The Caste of Water

Updated: May 6

Access to water is also linked to access to resources. It is a known fact that the allocation of resources has been according to the caste system since time immemorial in India. This has continued throughout generations and is visible even today. Upper castes continue to dominate over land resources. With land, comes water. While water is a public resource, it is observed that its ownership is also related to land ownership. Whoever owns the land, owns the water resource in it.

The heart of water is generous and it reaches the very roots,

Its healing touch makes the scabs of a thousand sorrows fall.

What walls, how many walls, can you build around water?

How will you shackle the rushing form of water?” - Namdeo Dhasal

Brahminical scriptures have tainted water with caste. Notions of purity and pollution, and daily customs and habits such as drinking, bathing, fishing, and transportation have been shaped by caste and ordained a social order to water. Traditional water management systems are often romanticized for being community-based, but the narrative conveniently ignores that these systems have never been equal, and there exists a violent structure of control, oppression, and power hierarchies associated with caste.

The first one to recognize this intersection of caste and water in the domain to society, culture, and politics and to counter it was Dr. B.R Ambedkar. He pointed out how the issue of water had been used to discriminate against Dalits in both overt and covert ways. More importantly, Dr. Ambedkar articulated the social and cultural aspects of water, and how and why Dalits need to be liberated from the caste of water. He realized that water was a disputed issue that intersected with the caste in critical ways, producing complex cultural meanings and social hierarchies. For example, denying Dalits the right and access and the monopoly of upper castes on bodies of water including rivers, wells, tanks, and taps; constructing casteist texts around water in cultural and religious domains and obscuring Dalit narratives and knowledge about water. Water for Dalits has always been a constant source of pain and segregation.

Ambedkar had fought against the caste segregation of water through Mahad Satyagraha. On 20th March 1927, Dr. Ambedkar and his colleagues led a peaceful march of about 2500 Dalits (both men and women) through the main streets towards the Chavdar tank. Dr. Ambedkar was the first to drink from the tank and others followed his suit. It was revolutionary in its implications as it signified assertion and rejection of caste dominance. The Dalit Movement considers the Mahad Satyagraha as the ‘Declaration of Independence’.

We are not going to the Chavdar Tank to merely drink its water. We are going to the Tank to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality.” - Dr. BR Ambedkar at Mahad, 1927

However soon after this event took place the Brahmins of Mahad decided to conduct a ‘purification’ of this now ‘polluted’ lake. They poured 108 pots of panchakarma - cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee, and curd accompanied by Vedic chanting. This enraged Dr. Ambedkar and was followed by the second Mahad Satyagraha in which on December 25th, 1927, Dr. Ambedkar along with 10,000 protestors burnt the Manusmriti which indoctrinated the caste system. Ambedkar compared the burning of the Manusmriti with the burning of foreign items in the Swadeshi Movement led by Gandhi. While the Swadeshi Movement had been against foreign oppressors and hence received support, the burning of Manusmriti was against Hinduism and Caste, and hence received little or no support from others.

Access to water is also linked to access to resources. It is a known fact that the allocation of resources has been according to the caste system since time immemorial in India. This has continued throughout generations and is visible even today. Upper castes continue to dominate over land resources. With land, comes water. While water is a public resource, it is observed that its ownership is also related to land ownership. Whoever owns the land, owns the water resource in it. The perception is that ‘this is my land and hence the water below it is also mine.’ And if the land is owned by upper castes, naturally, Dalits are denied the water resource in it. It is a known fact, even without data to corroborate, the percentage of land ownership in Dalits is abysmal, and hence they are marginalized when it comes to water as well. With Dalits having no land and therefore no water, they are left with little options. Wells and pumps which are built are marked by caste and only upper castes are allowed to access it. These issues are overall part of a collective systemic failure. Local and national bodies and policies have failed to take into account the social realities of natural resources, and the system itself continues to be patriarchal and casteist in nature.

According to the handbook issued to Gram Panchayats by the Ministry of Rural Development Department of Drinking Water Supply, every Gram Panchayat must have a Village Water and Sanitation Committee/Pani Samiti. This committee requires 50% of women with due representation of SC/ST members and the ‘poorer sections of the village.’ However, as inclusive as it looks on paper, it is exclusive in reality. Local governance bodies are again male-dominated, patriarchal and casteist spaces where women and especially Dalit women are denied entry. Using loopholes they deny any actual representation to women, where either random names are submitted or while the woman is a member, the husband or male family members control the power. When there is no representation, there can be no change in the status quo.

The primary responsibility for collecting water often falls on women and girls. And in times of water shortage, this crisis becomes personal. Women and girls are responsible for finding water to survive - for cooking, drinking, sanitation, and hygiene. For this, they are often forced to stand in long queues or walk for kilometers to collect water. In this effort to secure water for their families they are also faced with an impossible choice - certain death without water or possible death due to illness from dirty water. According to statistics by, women around the world collectively spend almost 200 million hours collecting water. The direct consequences of this situation are extreme hardship, insecurity, social disruption, and school absenteeism. The reports revealed that 23% of girls in India drop out of school on reaching puberty due to the lack of water and sanitation facilities. In this process, they are denied their right to education. However, statisticians and reporting agencies cannot capture the reach the extent to which these women and girls travel and suffer for water in quantitative research. Therefore we can surely state that mere numbers fail to unravel the intensity of the situation on the ground.

Furthermore, the journey of collecting water can be a dangerous one. Women risk physical attack or abuse while walking long and often deserted roads.

Moreover, there is a serious problem with the absence of specific data on their situation. Lack of information leads to no real solution and inefficient policies. According to a 2013 survey by the United Nations Statistical Commission, the gender-disaggregated data on access to water and sanitation are one of the most deficient indicators at a national level. 45.2% of all countries worldwide do not develop statistics related to water resources that include a gender perspective.

The data available for India exists state-wise. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, and Chattisgarh are some of the states which are most prone to water crisis and drought.

But what all of these data and statistics miss out on is the vulnerability of the Dalit woman. While otherwise Dalit women are already being barred from accessing public wells and water bodies due to caste, woman becomes even more vulnerable in times of water crisis.

For the Dalit woman, the double burden of caste and patriarchy comes into play. While for the upper caste women who if had to collect water, would only have to deal with gender role issues, the Dalit woman is more vulnerable in her journey for water as she is exposed to both caste and gender violence. In times of water crises, power relations help the upper castes maintain access to water. The very same power relations make it even more difficult for Dalits to access water. The discourse has always been that due to the patriarchal nature of society women are burdened with the task of finding water, but this discourse has conveniently ignored to ask who these women are? What is their social location? How many of them are Dalits? And when data for women, in general, is not available, then data on Dalit women is even more difficult to find. While research articles talk about states which will run out of groundwater in the coming years, and are most prone to drought, the hardship of Dalits is never talked about. While it is portrayed that the general population is being considered, irrespective of social location, it is in fact caste violence. When you do not consider the uniqueness of the situation of Dalits and in particular Dalit women, and fail to recognize the difference in their experiences as compared to others, you choose to ignore the years of structural violence enforced upon them in all sectors and hence come up with no real solution that would help them. In fact, water policies until now have not included the intersection of caste and gender.

There have been processes initiated to decentralize access to water where government agencies and NGOs have taken various workshops and focus group discussions with many communities. Committees have been set up, handbooks have been written, and policies have been drafted. In fact, after the 73rd Constitutional Amendment water supply and sanitation have been included in the Eleventh Schedule of the constitution. But the structure remains intact. The notion remains intact. The system of caste prevails. And the Dalit woman suffers. So the question then comes, will an upper-caste ever be able to share the resources which rightfully belong to everyone? Will the upper caste be able to move beyond these notions of purity and pollution? Can there be a systemic revolution against caste and patriarchy? Will water ever be free from caste?

Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind.” - Dr. B.R Ambedkar


Author: Prashant U.V is TISS Mumbai graduate, in Master's in Media and Cultural Studies. He is a documentary maker and photographer. His project 'Occupational Inheritance' was exhibited at TIER, Berlin. He also has been a Jenesys Fellow for a conference in Japan.


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