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Paani Bai, The Water Wives of India

Explore how Denganmal, a Maharashtra village, fights its water crisis by forming 'water wives' - polygamy - to fetch water. #WaterWives

By Ground Report
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water wives in india

Of all the home remedies, a good wife is best 

Kin Hubbard

Water is one of the essentials of life on planet Earth. However, many people all over the world do not have access to clean drinking water and sometimes, even water. This situation is common in drought-hit areas of India. Maharashtra is one such state in the country where several districts face drought every year. To deal with the water crisis, one village called Denganmal in Maharashtra has come up with an unusual solution indulging in polygamy.

Polygamy is illegal in India, yet this law is disregarded in some drought-hit states, in the form of having waterwives who carry water home from afar. This means having more than one wife to procure water, termed as the 'water wives'. How many wives does it take to fetch water? If you are from the village of Denganmal then your answer might be two, or even three! Most men in this drought-stricken village practice polygamy of a surprising kind - they marry 'extra' wives solely for them to fetch water for the household, many times a day.

Across the world, where access to water is poor it is often women who are saddled with the responsibility of collecting water. Women and girls are estimated to spend 200 million hours every single day fetching water. In addition to taking valuable time, carrying heavy loads of water over long distances several times a day leads to many health issues, most commonly neck and spinal injuries. The 'water wives' of Denganmal take on this hardship as part of their duties to their husbands' families.

Why do they become waterwives?

The water wife is often, either a widow or an unmarried woman whose dowry could not be afforded by her family. By becoming water wives, they regain their marital status and are accepted as a part of society again. Whether it is a boon for them or not it is something that does not cross their minds, as long as they are provided for and accepted in the family.

Although the village says these marriages are a social good, giving homes to the second and third wives who are usually widows or have been abandoned by their husbands, these women do not have the same rights as the 'legitimate' first or the most senior wife.

The junior wives do not have conjugal rights, nor they are not eligible to inherit their husband's property after his death. Their sole role in the household is to fetch water from a distant source. For this, they are given food, shelter and the semi-respectability of being married. This arrangement is an example of communities finding ways to adapt to extreme difficulties and a stark reminder of how much work is still needed to ensure gender equality, and easy access to safe drinking water in India, especially in rural areas.

Water Wives in Denganmal Village

Denganmal is a small village in western Maharashtra, located some 185 km away from the capital city Mumbai. The village is situated on rocky terrain and has a population of 500. The houses here have no water pipeline connections and the area experiences drought in the hot summer months. The only source of water available to the villagers here is the Bhatsa dam on a river and a well. Both are situated so far away that, a journey to and fro takes nearly 12 hours. Not only is the trip arduous and long but also time-consuming, leaving little or no time for other chores.

Most men in Denganmal are farmers. While the men are away from home the entire day, all household chores fall upon the woman. Taking care of children, cleaning, cooking, and other everyday jobs become impossible to attend by the women if fetching water takes up most of their day. Furthermore, the women and children are also expected to help out the men on the farms during the cropping season, July to October. This led to the most convenient solution at hand, marrying another woman whose sole responsibility is to fetch water for the entire family. Hence the term, 'water wives' or, as they are more commonly referred to, 'paani bai'.

Hardships of fetching water for the family

The 'paani bai' leaves at sunrise, trudging through the rocky terrain, through the hills, to the river or well in the smouldering heat. Each vessel holds 15 litres of water and each woman carries 2 to 3 such vessels. Being a paaniwali bai is arduous. Even on the temperature is 42°celcius we can witness a steady stream of women walking to the dam with aluminum pots perched on their heads. "We don't sleep at night," says, one of the paanwalis, "We go in groups to fetch water." In the queue for bathing. men come first, children next and then women.

A walk through Denganmal reveals unwashed children, many of them waiting for their mothers to feed them in between their water trips. Malnutrition is high and so is infant mortality. Villagers narrate the tale of a young woman who was forced to go fetch water just 10 days after her child was born.

A majority of the women here have low haemoglobin levels. Many of them suffer from anaemia, miscarriages, shifted fertility and menstrual cycles, apart from routine back and neck pains. Water scarcity also dictates the household routines for washing clothes in the village, daily wear is washed twice a week, while bedsheets and coverlets go unwashed for months on end.

A water tanker with a capacity of 1,000 litres arrives in the village once every five days and the queue often gets ugly. "Every time the tanker comes, there are fights that get scary. Women pull each other's hair, abuse and beat each other up. If they miss getting water from the tanker, they have to walk the mandatory 3 km.

Illegal but socially acceptable

Polygamy is illegal in India, yet this law is disregarded in some drought-hit states, in the form of having waterwives who carry water home from afar. Often these women are either widowed from an earlier marriage or unmarried due to the inability to pay a big enough dowry.            

A society that treats unmarried and widowed women abominably. these marriages are more often than not a contract between a man and a woman where the woman chooses to marry to get a rubber stamp of being married and a man who thinks that he is the uncelebrated 'Messiah' giving meaning to a destitute woman life.

Becoming "water wives" or "paaní bai" allows the women in this village, often widows or single mothers, to regain respect in conservative rural India. When the water wife, who does not usually share the marital bed, becomes too old to continue, the husband sometimes marries a third and younger spouse to fetch water in metal pitchers or makeshift containers.

Written by Ramya, Assistant Professor & Tribal Researcher, Department of EnglishP.K.R Arts College for Women, Erode Dt Tamilnadu

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