring. But they took interest.
It was quite a sight: one hand firmly pulling the pallu over their face and the other one waving an accusatory finger at the powers-that-be. Women, more than men, took on the official lies. The presence of the sarpanch and local officials would send signals to men. In some cases these officials had anticipated our visit and tutored men.
But they had not taken the women's voice into account. The women shattered the manufactured silence and brought out the truth about the non-delivery of ration, non-implementation of Mid-Day Meal orders and the non-supply of water.
In rural India, drinking water is undoubtedly a woman’s issue. I have never understood how water resource management was added to a women’s portfolio of child welfare and food & supplies. But somehow everyone knows that anything to do with water is women’s business: they queue up, they wait, they draw, they fetch, they quarrel over it, they negotiate and they manage it.
She could be a ten year old child (looking barely eight) or a fifty year old grandmother (who looks and feels seventy), she is there in the queue. If she is lucky, the tanker arrives in her locality and the queue is less than an hour long.
Or else, she could be trudging up to two km in search of water or standing in the queue for two-three hours. Dalit, landless women are most vulnerable in having to beg for water from landlords who own private bore-wells.
Women don’t always buy food-grains from the ration shop (boys more than men perform that duty, just as I used to queue up for sugar when I was young), yet they know everything about it. Men may be unsure about the quantity and quality of food-grain received, but not women. They are not just the principal disburser of food, but also its last consumer. They are the first ones to feel the pinch.
That is why women are more eager than men to take up MNREGA work. Wherever we went we heard complaints about MNREGA wages being too low to attract rural workers. It ranges between Rs 160 to Rs 200 per day. They prefer city work for it pays better. And that is why MNREGA has not picked up. Or so went the official explanation.
But when we turned to women, they punctured these claims. Yes, the wages are low, but are much higher than what they can get elsewhere. Wages for women agriculture labour in Maharathwada has plummeted to Rs 100 per day. Women who went to work in a Latur bakery barely made Rs 90 a day after meeting their transport costs. For them MNREGA work, assured work within their own village, is a God sent. It’s just that there is very little of it, except in Uttar Pradesh.
If drought is an invisible disaster, the burden of its consequences placed on women’s shoulders is also an invisible burden. Men talk and complain. They talk about the non-delivery of compensation promised by the government. They talk about recovery of loan installments and non-availability of fresh loans. They talk about the unbearable burden of running a household after crops have failed. And if they cannot take it anymore, they commit suicide.
It is for women to gather all the pieces of everyday life and carry on with it somehow. Women experience drought in its quotidian cruelties where exit is not an option.
Editor's note: Swaraj Abhiyan founder Yogendra Yadav is on a padyatra of drought affected regions of Marathwada and Bundelkhand. He has been filing dispatches for Firstpost about the drought and his march. This is the fifth and final story in the series.
Read Story 1: Narendra Modi's inaction speaks louder than his words