Wet or dry, barren or lush, the world’s landscapes are shaped by the availability of water to their soils. India is the world’s most diverse country not only for its twenty-two official languages and plethora of religions, but also for its rich geographical range of parched deserts, lush tropical forests and Himalayan Mountains. India has become defined by the abundance and absence of water, a resource that is divided amongst twenty-eight states populated by over 1.2 billion people. Government, commercial and household needs all have to be met while global water supplies become increasingly unstable due to climate change and a growing population.

Before traveling to India as part of Carnegie Mellon University’s Social Change Semester, my thesis project focused on the relationship between government agencies and NGOs in rural water development. This idea completely unraveled upon arriving to Wardha, a small district in central India. Like the crumbling bridges, dams and irrigation schemes, government-led resource management in Wardha has deteriorated beyond function. As I noticed the absence of government services, gender quickly emerged as the critical subject of my research. I drove past countless women hunched over harvests on my way to interviews with farmers, only to be met by groups of men and the occasional wife. The more that I learned about water management in Wardha, the more I realized how much responsibility and knowledge the women have over this resource, yet they often remained marginalized in water resource development planning. This recognition shifted my focus onto how gender shapes the value and use of water within the Wardha District. Understanding this dynamic is critical to the work of water resource programs because it affects how water resources are developed and managed in communities throughout India and the developing world.

I partnered with the Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation (KJBF) to understand how gender affects the responsibilities and influence of women in rural water resource management. Water resource development focuses on extracting water from natural sources while water management aims to maximize the efficiency of distribution systems. Both of these processes aim to use water supplies in an environmentally sustainable manner while ensuring that all community members have equal water access. When referring to water resource or management projects, these terms include both irrigation and more general works like check dams, aquifer recharge, and river restoration measures. This integration emphasizes that water projects can be designed to address needs of both the domestic and agricultural sectors, which often compete over access to the same water resources.

This project investigates how water use gendered within rural communities, how government and NGO water resource programs understand the water resource needs of women in Wardha District, and how gender divisions affect the work of NGOS like KJBF. Standard approaches to resource development agencies overlook how group trust, government corruption and the Wardha’s water history determine the role of women in water management. Wardha and KJBF are ideal subjects for investigating the relationship between gender and rural water management because of their location and historical importance to India.

Water development organizations have created a disparity between the professed success of their projects and how beneficiaries actually use the projects. Agencies fail to fully engage the community during the implementation of projects or facilities, which wastes funding and resources. Only about one third of water resource management projects saw improvement in their agricultural yield and only a quarter saw improvement in their access to clean water and sanitation (Alsop and Kurey 2005). Resource inequality continues to be an unmentioned yet pervasive issue, and agencies need to prevent the biased distribution of water and related services.

Because of the failures of large-scale projects and bureaucratic approaches, water development work is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary in its methods. Decades of academic research and NGO field experience have shown that localized management efforts lead to the most efficient consumption and distribution of water among communities, but decentralization can also make it difficult to hold agencies accountable for water system maintenance. New approaches by development institutions include targeting specific demographics, like women and ethnic or religious minorities, but this does not fully accommodate the complications of village politics or how the historical of water development in a region affects its current resource quality and access.

While there is an abundance of information about the role of women in development globally and in India, this research is rooted in direct conversations and interactions with women to provide a more balanced perspective against the standard recommendations of international development policy. This work aims to create “a flow of knowledge from the rural women to the academics and experts, which helps the village women to become researchers, teachers, guides and scientists in the India of the 21st century” (Devasia 1998 547). The context of this work is localized but it is still applicable to water management throughout India and even other developing communities globally. This research also focused on the development of water conservation systems, river restoration projects, and irrigation systems. It does not discuss other water-related topics, such as sanitation, because these issues have different causes, policies, and solutions.


Map of Wardha District

Map of Wardha District

Maharashtra has long struggled to balance its booming agricultural sectors with an increasingly limited water supply (Dhangare 1992 1423). Much of the state’s western region is under a rain shadow, which causes low annual levels of precipitation. Wardha receives an average rainfall of 1060 mm, 110 mm below the national average. Nearly 85 percent of rainfall occurs during the monsoon season from June to September, receiving about 53 rainy days annually with an average daily rainfall of 19.6 mm. Moderate to severe soil erosion affects nearly 85% of farmland in Wardha (Rukmani and Manjula 2009 17). Waterlogging of fields and lack of drainage significantly lowers agricultural productivity during the monsoon season. The extremities of rainfall levels damage farmland because they cause rapid soil runoff and make cultivation difficult and unstable, especially for staple crops like cotton that are vulnerable to fluctuations in moisture. But due to “the excessive use of water, the ground level has depleted and has gone down by almost 10-15 meters during the last few years “ in Wardha (Thakare 2011 46).


Anything but quaint, Wardha bustles with crowded street markets starting at 5 am. Factories churn, festivities hum, and small cafes run late into the night. Farmland and even Gandhi’s ashram are surrounded by thriving neighborhoods. The villages that work with KJBF might be hours from the city of Wardha, but the stretches of road in between are littered with traffic and garbage.

Unlike the open and empty countryside found in areas like the United States, it is nearly impossible to travel anywhere in India without encountering large and bustling communities. As a country that is about one third the geographic size of the United States (3,287,263 km) but with three times the population (1.2 billion people), India is simply crowded. This concentration of people strains already-scarce natural resources and farming regions have to deal with problems typically associated with urban areas like waste management. International policymakers and academic researchers that have never traveled to areas like the Wardha district might hold a skewed image of rural life. Experiencing the Indian countryside is critical to understanding how the competing needs of citizens, agriculture, and industry intensify water demands in Wardha district.

Settled in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra state, the Wardha district lies geographically and socially at the heart of India. About 1.2 million people cluster around 1387 villages and six towns interspersed throughout rocky grasslands and crop fields (Wardha District Government website). Wardha has two perennial rivers, the Bor and the Wardha, and 39 different watersheds across three tributaries: Yashoda, Wunna, and Bakli. The soil composition of Maharashtra makes the development and management of ground water very difficult because 93 percent of the state is comprised of hard rock formations that inhibit the retention of ground water (World Bank 2011 79). These conditions also affect the quality of agricultural soil because farmers usually cannot afford to remove high number of boulders and bushes on their land. Cotton and sugarcane, and other commercial crops are the most commonly grown crops even though they quickly exhaust soil of nutrients and have a high water demand (Rukmani and Manjula 2009, Bhattacharaya 2012).

Wardha’s challenging environment affects crop production, the local economy, and daily routines of its citizens. The amount of land suitable for cultivation has been consistently decreasing since 1978 even as the amount of farmland and number of small irrigation projects has increased (Rukmani and Manjula 2009 19,22). But the regional history of Wardha District also indicates that these conditions are reversible if farmers change their agricultural practices to use water more efficiently.

Currently, about 44 percent of landowners are small farmers owning up to 5 acres, while marginal farmers make up only 8 percent of total land ownership for an average of 2.5 acres (Rukmani and Manjula 2009 52). This data indicates that farmers with higher social standing have better access to land than lower castes. My own personal observations indicate that farmers with higher social standing also are more likely to own land adjacent to water sources or have better soil quality, but this needs to be verified with further research.


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