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In Covid-19 times, Gujarat NGO takes water, food to ‘inhospitable’ Kutch regions

Maniben Naga, a koli from Nagavandh, receiving ration kit
By Gazala Paul*
Parbat Bijal Koli and Shantiben Bala Koli live 63 kms apart in two different villages of two administrative blocks in Gujarat's most inhospitable region -- the Greater Rann of Kutch. And at a time when Gujarat is among the worst hit Covid-19 states in India, Parbat and Shantiben are battling two different challenges compounded by the blistering heat of the Rann -- a near-total lack of drinking water in the case of the former and severe shortage of food grain as far as the latter is concerned.
A resident of Dungranivandh in Dholavira panchayat, Parbat works as a labour hand on agricultural fields in the sowing season and migrates to Gandhidham or Morbi town during the summer months to double up as a worker on construction sites. When the Covid-19 national lockdown was imposed across the country, Parbat had little or no work, managing to sell his labour for only days over the three months that the pandemic-related restriction has been in place. Since Dungranivandh is barely a few kilometers from the edge of the great salt marsh that is the Rann, water shortage is a perennial occurrence.
Like others living nearby, Parbat too has begun to face the problem of water scarcity. His family spends Rs 1,500 to fill up their underground water tank which has an 8,000-litre capacity. This amount was taken as an "informal" loan on high interest from a local money lender. Besides, he took another loan of Rs 10,000 at 3 percent interest from a second money lender. By the time water scarcity hit his family and others at Dungranivandh hard, he had already spent half the amount to top-up his water tank.
Far away at Bhuranivandh (in Gujarati, a vandh is a hamlet) in Adesar village of Rapar block, 40-year-old Shantiben, who is from the Koli community, lives with her six children all by herself after her husband deserted her for another woman. Left in the lurch, Shantiben began took to labouring a couple of years ago on a charcoal field and in sundry agricultural plots to support herself and her children. 
When the lockdown was imposed, she was left with no income. That is when she thought up a novel idea to earn some money: with her experience on the charcoal fields, she took to this work on her own after borrowing some money as seed capital from a local money lender.
Water distribution in Dungranivandh and Fafravandh villages
However, shocked by the fact that the nearest marketplace at Adesar was shut because of the lockdown, she was forced to her sell her charcoal produce to the money lender. When she realised that the money lender would not only push her to settle the principal amount she had borrowed, plus the interest, and would not pay her a fair price for the charcoal, Shantiben dropped the idea altogether.
Not all is lost for either Parbat or Shantiben, however. Ahmedabad-based Samerth Charitable Trust, which has been working among those hit the hardest by the Covid-19 lockdown and has been distributing food grain and providing drinking water to the residents of the blocks in the Greater Rann, not only came to Parbat and Shantiben's rescue but also of other residents on the margins.
Samerth's support to Parbat and his family by way of providing drinking water through tankers has helped him store up for the next three months, especially at a time when the monsoon season is still a few months away. Samerth's support to Parbat and other hapless residents in Dungranivandh has not only helped them save money but has also encouraged them to return to the agricultural fields.
Samerth, with Azim Premji philanthropic support, supplied water, distributed ration in rural areas of Rapar and Bhachau blocks
Water scarcity in Kutch, especially in Khadir region of Bhachau block, is worse than the worst nightmare for the residents. The communities living in Bhachau are mainly into working as labourers on agricultural land, charcoal-making, masonry and stone cutting in nearby mines among others.
Khadir has no direct water supply through the Narmada river pipeline. The area is dependent on bore well water or that supplied by state government-operated tankers. On some occasions, especially when the land becomes parched in the summers and the Narmada canals and ponds dry up, the village folks fall upon buying water from private suppliers and fill up their respective tanks which Samerth helped construct. All forms of domestic vessels, large or small, are also used to store water. 
The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown worsened the conditions. But with support from the Bengaluru-based Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI), Samerth has been supplying drinking water through tankers to the families living in Dungranivandh, Fafravandh and Kharoda hamlets located near Dholavira village in Khadir region.
Shantiben Bala, a koli from Bhuranivandh, receiving ration kit
Samerth efforts to supply water through tankers began on June 5 -- World Environment Day. Since then, the NGO has covered 96 families across Fafravandh, Dungranivandh and Kharoda and supplied the first round of 4,000-litre water to each household. The second round of water distribution started on June 22. Overall, Samerth has so far distributed 8,000 litres to each of the 96 families. This effort will help families survive till August.
Meanwhile, at Bhuranivandh, Samerth provided ration kits to Shantiben and other families living in the same hamlet. This will help Shantiben save whatever little money she has saved. Operating from Gagodar village, Samerth, again with support from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, distributed 685 ration kits across 12 neighbouring villages and 20 hamlets of Rapar block in Kutch district, in June. Earlier the same families were provided food kits in the month of April 2020.
The beneficiaries belong to a host of communities such as the Parkara Kolis, Kolis, Dalits, Rabaris and Bharwads who are not only backward but also survive on the margins. Many of members of these deprived communities do not own land and work as agricultural and mine labourers or are into charcoal-making to eke out their living. What makes them even more vulnerable is that these families live deep in the interiors and do not have direct access to roads leading to the village centres.
Samerth started its food distribution programme in the villages of Rapar in April, followed by providing 685 food grain packets primarily among 583 families who are in the BPL (below poverty line) category and another round of distribution among 147 APL (above poverty line) households. These packets, supplemented by the food grain supplies of the state government (through fair price shops), have helped the people survive for a month-and-a-half.
The kits comprise cooking ingredients such as cooking oil (2 litres), sugar (1 kg), moong dal (1 kg), wheat flour (10 kg), red chilli powder (500 gm), turmeric powder (500 gm), salt (1 kg), jaggery (2 kgs), tea packets (500 gm), Santoor soap (3 pieces), Ghadi detergent bars (5 pieces) and millet (10 kgs). These have helped the people to mix and match with the wheat and rice provided by the state government. These supplies will see the people through till the end of July.
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*Founder, Samerth Charitable Trust, Ahmedabad

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