Jharkhand: Water scarcity in Birsa Munda’s village exacerbates due to poor monsoon

Security personnel bring water in tankers to struggling villagers

By Manoj Choudhary
Published: Monday 25 September 2023
A young man carrying water after collecting it from a tanker in Ulihatu village under Arki block of Khunti district in Jharkhand. Photo: Manoj Choudhary

Khunti district in Jharkhand is known for being the birthplace of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. Today, the region, which has a strong presence of Naxalites, is grappling with water scarcity courtesy the low rainfall in the region in monsoon 2023. Villagers walk several kilometres to get drinking water, while bathing daily and irrigating crops in the summer are luxuries. 

There are only three traditional chua (shallow pit) in Ulihatu village for water source, even though about 90 households live there, said resident Lakhimani Munda, a woman in her 60s. “These pits are around 10 feet deep and contain some polluted water only during the monsoons,” she said. 

Villagers rely on these wells for bathing and washing clothes, while animals get water from a nearby highly polluted pond. The situation was critical two decades ago when the chuas were not renovated and were just around five feet deep, said resident Shusaran Purty.

Many villagers bring water from a jharna (waterfall) located on a lower hill, said Junul Swansi of Ichadih village under Barinijkel Panchayat. The task is generally delegated to girls as young as eight and up to 15 to fetch water during monsoons. “The children have to take a risky route and cross dangerous rocky forest routes to get water,” he added.

“Sufficient water is found only in monsoon from a couple of jharnas, wells, handpumps and jal minar (solar-based water tanks) in each village. Farmers can take only one crop in a year due to water scarcity,” Uday Nath Munda from Gerne village said.

Girls collect water from a waterfall in Ulihatu village under Arki block of Khunti district in Jharkhand. Photo: Manoj Choudhary

Girls collect water from a waterfall in Ulihatu village under Arki block of Khunti district in Jharkhand. Photo: Manoj Choudhary

Low water levels

The groundwater level in Khunti has gone down to one and a half metres below during the last five years, according to water and sanitation department officials. In 2014, the water level was 7.64 metres below ground level, while in 2019, it went down to 2.51 metres. 

Due to rising temperatures and low water levels, several old handpumps in the area are no longer functional. A large number of deep borings and a lack of water preservation resulted in a low soil water level. 

The situation is even worse in villages, where residents prefer opium cultivation, which necessitates a lot of water for irrigation. Residents of hilly areas like Arki, Rania and Marhu are highly affected by water scarcity, officials said. 

Students at Rajkiyakrit Utkramit Kanya Madhya Vidyalay in Ulihatu depend on a solar-based water tank and suffer both when it rains and when it doesn’t. “If it rains for several days during the monsoon, the solar panel does not charge and we do not have water. But during the summers, the water levels dip too low, and we don’t water again,” said Subrat Kumar, para-teacher at the school. 

Residents of Kantripidi village bring water for house construction from a small waterfall about three kilometres away. "Due to a lack of water, village youths migrate to urban areas in search of employment and to avoid a water shortage," said resident Guslu Munda. Females and children do not bathe for several days during the summer, he added.

Water tankers to rescue

Since the camp's establishment in 2017, Sashastra Seema Bal, 26th battalion at Ulihatu, has been protecting villagers from Naxal activities. Every year, from January to June, SSB personnel bring water in tankers from far away, until the monsoon arrives.

Assistant commandant of the battalion at Ulihatu camp Neelesh Suman Santosh Masule said previously they had been bringing water from Khunti, around 30 kms away daily. From last year they have been getting it from Saiko around 10 kilometres away, he added. 

“Security personnel also face problems when their strength gets full,” he said, adding the camp practices water rationing during the summer.

Budhu Munda of Barinijkel village said while a few villagers have toilets, due to a lack of water, they defecate in the open. During the summer, the Karkari, Karo, and Koel rivers shrink, causing problems for villagers.

A single handpump serves 315 students at Birsa Avasiya Uchha Vidyalaya (Residential School). Ulihatu, according to schoolteacher Sanjay Kumar Minj, is located at the top of a hill in Khunti. Deep boring of less than 500 feet does not work for a long time due to the rocky soil, he added.

Staff and patients at the primary health centre in Ulihatu, which was recently upgraded to an Ayush Health and Wellness Centre, get polluted water from the only handpump in the area. White particles are visible in the water after keeping it for one day, said general nursing and midwifery nurse Grace Purty.

At a recent district administration meeting, the Arki, Rania, and Torpa blocks were designated as dry zones. As ponds and rivers get dry due to opium cultivation, residents of Arki, Murhu and Khunti blocks have been drinking polluted water from chua and small wells. 

Officials have been directed to take steps to control water misuse, save traditional sources of water and practice water harvesting. It is also trying to save ponds and river water by controlling soil erosion. 

Surendra Kumar Dinkar, executive engineer of Khunti's water and sanitation department, stated the department is committed to providing water under the Jal Jivan Mission to 531,000 people, including residents of 756 villages, by 2024.

The department is paying special attention to water supply to Ulihatu, as it is the birthplace of Birsa Munda. Ulihatu Jalapurty Yojna is under progress and the department is trying to provide water to villagers and SSB camp by November 15 this year.

“The department is working on various projects under Gramin Jalapurty Yojna such as Multi Village Scheme and Single Village Scheme. The department will renovate jal minars, traditional chuas, wells and handpumps. We are trying our best to complete projects by March 2024,” the executive engineer said.

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