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Water accessibility based on caste in India

While India attained independence seven decades ago yet, there exists a wide asymmetry in accessibility to water resources. In the article, the consequences of the dismaying deep-rooted caste-based society on water accessibility is investigated. The lower caste faces various issues and challenges while accessing drinking water and the caste hierarchy plays a pivotal role in determining availability and accessibility of drinking water to the deprived and vulnerable sections of the society.

In India, there is a continuous presence of deep-rooted caste-based inequity in water distribution and availability and accordingly their accessibility to services and entitlements like water provision and sanitation. Privileged castes appropriate water resources and prevent lower castes from actively participating in the groundwater market thus maintaining hegemony over the resource and profit from it. Most of the inhumane discrimination and violence starts from the very cause as lower castes try to access the public well or hand pumps to access their basic right. The deprivation of a basic human right such as water is a constant reminder of the inherent indignity of India’s caste system. States such as Bihar, UP and MP, the availability of water within the premises is substantially low for Dalit as compared to non-Dalit. Only 29.4 per cent Dalit in Bihar have access to drinking water within their premises as compared to 51.2 per cent non-Dalit.

Accessibility of water

There is a grave problem of accessibility of water for the lower caste in India. Dr B.R. Ambedkar for the first time raised his voice on the issue and started his massive Mahad Movement in 1927 in order to assert the rights of the SCs to take water from public watering places. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO, 2012) showed that 54% of rural households in the country had no supply of drinking water at their homes, and in as many as 15 of the 29 states, less than half of the rural households had water supply. Due to this water crisis, community fell back on a single or distant source of drinking water, that often led to disputes and increased discrimination against the lower caste in the region. However, in particular, condition was worse in case of the ‘poor’, ‘disadvantaged’, ‘marginalized’ and ‘socially excluded’ Scheduled Castes (SCs), who not only bore the brunt of this dismal water-supply situation but also faced numerous challenges while accessing it. In a research article by Swarup Dutta, Sukanta Behera and Ashok Bharti, the SCs were largely dependent on the public water resources located in the non-SC areas and in several instances, they were prohibited to take water from those resources by the dominant castes. It was noticed that a special time was allocated for lower social groups for fetching water.

In the journal article by Farhat Naz, his findings reveal that Upper caste water lords prevented lower castes from actively participating in the groundwater market to maintain hegemony over the resource and profit from it, privileged castes appropriated water resources. Dalits were frequently disentitled and not allowed to use public taps and wells located in non-Dalit areas. A report by Mr Heller - Human Rights Council, notes that a quarter of the Dalit households had water sources within premises as compared to almost half for the general population. 23.7% of Dalit households had access to latrine facilities as compared to 42.3 % for general households. Only 17% of the tribal households had access to latrines that is well below the figure for the general population, namely 43.2%.

Affordability of water

Lower castes were often excluded of water resource facilities because they couldn’t afford it and poverty stricken SCs had no other way but to abide by the restrictions followed by fear of an unwritten rule that violation might bring disapproval of varying degree. In some villages, majority of rich and a few medium-rich households had individual water connections; among the poorest household’s water was fetched from the communal stand-posts. These trends indicated that the compulsions of poverty did not allow them to own a source of drinking water. Joshi (2002) had argued that access to groundwater was dependent on ownership of land and the resources to invest in drilling them. These facilities were denied to both poorest and poor households. Many times, SC were restricted by the upper castes to use common water resources from the villages. As a result, they depended on multiple sources during different parts of the year, which increased their vulnerability to discrimination.