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Gendered response to water misappropriation and pollution in Anajpur

In rural India women play a primary role in livestock management and related activities like collection of fodder, managing water for livestock, dung collection, and milking. These activities are often considered to lie in the fuzzy boundary of work and extra-domestic activities and those that can be performed largely from inside the home space; interestingly, the participation of women as workers when they engage in livestock related activities is often undercounted because of the flexible time-space elements associated with them. To elaborate, much of this work is within the home-space, though not exclusively so. Likewise, typically, the time spent on these activities is interspersed with domestic work, which makes such work invisible at times. What is common between the agricultural and the livestock activities is that both are associated with the availability and access to land and water. During times of drought, water scarcity or non-availability of good quality water, women usually have to fetch water and fodder from long distances. Though commonly, marketing of agricultural and allied products is almost entirely in the men’s domain, small quantities of milk and other dairy products are often sold by women in rural India, constituting one of the few income sources over which the women have access to. Thus this sector is not only gendered, which is a characteristic feature it also shares with most other rural activities, but can be seen as being of crucial importance to women in terms of their access to decision making and income, notwithstanding its relatively small sectoral contribution to the overall economy.

Anajpur village, located in peri-urban Hyderabad, presents a case in point. It had traditionally been an agrarian economy, that can be perceived from the literal meaning of name of the village (Cereal Bowl). The village, has, in the recent past experienced land transformations with the setting up of two huge industrial and services establishments i.e. Sanghi group of industries in 1975 and Ramoji Film City in 1992. Over and above facing dispossessions related to transfers of land and water for these enterprises, the village has also been the recipient of acute pollution particularly from the dyeing and textile industries that posed a major threat to water based livelihoods, both agriculture and livestock, for a group of Dalit (scheduled caste) families whose land was adjacent to the polluting industry. This led to contestations against the industry that were not only gendered, but the resistances by men and women never quite converged with each other. The untreated effluents are discharged off into a stream, which during its course passes through 45 acres of farmland in Anajpur that was owned by 50 families belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. More than half of this land was distributed by the Government to these families that cannot be legally sold (Manyam land) while the remaining was revenue land for which the families held titles (Patta).

Around two years after the industry came up, the farmers began to notice a significant drop in their farm yields, death of seedlings and withering of paddy crops much before their harvest time and realized that the reason was flow of contaminated water through their fields. In 1985, the SC farmers approached the industry requesting them to dispose their waste in a manner that spares their land though continued attempts for negotiations proved to be unfruitful. Subsequent to this, the women, arguably less in number compared to men, found it important to record their protest against the discharge of pollutants on the fields for a related but somewhat different reason. After the land was rendered useless for crops, some fodder continued to grow in this field, which too after some years had a very poor yield. This protest was initiated by Mallamma, a dalit woman, who was the first to initiate a dialogue with owner of the Sanghi industry.

“It was becoming increasingly difficult to take buffaloes for grazing as our land became unsuitable for growing even grass. We shifted from growing paddy to grass but even the grass is withering away. We had also dug a well in the field, but the industry has contaminated the well water as well.” (Mallama, SC woman having usufruct rights of the contaminated land in Anajpur).

Water channel that is polluted with effluents released from the Sanghi Industry

A number of women joined Mallamma to register their discontentment, though their protest stayed confined to holding dialogues with the industry owners. The contestations being carried out by the male farmers shaped into an overt form of resistance when they staged a dharna outside the industry, but the negotiations by the women were sporadic and lost momentum within a few months. This could be due to the reason that the participation of rural women in any activities beyond the four walls of the household is mostly guided by the male members of the family except in a few cases where women have the decision making powers related to their livelihood activities. The movement later became male centric but resulted in unsuccessful efforts to cultivate and retain their lands; the SC farmers at the end sold it away to Sanghi after eight long years of protest and resistances.

Thus, the initial attempts for negotiations with the industry was taken up by the men and it focused on irrigation water crisis while the entry point of women into this was associated with the difficulties they were encountering in tending the livestock. Traditionally, the involvement of poor rural women in livestock activities was found to be more as compared to their involvement in crop husbandry activities, which they carry out in addition to their household commitments or duties. The consequences of the fragile fodder security in the village was being experienced by the SC women in having to go further distances to collect fodder or purchase it. Also, income from livestock became even more important for the household, as the returns from agriculture fell drastically due to the pollution. In addition, women had direct access to only the income from livestock production though in some households, even this depended on men’s approval.

This seemingly insignificant cases of resistance by men and women in Anajpur reveal the following:

The parallel nature of the protests by men and women over what was seemingly the same issue of pollution and loss of land is significant. Documented experiences of protest that are effective generally have women protesting in large numbers, where they are often in the forefront.

Women’s will to participate in social movements seemingly is impacted by their perception of stake in the resources that they lose access to. The cropland lost did not elicit protests from the women because their presence in the public domain was seen as undesirable by the men in what they saw as their domain and/or women did not connect the loss of income from agriculture as their own issue. The loss of fodder crop from the same land which was not considered important by the men, made a difference in not only household consumption of milk, but more importantly represented a loss of income that women had access to.

The sporadic and short lived protests by women reveals that not all women that are critically impacted by the loss of access to a resource necessarily have the agency to hold demonstrations in public due to the prevalent patriarchal norms. This also explains the difference in the modes of registering dissent for men and women in our case study.

By Monica Priya and Sucharita Sen


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