A Community’s Decade Long Struggle for Water in West Bengal

The Dooars region of West Bengal suffers from an acute water shortage and from water contamination but both the government and the tea industry have been slow to act.

Tea garden workers from Adivasi communities are the backbone of the tea industry in the Dooars. But for their indispensable labour, both the industries’ management and the government give them little in return. Wages are as low as 150 rupees a day and crucial amenities like health, sanitation and education are unavailable or ineffective. But water scarcity, along with contamination, are the biggest problems that those living and working in the tea gardens face.

In the Bhatkawa Tea Garden in Alipurduar, the crisis is particularly affecting a community of 150 people who have not had access to potable water for 12 years now. They work in the gardens from morning to evening and get only an hour’s break which they spend looking for water.

“If they don’t find any water, they have to go thirsty,” says Harihar Nagbanshi, Community Correspondent from Alipurduar who reports on the various issues tea garden workers face.

Many tea gardens in the region are also dependent on neighbouring Bhutan for water, for an annual rent. Many of these gardens are now shut, and the workers have not been rehabilitated; they try to make ends meet through alternative means and also pay the annual rent for the water that the former management no longer pays for. Water has also been a poll issue in the region but no political party has delivered on its promises so far.

Meanwhile, the everyday implications of the crisis on the community are manifold.

“Children cannot go to school if there is no water at home for them to get ready, and we women also get late to work because we have to fetch water in the morning,” says Rita Oraon.

“When they get late to work because fetching water takes up our time, the management talks down to us, scolding us for not being on time,” says another woman worker. It is a well-known fact that the burden of fetching water falls squarely on women in most communities. According to the United Nations, globally, women and girls spend almost 200 million hours daily fetching water. In India, is is estimated that the time spent by women in fetching water for their families amounts to a financial loss of at least 10 billion rupees a year.

Moreover, the water that the women fetch or the water that the families get from the hand pumps around is often so dirty that it cannot be consumed. Water in the region is also known to have high levels of iron, along with arsenic and dolomite, leading to stomach and skin ailments.

The Alipurduar Municipality recently received a grant of 102 crores from the state government to address the water crisis in the town. But rural areas have not received similar support, although the government has asked the district administration to address the water crisis in the tea gardens.

“We have submitted several applications at the panchayat office, but they have not taken any action,” says Sitaram Baraik, adding that the community is taking it up with the panchayat again as a collective petition.

The residents of Bhatkawa have spent over a decade trying to get a sustainable source of water, support them by calling their Panchayat Pradhan, Lilamati Gowala, at +91-8967117415 and urge her to address the crisis immediately.

Video by Community Correspondent Harihar Nagbanshi

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team

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