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When three illiterate Gujarati women talk, world stops to listen

THE HAGUE, MARCH 19: Kunvarben, Shantaben and Poonaben are the typical rural Gujarati women. They walk miles to fetch water for their homes, they sing popular folksongs when they get bored, and for taste they like khakras and bhujiyas. This was the case till last week.

But currently, the three are testing the waters at the Hague. With a big bang.

The three women from the parched districts of North Gujarat have created a splutter at the second World Water Forum by narrating their long-drawn struggle and eventual success with the water scarcity problem in their regions.

Attending the conference as project leaders of the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) of Gujarat, the three are stealing the grand show which has everything from mermaids swaying at the dining hall, fairies pouring carbonated water from heavens to protestors taking bath in open.

Taking time off from breathing, thinking and actually fetching water back home, the three are enjoying the cool environs of the picture-perfect Netherlands. Wearing new boots, guzzling canned orange juice and savouring Dutch cheese they can be spotted at the Congress hall surrounded by the participants, international media and even children who have arrived here from all over the world. Interestingly, all three of them are illiterate but are masters in their respective fields related to the watershed development projects they are running in their villages.

``I am here to tell the world that women can be the best participants in solving the water issues as they are the ones who have to suffer the most because of that,'' says Shantaben Solanki from Kamli village in Sabarkantha district.

Championing the cause of water woes of the womenfolk in her village, Shantaben volunteered to take a formal training in handpump repairs last year. ``Our village has got a lot of handpumps but most of them would not work due to bad maintenance. The contractor appointed by the government would never service the hand-pumps and just take the money for it. The women had no other alternative but to fetch water from four miles away. Hence I decided to take the training,'' she says.

This time SEWA has been given the contract for maintenance of handpumps and Shantaben is in charge of her entire block. ``There are 400 handpumps in my block and every month I end up repairing at least 20,'' she says. This also gives her enough income to make both ends meet.

``The men are amazed when they see me repairing the handpumps,'' she says with great pride as she talks of each and every part of the handpump ranging from piston, 5-number spanner and pipe-lifter.

Her colleague Poonaben Bharawad from Dhokawada village in Banaskantha district is a rural specialist in plastic-lined pond management. Education has not been a barrier for Poonaben. ``She is very intelligent and full of ideas,'' say the SEWA project coordinators accompanying her.

Faced with saline water, abject poverty and deaths of cattle, Poonaben took up the leadership in reconstructing an old pond in her village. Poonaben brought together all the women in the village and got the old pond cleaned up and the converted into a larger one lined lined with plastic.

``After the minor irrigation department turned down our proposal labelling it too small, we got the technical support from Indian Petro Chemicals Limited,'' she says. ``Now our 100-women group has also undertaken self-employment project through embroidery. This helps us earn some money, make savings and generate loans for ourselves,'' she adds.

Kunverben Rajpur from the Surel village in Surendranagar district talks of survival against all odds. Her village is located right in the middle of the desert. The only source of water is the saline pond situated two kms away from the village. This too is availabale only during winter and the monsoons.

``For us the biggest task in life is fetching water to survive,'' she says. After attending a workshop on roof rain water harvesting, Kunverben was determined to implement it in her own village comprising 500 households.

``Not all agreed with me. But with whatever support I got, we constructed the underground tanks for water harvesting. After lot of persuasion and persistent efforts we got the approval for the project,'' she explains.

Women themselves dug the ground near their homes for making underground tanks of 10,000-litres capacity . ``The men warned us that the children would fall and die in the pits if we stored water in them,'' she says. ``But we continued and today there are 100 such tanks in our village,'' she adds.

Cynosure of all eyes, the three women narrate their success stories in gestures to hundreds of participants and are in great demand. It's thirsty work, but fortunately there's mineral water at hand. ``After working hard to fetch a pitcher full of saline pond water at home, this is a nice experience,'' they say.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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