The ‘Water Wives’ of Maharashtra: Engendering Water Resource Management in Rural India

Mrittika Bhattacharya Associate - Gender Equality Program

Picture Credit- The Guardian

The ‘Paani Bais’ in Denganmal

“My first wife was busy with the kids. When my second wife fell sick and was unable to fetch water, I married a third.” -says Sakharam Bhagat, one of the residents of the Denganmal village (140km from Mumbai) in the state of Maharashtra.

More than nineteen thousand villages in Maharashtra have no access to water, based on an official report by the government. In the village of Denganmal, the inhabitants experience a severe crisis of drinking water because there are no taps and the only sources of water are the two wells located at the foot of a rocky hill. The problem aggravates because the wells are quite far away from the village and the closest one is located at a distance of twelve kilometers. Hence, due to the extreme water shortages, there are huge queues waiting for long durations to fetch water.

Looking into the hierarchical family structures and financial conditions of the villagers it can be seen that the village consists of around 100 thatched houses where the men are usually farmers and wage laborers, barely able to earn the minimum wage. The wives are engaged in household chores, do not have any source of income and are solely dependent on their husbands for sustenance. As a consequence of extreme drought conditions, it becomes very difficult to carry out all household chores. And, this water crisis has escalated so much so that the institution of marriage is being guided by it.

To elaborate, the villagers have come up with a solution to end the shortage of drinking water- marry more than one wife. Though polygamy is legally banned for Hindus in India under the Hindu Marriage Act, the villagers, mostly Hindus, have been practicing multiple marriages. In accordance with the existing social norms and practices, the wives are assigned the responsibility of fetching water for the entire family. Within this ‘deal’, the more number of women these men marry, they can utilize them to fetch more water. For instance, an old woman who does not have the capacity to fetch water stays at home and looks after the household while her husband marries one or more women for the purpose of collecting water. Another instance which can be witnessed is where a young man marries more than one woman with whom he might or might not share a conjugal relationship but ‘use’ them for bringing water for the family. Such an arrangement overlooks the hardships that these women go through by travelling quite a long distance in difficult terrains and collecting at least three heavy containers of water. It does reduce their worth and cause humiliation.

Picture Credit- The Guardian

And, this humiliation has been depicted in a vivid manner in the short film- “The Wives” written by Swati Bhattacharya and directed by Jaydeep Sarkar for Action Aid. In this film, the life of one of the villagers Sakharam Bhagat is shown, who married his third wife at the age of sixty-six only for the purpose of ensuring water supply to the family. Bhagat expresses the opinion that it has become a norm in this village to marry multiple women and many of them are widows or abandoned. He believes that all of them are ‘happy’ with the arrangement. While he, like the other men of Denganmal, takes pride in this set-up and perceives himself to be a ‘savior’ who provides sustenance to the marginalized women, fails to account for the humiliation that these women go through on an everyday basis.

Within the unequal power-relation of the family, their husbands render them inferior or deficient. Their worth being determined only in relation to the amount of water they fetch for the household, there exists a constant threat to their sense of self worth. They do not consider the women as equal partners in the relationship but as subordinate beings, the duty of whom is solely to fetch water and engage in sexual relationship, only if the husbands are willing to. There is no space for mutual respect in this regard. These women do not possess any independent identity and are merely the ‘water wives’ of their husbands. Consequently, they remain unpaid, unheard and unrecognized. But, it is not a dissociated incident and goes on to show the deep-rooted acceptance of a masculinist discourse of water resource management and the feminization of certain kinds of jobs like that of water collection by the power-holders of the society in different regions of rural India.

Picture Credit- The Guardian

Feminization of Water Collection in Rural India

As Joan Davidson opines- “It is difficult to define quite where ‘environment’ begins and ends for women in developing countries”.

In comparison to their men counterparts, these women are more dependent on the environmental resources because they have limited or no access to all other kinds of resources like education, employment, health care facilities and nutrition. The extent to which an individual is vulnerable in the face of environmental stressors is dependent on their gender roles and responsibilities because of this differential access. Hence, environmental injustice is meted out to these women and a closer look at this reveals the underlying social injustice they face. It brings to the forefront the internalization of patriarchal norms that contribute to the discrimination and humiliation of women throughout the country, more specifically in the villages.

Drinking and household water is considered a woman’s issue because the water collection process in rural India is totally dependent on these women. Their access to environmental resources and agencies are determined largely by their marital relations and familial ties, as observed in the case study. Mostly, these women receive the least amount of water for their personal use, and have to sacrifice for their family members. Normalizing the sacrifices of these women within their family further increases their marginalization. Collecting water for the entire household is an extremely tedious task for them because it requires walking long distances through difficult terrains and carrying heavy metal pitchers. Though the women engage in this laborious task, their work does not get adequate acknowledgement and recognition. The traditional gender roles existing till today leave these women with no agency, whatsoever. The autonomies of these women are restricted by the societal norms and hierarchical family structures. Not only are they subordinated and discriminated against but their emotional well being remains neglected. They are commoditized, humiliated and considered worthless by their families and communities.

Furthermore, it must be taken into account that the experiences of women with water in different parts of the developing world are intersectional. They are determined by their social positions and multiple identities like caste, class and religion. But, the limited existing literature on this issue tends to overlook these cleavages which lead to generalization and exclusion. For instance, in the case study which is being looked into here, an intermingling of gender roles, caste and class positions together bring about the increased vulnerabilities of these women.

Picture Credit- The Guardian

Need for Gender-Sensitive Water Resource Management

As established so far, in the everyday life experiences of women belonging to the developing world, water is an important asset. And, the Indian women play a considerable role in the usage of this asset. But, their voices remain unheard in any decision-making body.

Water scarcity and droughts are serious concerns in different parts of the country, particularly in the state of Maharashtra. But, the impact is not equally distributed. Brinda Rao argues that the “ideological constructs of masculinity and femininity work in iterative ways to influence how people relate to different kinds of water”. In spite of being the stake holders, no consideration is given to women’s water needs and rights. Not only are these women worst affected but they have the most minimal decision- making capacities with regard to the management of environmental resources.

It cannot be denied that many of the injustices faced by these women stem from the lack of governmental initiatives and legal protection. One of the reasons for the lack of a gender-sensitive approach for water resource management is the gender gap in property rights. The women in conservative section of the societies are excluded from the enjoyment of property rights. Since land rights are closely associated with water rights, they get deprived of both. Owing to the fact that the governmental documents and state policies attribute the main cause of water scarcity to natural causes, thereby shunning off the responsibilities of the governmental authorities, the water rights of women do not receive adequate attention. Emphasis on the role played by the women in fetching water for domestic purposes and including their voices in the decision making processes can play a significant role in ensuring social inclusion, sustainability and alleviating poverty to a great extent.

From a broader point of view, it can be argued that a host of factors like traditional gender norms, hierarchical family structures, limited mobility in public spaces and governmental negligence restrict the participation of these women from water resource management in a formal manner, though they have the most significant role in collecting that water. It is an extremely difficult task to do away with the internalization of patriarchal gender norms, still participation of women in the governmental bodies can provide them a space to deliberate upon their needs and water crises, in general. Therefore, a gender-sensitive and inclusive approach to water-resource management needs to be emphasized upon because it can aid in re-negotiating the agency of these women in both public and private spheres.


Mrittika pursued a M.A in Women's Studies at the University of York, UK. Previously, she completed M.A in Political Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. During her undergraduate studies in Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata, she was awarded the gold medal for standing first in the order of merit. She was also selected as an exchange student at Sciences Po, Paris. Her areas of interest include environmental justice, postcolonial feminism and political theory. Apart from academics, She has volunteered in NGOs committed towards women's rights and environmental crises.

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