Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Keonjhar: Seven decades of Independence and other progress notwithstanding, a large section of the rural populace of Keonjhar district in Odisha is struggling for access to a basic survival need — safe drinking water. To make matters worse, this Lok Sabha constituency, which has the maximum operational mines in the state, is also being ravaged by miners, who are minting money at the cost of natural resources.
We reached some of the worst-hit areas of the district to take stock of the situation and came across several worrying facts.
Most people in Odisha's Keonjhar have to struggle for access to safe drinking water. Image courtesy: 101Reporters
Miles to go, for a drink
Baragoda is a tribal village under the Banspal block, mainly inhabited by the Juang tribe. Just 45 km away from the district headquarters, it continues to suffer in silence.
With not a single formal source of drinking water, the villagers are now used to drinking water directly from the pits they dig during summer and from other natural mountain streams nearby.
The lone tube well in the village is also useless, as it churns out muddy and high-iron water, which is non-potable. Villagers allege that despite highlighting this, no government assistance has come their way. And the absence of any drinking water project in the area has worsened the situation for the water-borne-disease-stricken area.
“Most of us, including the children, drink water from pits and mountain streams, as we have no other option. This has resulted in a large number of cases of skin diseases and diarrhea. Our plight worsens during summer, when the natural source dries up,” says Dengi Juang, an elderly woman from the village.
The village’s youths use spades and other equipment to dig up pits during summer when the natural sources of water dry up. They target spots where they anticipate a high level of groundwater, mainly around the periphery of mountain streams. Sometimes, they get water just by digging two feet; other times, they have to go deeper. Villagers also protect these areas with makeshift barricades.
While the nearest water source — a stream downside of the village — is around half a kilometre away in the forest area, to collect water from a pit, they are forced to climb around 300 metres uphill. And with the men busy earning a livelihood, it’s down to the women to bring the water — they are regularly seen walking long distances carrying heavy pots and with their children in tow to fill up for the family.
It’s no wonder then that Suruti Juang (8), a student, envies the urban population. “We sometimes see on TVs and read in books how people in urban areas drink water from a tap; we, on the other hand, have to walk miles with our pots for the same. Why can’t we get such facilities in our village?” she asks us.
Meanwhile, what irks women the most is that the far-off location of the water sources also results in their daily chores, like washing utensils and clothes, and even bathing, being isolated to remote spots. A youth from the village, Pitamber Juang, says, “The women are forced to go into forest areas to collect water and have to finish their chores in the same spot. These areas are isolated and away from the village. The government should give us better options.”
Suruti agrees and adds that had there been facilities to get water directly in their homes, her mother could have devoted more time at home and even been able to take some rest during the day.
Many women have to go to isolated locations just to engage in basic chores. Image courtesy: 101Reporters
Baragoda isn’t the only village facing this problem. Several others in the district are restricted to pits, contaminated hand pumps, ponds, and other unsafe sources to fill up on drinking water, as piped drinking water projects or any other government intervention has failed to reach them.
Debashish Mishra, a grassroots worker of a voluntary organisation in Keonjhar, says, “There are around 216 villages in Banspal block. Out these, only 50-odd have safe drinking water supply. There are three types of aggrieved villages — one with no regular source of water, one with a defunct source, and the third with a source discharging contaminated water.”
Locals rue that pits are their last resort when hand pumps and natural sources fail them while also stoically admitting that this is quite normal for many villages in Keonjhar.
Several villages in other blocks, namely Telkoi, Harichandanpur, and Joda among others, are reeling under scarce supply of safe drinking water too. While Badajimei and Nardangi villages in Harichandanpur block don’t have a single formal source of water, in several others, hand pumps are defunct.
Bimal Pati, a water expert from NGO WaterAid, says that during summer many operational hand pumps go dry, leaving people in the lurch. “The hilly terrain and remote location has led to the failure of piped drinking water projects and left thousands suffering,” he adds.
This has also made earning a livelihood difficult for the men — while most rely on local forest produce, which they sell in the market, some do limited cultivation near the hills with water from the streams.
Using unsafe water often causes skin ailments among children. Image courtesy: 101Reporters
How mining has sucked the region dry
There is, however, another angle to the water woes — iron ore mining, both legal and otherwise.
Nitigotha is a mining-hit village in Banspal block. Using funds from the District Mineral Foundation (DMF), two borewells were made to supply water to the village; however, both are discharging contaminated water, one white and the other red.
Shankar Prasad Pani, a lawyer in the National Green Tribunal who had fought a case for mining-hit Joda in Keonjhar and often files cases on environmental issues in Odisha, says, “Around 30 percent of operational mining is in Keonjhar. Rampant mining in hilly areas has polluted natural mountain streams, affecting thousands of lives.”
A study by Delhi-based non-profit think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had revealed that Keonjhar gets the lion’s share (43 percent) of DMF funds in Odisha, collected from mining companies, as compensation for affected locals. As per data from the district administration, it has collected around Rs 2,500 crore till now, which should have been spent to improve the living conditions of villagers hit by mining with drinking water, healthcare, and other projects.
Some local activists complain that the DMF funds are now diverted to other areas, for opening medical colleges and funding their staff, which the state government should have financed from its revenue. Locals are also miffed that they have no representation on DMF’s district committee, which decides on fund expenditure.
Another water expert from Odisha, Bimal Pandia, says that despite investment, piped water projects have failed in many areas due to lack of filtration works; this also resulted in discharge of polluted water, making the whole exercise futile and a waste of money.
“However, now, after the state cabinet announced this year that Rs 980 crore will be spent on a drinking water project in the district, we are hopeful. We will be paying close attention to see how this will tackle the issue,” he added.
Most women have to travel long distances in search of water in the district. Image courtesy: 101Reporters
A sad state of affairs
The Centre, meanwhile, has washed its hands off the whole thing by claiming that it’s the state government’s responsibility to take care of this problem.
A Lok Sabha reply from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation states that rural drinking water supply is a ‘state subject’ and that the ministry already provides financial and technical assistance to states for improving the coverage of piped water supply in rural areas under the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP). Like other states, Odisha too had been receiving central assistance to ensure drinking water facilities to its citizens — Rs 161 crore in the last two years, as per the reply.
A CAG report published in August 2018 on the NRDWP highlighted a number of lacunae, government apathy, and diversion of funds to other works behind the lack of safe drinking water for the rural community in Odisha. Keonjhar was among the eight districts selected under the project. The report also blamed lack of field experts and inspections, and massive shortage of labs, testing equipment, and manpower, claiming the state did not have a specific policy framework and also did not carry out social audits of the projects.
Biju Janata Dal (BJD), with its incumbent Saguntala Laguri, represents the Keonjhar Lok Sabha constituency, which has six state Assembly segments — Ghasipur, Anandpur, Patna, Keonjhar, Telkoi, and Champua. Except Champua, which is represented by an Independent, all other seats are occupied by the BJD.
However, while the ruling regime in Odisha failed to provide drinking water solutions to many mineral rich areas of the state, the ensuing elections seem to have targeted these un-served village too. Local political leaders are reported to be trying to woo the voters in the water-hit areas too. Villagers of Baragoda said that with the elections around the corner, the village is getting some regular supply of electricity for the past two months.
Opposition parties believe this is a case of misplaced priorities. Odisha Congress spokesperson Satyaprakash Nayak said, "It is astonishing that in the 19 years of the governance of the BJD, they could not provide drinking water facilities to the villagers. This shows that the government never gave priority to the issue while people kept on drinking water from river and pits."
A BJD leader requesting anonymity said that many areas in Keonjhar could not be served till now because many were in hilly region while in some areas, repair works of formal water sources are needed. He added that the state Cabinet plans to invest around Rs 980 crore in the district for drinking water projects which can ensure drinking water solutions to all the villages in the district.
(The author is a Bhubaneshwar-based freelance writer and State Editor, 101Reporters)