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With NGO help, Bundelkhand women 'lead' water conservation, sanitation efforts

By Bharat Dogra* 

Important initiatives regarding rural water supply and sanitation have been taken in India in recent years. In this context the need for community mobilization on these important issues has increased further. As ground water is tapped more and more to meet the requirements of taps in all rural homes, the need for water conservation is also increasing more and more.
In this emerging situation the relevance of an already much appreciated effort to create a cadre of rural women volunteers devoted to water and sanitation needs of villages, with special emphasis on water conservation, has increased further. This effort was started by a voluntary organization Parmarth in Bundelkhand region (spread over parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in Central India). 
Starting with a Jal Saheli named Sirkunwar about a decade back, this effort already has about 1600 volunteers and there are plans to increase their numbers rather rapidly and extending the effort to other states like Rajasthan and Haryana as well.
These volunteers are called Jal Sahelis (or water friends). These Jal Sahelis are often identified with the sky blue sarees they wear. In recent times several Jal Sahelis have won prestigious government awards like ‘Catch the Rain’, ‘Water Warrior’ and ‘Jal Prahri’ awards.
Geeta played an important role in mobilizing the community for the cleaning and repair of Maanpur Tank in Jhansi district. Imarti along with two friends Phoolwati and Jamuna worked so hard to dig a well in very difficult rocky conditions that they won the respect of the entire community and more and more people started joining their effort, completing it successfully. Meera has been very active in the ODF campaign in her village in Jhansi district. 
In Hamirpur district Kunti led women on a campaign to clean a degraded water tank, succeeding where a contractor and his workers had failed initially. Deepa was so good in her campaign and voluntary work that she was later elected as the village sarpanch, enabling her to contribute in an even bigger way.
Sona has helped in the successful implementation of not just water conservation work but also in spreading natural farming and millet cultivation, testifying to the many-sided contributions of Jal Sahelis.
However the core area of Jal Sahelis remains that of water conservation, meeting water needs and improving water sanitation. With the implementation of Jal Jeevan Mission the Jal Sahelis are also active in sorting out any initial problems of implementation. If some houses have been left out of the pipelines reach, then jal sahelis try to help those who have been left out. In the context of such work they can inter-act much with the local panchayats in a mutually beneficial relationship.
In the water and sanitation programs of Parmarth, Jal Sahelis are seen as the most active members of a wider community organization on water related issues which is called Pani Panchyat. The general practice has been to select no more than 3 to 5 Jal Sahelis at the most from a village. 
They are selected on the basis of wider social awareness and commitment. After selection jal sahelis are invited for training programs aimed at capacity building. Several of them are also taken for exposure visits to those places where exemplary work has been done. They are also exposed to the work of other jal sahelis whose work has contributed in significant ways.
Jal sahelis have done work of great value without receiving any salary or honorarium. They generally come from families of modest means and in fact some of them are also from quite poor households. Hence their voluntary efforts deserve high appreciation.
I recently travelled to several villages of four districts of Bundelkhand region to meet several jal sahelis, some in a group, some at their home, and their morale appeared to be quite high.
Sanjay Singh, secretary of Parmarth, says that he would like to devote his life to spreading the concept of jal sahelis to more and more villages. The jal sahelis who are already experienced in water and sanitation work can help in motivating, helping and training new entrants so that the idea and work of jal sahelis can spread more extensively, he says.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “When the Two Streams Met”, “A Day in 2071”, “Navjeevan” and “Man over Machine”

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