On the morning of November 28, the police of Navalgund taluk found the body of a 40-year-old woman floating in the lake in Moraba village in Dharwad. As the news of her death spread, the residents of the village gathered around the lake. What happened next left all the local gram panchayat and health official baffled: The residents decided to flush out all the water in the 32-acre lake, which is the only source of drinking water for thousands of people in the taluk.
The reason: The deceased woman, according to residents, was HIV positive, and they believe they, too, would contract the infection if they drank the water. No amount of myth-busting by the health department could change their mind; and now, the water from the lake has flooded a nearby government school.
Ostracisation, stigma, and suicide
Aishwarya* was married to a man in a neighbouring village, who allegedly sent her away when he found out that she was HIV positive. When she came back, “Everyone in the village was scared to touch her, including her own mother,” says Patil, the Panchayat Development Officer of Moraba, “The woman's mother lives near the lake. Behind the house, there was a small shed and her daughter was made to live there. No one would touch her.”
On November 26, Aishwarya went missing, and her decomposed body was found in the lake two days later. The police suspect that she killed herself, and her body has been sent for post mortem.
As the news of her death spread, the residents went to the gram panchayat and demanded that the lake's water be flushed out and replaced with new water from the Malaprabha Right Canal.
Fear of HIV
Patil says that the village residents, including the woman's mother, were convinced that the water was unfit to drink.
"We called for a meeting with the village residents,” Patil says, “We tried to tell them that HIV is not a water-borne infection. We tried to explain it to them.”
Speaking to TNM, Dr Giridhar, a surgeon at the Dharwad District Hospital, says that during the meeting, several health department officials tried to explain why the residents would not be infected. To no avail. "HIV is a virus and it is active only when it is inside a living being. In this case, the virus would have been inactive and would not have the ability to spread to other people. We tried telling them this but the people still have archaic beliefs about HIV and it was impossible to change their minds," he says.
“The residents then told the health officials, 'Fine. If you don't have a problem then why don't you drink the water and show us?' No one came forward to drink the water from the lake. Finally, the residents demanded that the water be pumped out and replaced with fresh water. They did not let their cattle go near the lake either. No matter what we told them, they did not listen," Patil says.
"Why should we drink that water? Her body was decomposed. Everyone saw what it looked like. Her own mother did not touch her when she was alive. Why should we drink water in which her decomposed body was found?" asks Ravi Kagadala, a resident of Moraba.
When told that HIV does not spread through water, a village elder, Amrutagouda, says he "did not want to take the risk." "When the people don't want to drink the water, why is everyone trying to convince us otherwise? We know what we want," he says.
Flushing out the 32-acre lake
When the meeting with the residents did not progress as desired, Patil says that the gram panchayat officials were forced to write to the Water Resource Department to help with the hysteria created in the village. Four days ago, over 20 pump sets were brought in with the approval of the Water Resources Department, and the residents and workers together began pumping out the water from the lake.
"Everyone began to chip in to pump out the water. People brought huge plastic pots and makeshift trolleys and wheelbarrows to carry the water out. There is a kind of hysteria created that anyone who drinks the water will get infected. People are covering their arms with gloves or plastic covers while handling the water pots," says Dr BC Sateesh, CEO of the Zilla Panchayat.
The water being pumped out has now landed up at the government school located in the outskirts of the village, submerging the school ground. Angered by this, the students took to protesting outside the panchayat office on Tuesday, demanding that water be pumped out and away from the school.
The 32-acre lake is the only source of drinking water for over 15,000 people in Navalgund taluk. The water from the Malaprabha Right Canal is released into the lake once in four months. The water was released just 46 days ago and now the district administration has sent a new request to replace the water.
Not the first incident
In a district which has been drought-ridden for five consecutive years, water is a sought-after resource. Shockingly, this does not seem to deter the residents - driven by prejudice and casteism - from wasting tonnes of water.
This is not the first time residents of Dharwad district have resorted to pumping out water from a lake. On June 15 this year, in Navalgund taluk's Navahalli, the residents demanded that the lake's water be pumped out and filled with fresh water after the body of a Dalit man was found in the lake.
"On June 15, Parashuram Talvar jumped into the lake and several villagers saw it. No one came forward to even touch the water or help the man simply because he was from the Dalit community. When the body was found by the police, the residents saw blood coming out from his mouth. They immediately demanded that the water be drained out and replaced. Thirteen pump sets were brought in and the entire 5 acre lake's water was drained," said taluk Panchayat Environment Officer Pavitra Patil.