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'Paani Bai', known as Water Wives, whose sole responsibility is to collect water for their families

Ritika Kumbharkar


India makes up for 18% of the world’s population. As of 2022, only 4% of Indians have access to clean and safe water resources. According to a recent report by a public policy think tank NITI (National Institute of Transforming India) Aayog, Indians are facing extreme water stress. Indian women are considered the inferior citizens of the country, making them much more vulnerable to the water crisis. The solutions that have been developed to solve the water crisis were mostly by male-dominated communities, and have put the pressure on women to ensure communities have access to water.


In the rural parts of Maharashtra, the lack of water has driven men to seek out ‘paani bais’ (water wives) where they marry more than one woman to help with collecting water for the household. This social practice - polygamy is actually banned in the country but is still practiced illegally. Most men felt that to ensure that their households have water to drink and cook, marrying another woman was the only option available. Whereas women felt that they had to make a hard decision between taking care of their children and home or fetching water, making the solution of bringing another wife to do one or the other task very attractive. One to two women are responsible for fetching water and the remaining women are in charge of cooking and managing the household. On average a woman will carry two vessels on her head in the blistering heat, where each vessel holds approximately 15 liters of water. Even within this solution, there is a cultural aspect which incentivizes women to agree to these marriages. The second or third wives that are brought into the households are previously widows or single mothers. When these women get married again, they regain respect in their communities and have a family and place to call their own rather than being shunned for the rest of their lives.



Image from Unsplash


The water crisis spills over not just to women but the following generations, where many girls drop out of school to be additional hands in water collection. There is only so much water a single woman can bring back from the water sources. In the long run, having girls drop out to help out in the house negatively impacts their ability to get out of the poverty trap, limiting them to be lifetime water carriers and inferior individuals.


Furthermore, with more droughts in the nation, it has pushed rural communities to migrate to the urban areas and with no skill set or education and women find it difficult to fend for themselves. On a macro level, Indian women are mostly part of the informal sector and aren’t considered as contributors to the overall GDP and with literacy rates declining, this hurts the country’s economic growth and development in the long run.


The difficult part is these problems aren’t at the forefront in government discussion, or media discussion because they are so embedded in the culture and century old practices. It has become normalized that women are responsible for making sure that the household has enough water in addition to running the household. It’s a part of every Indian woman’s ‘job description’.


However in the last 5 years, with more women getting access to education and opportunities to break out of the poverty cycle, they are pushing back on being limited to being simply water carriers and caregivers. That being said, there is still room for improvement where the support from government, community leaders, and other stakeholders is needed for long term solutions especially now that climate change is increasing water scarcity which is putting even more pressure on women. There is an opportunity to change the way we solve for the water crisis faced across the nation.


Ultimately, for India to really transform the way it manages and handles its water crisis, there are two key focus areas, which is to be more inclusive and give women the opportunity to be part of developing the solutions and work on scaling these solutions across the country at both, rural and urban levels.


Sengar, Shweta. “'Water Wives': How Lack of Water in This Maharashtra Village Led to Polygamy.” IndiaTimes, 27 Apr. 2022, https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/water-wives-how-lack-of-water-in-this-maharashtra-village-led-to-polygamy-568090.html.


World Bank Group. “World Water Day 2022: How India Is Addressing Its Water Needs.” World Bank, World Bank Group, 29 Mar. 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/india/brief/world-water-day-2022-how-india-is-addressing-its-water-needs#:~:text=The%20country%20has%2018%20percent,think%20tank%2C%20the%20NITI%20Aayog.


India, Government of. “Water Index.” NITI Aayog, National Institution for Transforming India, Government of India, June 2018, http://social.niti.gov.in/water-index.


Jain, Arpit, and Reshma Anand. “Women Bear the Burden of India's Water Crisis.” Times of India Blog, 14 Feb. 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/developing-contemporary-india/women-bear-the-burden-of-indias-water-crisis/.


Behal, Anuj, and Dimple Behal. “India's Water Crisis: It Is Most Acute for Women.” Down To Earth, 16 Aug. 2021, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/water/india-s-water-crisis-it-is-most-acute-for-women-78472.


Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.


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