Most of the women have stories of overcoming their inhibitions to narrate to the world.

How 300 women dug 190 wells to save their panchayat from drought in Kerala
news Drought Tuesday, May 02, 2017 - 15:07

Lakshmikutty (39), a resident of Pookkottukavu panchayat in Kerala's Palakkad district, has been working under the central government's MNREGA scheme since the past six years. Lakshmi used to be wary of heights, but not anymore.

Lakshmi, along with 299 other women have defied their inhibitions and have dug as many as 300 wells in their panchayat over a period of six months. Now, she climbs down the wells with practiced ease--tying two ladders together, suspending them inside the wells and then climbing down to dig the well deeper, until she finds water. 

Pookkottukavu panchayar President, K Jayadevan claims that theirs is arguably the only panchayat in the country that has so many women employed in well-digging activity. For the quiet panchayat with a population of not more than 18,000 people in its 13 wards, digging up 190 new wells to fight the drought is a massive achievement, Jayadevan says.

Like Laskhmi, most of the women involved in the activity have stories of overcoming their inhibitions and fear, to narrate to the world. 

As far as Lakshmi is concerned, she no longer pays heed to the men in her locality teasing her for digging wells. The "warnings" that her team might not find water at the end of the day, has little effect on the team now.

Including well-digging in MNREGA 

It was after the central government's master circular last year that disallowed certain activities that was previously part of MNREGA, that the panchayat officials set out to include more activities under the scheme. 

According to the panchayat officials, there are 2000 registered members under MNREGA in the panchayat, out of which not more than 700 are men. 

"Until then, the women used to take up cleaning drives on the roads and water bodies, work at the lands of private individuals and coconut farms. But the master circular discontinued a few activities, and said that the workers cannot go back to work in the same coconut farm every year. This threw up a challenge before us, that is to generate enough employment to all the workers,” Jayadevan says. 

The idea of a well-digging activity came up in one of the brainstorming sessions, says Jayadevan. 

"It was October when we called the meeting and we decided we should arm up for the summer to come. Who would have known that our state would face a drought as severe as this?" Jayadevan says. 

Well-digging a male bastion, no more

While majority of the workers under MNREGA continues to be women, the kind of work they do had fallen into a pattern of cleaning drives and farming. When the panchayat officials suggested the idea of digging wells, there was resistance from them, mainly the women.

"The women were skeptical about the work and felt that it was too risky a job to do for Rs 240 a day. Moreover, nobody has heard about women in our state digging up wells. The men, on the other hand, were not willing to undertake the work, for the same work would fetch them at least Rs 700 otherwise," Jayadevan explains. 

However, a group of five women from Munnoorkode (Ward number 12) came forward to build a well for one of their neighbours, Odattil Sharada. 

"Sharada is an old woman with poor financial standing and these women who agreed to join us are Sharada's neighbours. Along with the urge to venture out into a male bastion, they also wanted to help out their neighbour," Jayadevan says.

And so, the unskilled labourers, armed with shovels and a towel over their heads, dug into the thick parched land to build the first well in two weeks. The well was 41 feet deep. 

Once a precedent had been set and their fears allayed, other women too joined in. 300 women then joined in and were divided them into groups of five or six. 

37-year-old Radha has been employed under MNREGA for the past four years and never before in her life she had faced her fears in the way she was doing now. 

"When the panchayat officials suggested the idea, I was honestly scared for my life. But the idea of doing work that only men have been doing for years, was interesting in itself. But I couldn't bring myself to be in the first team. But when other women proved we could also dig wells, I joined them," Radha says. 

She proudly declares that she has dug two wells in Kolakkad ward along with her team of five women. 

"As we dug the wells deeper everyday, we saw our courage increasing too," she says. 

Ask Radha whether she is now an expert in digging wells and whether she can climb down one easily, she says, "Anytime!" 

(All photographs sourced from Panchayat President Jayadevan K)

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