Muzaffarpur (Bihar): Incomplete pipelines deny Madhubani in Bihar access to sufficient water. It was back in 2016 that the Bihar government started the ‘Har Ghar Nal’ (A tap in every house) scheme to ensure that people in rural parts of the state could have access to clean drinking water. However, to this day, the women of Madhubani panchayat, ward no. 9 of Musahari block, in Muzaffarpur district are compelled to walk nearly 3 km every day to fetch water for their household chores.
The sorry state of affairs isn’t because the panchayat hasn’t begun implementing the scheme. In fact, in keeping with the initiative, the government had installed pipelines here in 2019-20, bringing in the groundwater extracted out using submersibles pumps, stored in the Jal Minars constructed as per the scheme. However, the work on all of these lies incomplete.
Incidentally, the 2019 Niti Aayog Report on Composite Water Management Index Performance clearly states that although work had begun in 60% of the rural areas of the country, there’s been no perceptible improvement in the quality of available water.
Sangeeta Devi (33), a resident of this block explained that “out of 200 houses under this panchayat, almost 150 have no access to clean drinking water”.
Consequently, in the absence of running water, women must trudge down a few kilometres to the Tirhut canal; an irrigation canal from the River Gandak which runs from Valmikinagar and Muzaffarpur.
Local resident Mahendra Saha, says: “The dirty, brackish water collected from the canal is boiled and strained for drinking purposes. Many villagers often fall sick because of this.”
Elaborating on the problem, Sangeeta told 101Reporters” “The taps had been installed long ago. But in the absence of connected pipelines, we have to carry bucket-loads of water home. It’s a difficult situation, but we women can’t do without (fetching) water. Whether it be heavy fog, biting cold or scorching sun, we women must go out to fetch water.”
Pregnant women and mothers of toddlers are particularly pitiable. Neighbours have to pitch in to help them, as Uma Devi (name changed) said: “There is a pregnant woman in our neighbourhood who cannot fetch water. So we are all helping her.”
Poor health due to dirty water
Carrying water over long distances has ended up taking its toll on women. Local resident Urmila Devi (45) suffers from persistent pain in her hands, brought on by the need to constantly carry heavy pots and buckets. Others, like 40-year-old Uma Devi, complain of physical and mental fatigue, besides persistent stress about running out of water at home.
But more than discomfort, the regular use of dirty water for bathing can particularly endanger the health of women and children, as gynaecologist Kalpana Singh pointed out.
“Constantly using dirty water for bathing can affect the genital areas and result in bacterial and other infections,” she said, also warning that drinking dirty water can cause diarrhoea, nausea and indigestion.
In 2019, local Right to Information activist Rajesh Kumar took up the matter with the administration.
“We had apprised the chief minister, district magistrate and block development officer [BDO] about the issue. But our complaint did not elicit any response,” the 35-year-old told 101Reporters.
A little activity followed, but this, too, soon ground to a halt.
All that Block Divisional Officer (BDO) Mahesh Chandra admitted was that there was a funding problem, claiming that work on the pipeline would resume soon.
“The matter is to be investigated,” he added.
However, former sub-divisional officer(SDO) Gyan Prakash told 101Reporters: “There were orders issued to arrange for water tankers in Madhubani village. All hand pumps were to be restored and running until boring operations were not completed.”
This is being looked as a temporary option to solve the water crisis in the region as the pipelines of poor quality remain unconnected to the taps.
A technical assistant who wishes to remain anonymous explains: “Based on a model estimate, the pipelines run through 1200-1400 km stretch currently, covering only 50 houses, and must be carried on further to cover a total of 200 houses here. The work has been in a pending state, though funds of 16 lakhs were demanded from Zila Parishad when the project was initiated.”
In February 2022, following media outrage regarding Madhubani’s elusive water connection on some local television channels, two to three hand pumps in the village, hitherto lying in a state of disrepair, were restored. This, though, is small consolation at a time when summer loos rage across the plains of Bihar, making it difficult for women to keep running to the few hand pumps in the village for precious water.
Pumping out groundwater, is it wise?
Even as official papers continue moving from one table to another at a snail’s pace, and villagers attribute the deliberate delays in fixing the pipelines to “negligence and corruption”, one needs to question the government’s wisdom in pushing villagers towards hand pumps.
According to a 2020 Public Health Engineering Department survey conducted in 38 districts of Bihar, 11 districts were found to be “water-stressed”, with groundwater having depleted to dangerously low levels. Given the situation, promoting hand pumps, that actually pump out groundwater to the surface, is questionable.
The Har Ghar Nal scheme is about providing tap connections to all the houses in Bihar, including remote rural pockets by pumping out groundwater. Madhubani region, the groundwater table is really high and there is no groundwater crisis, sometimes the water can be pumped out even with natural pressure here, but water contamination is a real issue here, especially arsenic contamination. To avoid this contamination from surface-level groundwater, they (the state government) dig the borewells as deep as 300 feet, to provide water to the houses.
But comparatively, in regions like Gaya, groundwater is a huge problem. There should be a policy in place for implementation of this scheme in such areas,” explains Suresh Kumar, a researcher at Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Patna.
(The author is a Muzaffarpur-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)