Bhudarwati - The water warrior of Dindori

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Photo story
Bhudarwati Devi, Dindori, Madhya Pradesh WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan

When Bhudarwati Devi (30) lost her husband a few years ago, she was left behind to look after her three children. Bhudarwati’s bright smile doesn’t let anyone know what all she has been through. Until a year ago, Bhudarwati and most of the villagers of Pondi village in Dindori, Madhya Pradesh made peace with the fact that such sudden deaths happen due to some supernatural powers or evil spirit of a deceased family member. “He [my husband] was often down with an upset stomach or vomiting. He could hardly digest any food… We all thought that he is unwell due to some higher power,” shares Bhudarwati shyly. “However, it was much later that we understood the reason behind these deaths,” she adds. 

Bhudarwati is not the first or the only one to go through this ordeal. Many others in the village also claim that it was a common sight to see family members fall sick with diarrhoea and then lose their lives. With the health centres at a distance, they would often try to cure their problems with home remedies. 

The women of Baiga tribe in Pondi village
WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
The women of Baiga tribe in Pondi village

In 2005, Bhudarwati got married and came to Pondi village. Belonging to the Baiga tribe, Bhudarwati’s hands and legs are all covered with the traditional tattoos. “These tattoos are our identity. They are painful, but still they are our only form of identity as a tribe and it also show how strong a woman is,” she says.

Pondi village in Dindori is home to over a hundred Baiga families. Agriculture and forest are the two main sources of income for them. Located in the heart of a lush green forest, the houses are scattered over an area that is uphill. Water has always been a concern for the community as they barely use the water from wells and traditionally believed that water that flows is always pure to drink. Thus, they collected water from the two natural spring at the hill nearby. The walk to the spring was also a tiring one. Women had to walk through the forest uphill and downhill several times a day; a total distance of about a kilometre [one-way] for each trip to the spring.

A woman walks through the uneven terrain to show the source of water.
WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
A woman walks through the uneven terrain to show the source of water.

What the community wanted was not just water supply near each household, but also a filtration technique that would provide access to clean water. In 2018, HSBC’s water programme and WaterAid along with its partner began with the work in the village.

Bhudarwati collecting water from a stand post to test it for its quality.
WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
Bhudarwati collecting water from a stand post to test it for its quality.

As a first step, a Jal Prabandhan Samitti (water management committee) was set up in the village. Twelve men and women from the village were encouraged to join the committee to ensure long-lasting solutions for their water problems. Bhudarwati, an active member of the committee was dedicated towards the cause, and was hence nominated as the head of the committee. She and the other members attended various training sessions on testing of water, handling water collected from the source and storing it at home, as well as maintenance of water sources and infrastructure.

A member of the Jal Prabandhan Samitti shows the pipeline layout from the two natural springs to the filtration tank.
WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
A member of the Jal Prabandhan Samitti shows the pipeline layout from the two natural springs to the filtration tank.

With regular meetings and discussions, Bhudarwati and the committee along with WaterAid and its partner devised a solution for their water problems - a slow sand water filter. Water from the two springs was collected in a storage-cum-filtration tank with the help of pipelines. This tank had five chambers filled with sand, gravel, charcoal and net in different chambers. As the village is located on the foot of the hill, the system works on gravity. The chambers are connected with each other through small openings at different heights so that water is passed through each chamber through gravity and not electricity. The water gets filtered in the process and is connected with stand posts [water outlets] near each household; one stand post for about 4-5 houses. This has led to supply of clean water at the household level with a drastic decrease in the time to collect water.

A young girl washes hands at the water point outside her house
WaterAid/ Prashanth Vishwanathan
A young girl washes hands at the water point outside her house

The community soon realised the difference in their health condition on using this filtered water. Fewer children complained of stomach ache as compared to the earlier times. Today, Bhudarwati and the committee meet once a week to discuss if there is any problem in maintain the water filtration plant. The community also engages with them to seek solutions together as most of them of suffered from the various implications of accessing unclean water. “My husband wouldn’t have fallen ill if at all he or any of us knew that the water was the main reason. I wish I knew about all this, he would be with us and I wouldn’t have to depend on my in-laws for every small little things.