For a long time, Imarti Devi accepted the diktats of powerful upper-caste men and served unpaid labor to access water for her family from their wells. It was a compromise she was no longer willing to make. She went up against feudal norms to dig a well that would secure water for many families like hers. The threat of violence from powerful men, dissuasion by her own husband and ridicule from villagers did not deter her. Eventually she dug the well and brought dignity to many like her who now had a source of clean water. Her fearlessness earned her the respect of her village and even the Forest Department that gave permission for a check dam that eventually brought water to farms across her village.
I was born in Silgan village in Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh. I grew up with three brothers and two sisters. My family owned 4 acres of land where we grew wheat, pulses, corn and sesame. My siblings and I would work on the farm to support our family. Our village had 6 wells and 7 handpumps. Availability of water was never a problem.
Growing up, I was very close to my father. Despite being poor, he realized the importance of education. He sent all his children to school but I found it hard to concentrate on studies. I dropped out of school and focused on learning farming and household chores instead. I sometimes regret this decision.
I got married at the age of 15 and moved to Moto village. My father-in-law owned 3 acres of land. My husband worked in Mumbai and would visit us once a year. He sent money for household expenses, but it wasn’t enough. I worked on my father-in-law’s field and he gave us grains for our consumption. As my husband was not around, I shouldered complete responsibility for my children. I wondered how they would progress in life till their basic needs are met. Basic needs began with water. This thought worried me as I would fetch muddy water to drink after doing unpaid labour for the upper castes, who controlled the only drinking water well in the village. I wish that there was some way out for us; someone who could guide me.
In 2011, an organisation came to our village to help us with our water needs. When they called for a meeting, I went for it. In the meeting, we told them about our water related problems. The organisation told us that they were planning to set up a Paani Panchayat to train us on water conservation. They encouraged women to take the lead with water projects.
Our village was feudal and women were either shy or scared to step out of their homes. I saw this as an opportunity to address our problems and became one of the project leads. We were called Jal sahelis.
In one of the meetings, we identified a well in the village that had gone dry because of excessive extraction of water for farming. We decided to dig it again. The organisation said they will provide the material needed for digging if the villagers agreed to donate labour (shramdaan). This development angered the upper-caste families. They feared that if we got a source of water apart from the sole well in their control, we will stop doing unpaid labour for them. They threatened our lives and people started to drop out. My husband was scared too and asked me to stop work on the well. I told him that I was doing it for our children and couldn’t stop now. Soon, there were only three women left digging the well.
The villagers made fun of us. They taunted us by saying “what will you women do alone?” But I didn’t quit. If I would have quit, my life would have been a mockery. When we continued with the digging, members of the upper caste families threatened my husband. They mocked him because of his lack of control over his wife. My husband told me to stop and beat me up too. I still went and dug every day till he finally gave up.
As we went deeper, it became increasingly hard. The soil was slippery, and it was difficult to balance ourselves but after excavating for four months we finally dug the well. Several families benefitted from the well. Families who mocked my husband and me, now congratulated us for our efforts.
Even members of the upper caste families acknowledged me. My biggest reward was the clean water available for my children and for my village to drink – without any conditions of unpaid labour.
After all the hard work, I didn’t want the well to go dry again. I raised this concern in one of our Pani Panchayat meetings. We decided to build a check-dam to collect rain water so that the water of the well could be recharged during monsoons. The land where we wanted to construct the dam was owned by the Forest Department. Initially, they refused permission but after hearing the story of how I had dug a well, they were impressed and allowed us to build it. This time the entire village came forward to help. The dam now provides water for irrigating over 1000 acres of land.
Testimonial- “When I went against the diktat of powerful members of the village, people told me I will lose my life but I felt no fear. I was tired of the life we were leading. I am proud of the well I dug as my whole village got access to water from it. The work I did strengthened the position of women in our village. Now, even men seek my advice on new projects relating to our village."