Breaking into the male bastion, around 300 women have turned well-diggers in a nondescript village in northern Palakkad district of Kerala to find a solution to the acute water scarcity in the hamlet and earn a living. Even elderly women climb down pits using makeshift bamboo ladders and dig arduously for hours using pickaxe and shovel, removing mud and clay in search of water sources in Pookkottukavu, a village panchayat.
Battling various challenges, these homemakers, aged between 35 and 70 years, have dug up over 190 wells across the drought-hit village since last August under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Lack of skill training and physical limitations are no barriers for them to construct 10-12 metre deep wells single-handedly digging the harder and rocky terrains of the panchayat.
Lakshmi, a 39-year-old homemaker hailing from Punchappadam in the hamlet, feels proud that they could take up the intense task and achieve success in it. She and other women in the village decided to take up the risky job to ensure steady daily wage to support their family.
“We did not know anything about well digging initially. But, we relied on our group effort and confidence. We gradually learnt the basics of the work through our experience,” Lakshmi told PTI. With a total population of over 20,000, Pookkottukavu, located about 40 km away from Palakkad town, is a hamlet sans larger water bodies and has only wells and tiny ponds as water sources.
The panchayat authorities expect that the courageous attitude of women well-diggers would help the village, which largely depends on tanker lorries to get drinking water during summer, to be self-sufficient in terms of water in near future. According to K Jayadevan, president of Pookkottukavu panchayat, the women dig wells with utmost perfection as that of their professional and skilled male counterparts.
“The first well, dug by a group of women, under the scheme looked like a pit. But, as they took up more wells, they have perfected. The latest ones, made by them, are really structural marvels. This transition is the proof of empowerment attained by these village women,” he told PTI. Though the women had some apprehensions in indulging in well digging, they have excelled in the work in no time, he said.
“As per the revised guidelines of the Centre, many of the jobs included in the MGNREGS like cutting grass could not be continued. Thus, we began to think about new options and zeroed in on well-digging considering the scarcity of drinking water in the village,” he said. The risk factors, meagre wages and the general perception of it as a male-oriented job had made them hesitant to take up well digging initially, he said.
But, the panchayat successfully convinced them that women could also excel in the work if they were ready to take up the challenge. Lakshmi said even their own family members were initially reluctant to allow them to take up well-digging as a job.
“Initially everyone had apprehensions. Our family members and friends told us that it would not be suitable for women. Sometimes, earth may cave in when we dig deep…women can not climb up easily like men in such situations.” “Respiratory issues may also happen while going deep,” she said.
“Respiratory issues may also happen while going deep,” she said.
Lakshmi said they would start the work at 9 am and would continue till 5 pm. They would take one hour lunch break in between. But, when a skilled male well-digger gets Rs 700-1000 as daily wage for digging a well, a woman worker would get only Rs 240 under the MGNREGS, Jayadevan said.
“Around 500 applications for digging wells are pending before us. We have stopped our work with the onset of the south-west monsoon. We hope that we can restart it during September-October months,” he said. The families in the panchayats are getting the wells free of cost as the expense of the digging is met under the MGNREGS.
The permission for each well is granted by the panchayat. Applicants belonging to the financially poor background would get preference. Panchayat sources said the village is slowly recovering from water scarcity with the implementation of the scheme. Besides digging wells, they also launched rainwater harvesting to recharge open wells.
However, the delay in clearing pending dues under MGNREGS is one of the major hurdles faced by the project. “These women have not got a single penny as wage for their work. Our panchayat has to get a due of Rs 70 lakh in terms of various works under MGNREGS. Of this, Rs 35 lakh is for the well-digging project alone,” the president said. The Centre, the other day, had cleared Rs 700 crore due to the state under the scheme and expected that the amount for respective panchayats would be cleared in two-three days, he said.
“Due to the delay in clearing the dues, we cannot even face the women who are indulging in these kinds of risky jobs. I fear, the delay in getting wages will distance people from the much touted rural job guarantee scheme,” he said. But, Lakshmi said though they did not get any wage for the last seven months for digging wells, they would continue the job as water is a major concern.
“We hope that we will get the due amount at the earliest. We will continue our work,” she added.