Tribal Gujjars Pool in Their Own Money to Bring Potable Water to Their Hamlet


It is quarter past seven in the morning and in the remote hamlet of Kota Top, some 15 kilometres uphill from the block headquarters of Gandoh and around 80 kilometres from the district headquarters of Doda, Saif Din (35) is waking up the children. In five minutes, around a dozen half-asleep kids and teenagers gather at a nearby hilltop and start trekking downhill through the forest. They walk for around 2.5 kilometres until they reach a swampy and muddy spring.

It is from here that they fetch water for their daily use, each and every day. Most youngsters are able to carry back upto 12 litres of water in their containers while some others like Mohammad Asif (16) can manage to carry 30 litres of water on horseback. Asif said, “Hamare gaon ke bacche subah se leke shaam tak paani dhote hain. Isliye hum padh nahi paate.” (The children in our village fetch water from dawn to dusk . This is the reason we are not able to study)

Schools are shut now due to COVID-19 restrictions but this daily routine of fetching water from the spring usually costs the children precious school days. “The children in our hamlet could barely attend 15-20 classes a month,” Asif said.

These days, while the children are engaged in fetching water and grazing cattle in the mornings, the elders have their breakfast and head to Koti Dhar, some 13 kilometres away, where they are attempting to lay a pipe to bring water to their village.

Children make their daily trek from Kota Top, down a steep hill, to fetch water from a small spring. (Image: Alok Pathania)

“So far, we have laid pipes over an area of 2.5 kilometres,” Din said, pointing out that the pipes have been purchased by the Kota Top residents themselves, who pooled together a sum of around Rs 3 lakhs for the purpose.

“Almost all the people in our village are manual labourers and farmers who have donated the income from either their daily wages or the sale of farm produce like Rajmah, apple, walnuts etc.,” Din added.

Kota Top, a village in Kharangal Panchayat, is populated by barely 120 people, all of whom are Gujjars and Bakerwals, both marginalised schedule tribes. These communities usually move between the Jammu plains in the winter and the hills in the summer. But in Kota Top, this nomadic tradition is not the norm. Only 10-15 families still go to the plains in the winter.

“So, our water requirement remains the same during the winter,” said Ahmed Nabi (30), a moulvi (religious teacher) from the area. During these months, the village is draped in snow and the people manage to get drinking water by boiling the snow.

THWARTED OVER AND OVER

The residents of Kota Top claimed that when the towns of Doda and Bhaderwah started getting tap water connections between 2004-06, they approached village heads, panchayat leaders and even MLAs, asking in vain that their hamlet too be connected to the piped water supply.

Since most of them are uneducated labourers, they didn’t even know how to write an application in this regard or whom to approach in the District Development Commissioner office, they said.

“Left with no other option, the elders in our community appealed to the residents to donate money towards the purchase of water pipes,” said Haji Abdul Ghani, a community leader, who’s in his sixties. After all, they already had a natural water source at Shahdal, from where they could direct the water 500 metres down to Kilroo. “But the water still couldn’t reach our village because of its elevation,” Ghani added.

After that, the residents tried once again to get PHE pipe connections but failed.

In 2010, the new Koti Dhar-Kota Top water supply scheme was sanctioned for Kota Top residents.

According to the villagers, the scheme envisioned providing tap water connectivity to Kota Top from a groundwater source at the Koti Dhar area. The construction of a reservoir at Eidgah near Kota Top was also proposed under this scheme, according to the villagers.

Kota Top residents carry pipes around their neck to the site of the water source in Koti Dhar. (Image: Alok Pathania)

But instead, divergent political interests led the reservoir to be constructed one kilometre downhill Padai Mohalla, the residents said, from where piped water connections were provided to Gujjar Mohalla and Magari Mohalla.

Kota Top continued to be ignored, despite repeated attempts by the residents to bring attention to their plight.

In 2018, after the long-delayed panchayat elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir, the villagers said that their panchayat forwarded a resolution to the Tehsildar, Sub-Divisional Magistrate and Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE) at the Jal Shakti department. “But it was all in vain.”

Sarpanch of Kharangal, Mushtaq Ahmed, sympathised with their troubles. “Kota Top residents have no access to clean water. While one of their pipelines is facing suction related issues, the other has been diverted to another village.” But he claimed that another water supply scheme has been sanctioned for Kota Top and the tenders for the same would be floated very soon.

When contacted, the Tehsildar of Gandoh, Irshad Ahmed Sheikh, admitted that the people of Kota Top are suffering due to the lack of piped water and assured that he would speak to the concerned AEE at the Jal Shakti department to look into the matter on an urgent basis. When prodded about the district administration’s failure to meet the settlement’s basic needs, he simply said that he would “look into the matter”.

Jal Shakti department AEE, Mohan Singh, was not available for comment.

Kota Top residents stand next to the pipes purchased with their daily wages and sale of farm produce. (Image: Alok Pathania)

THE LONG PENANCE FOR WATER

The small community of Kota Top is determined to not give up, despite their efforts having yielded no results so far. In January this year, they once again pooled around Rs 3 lakh to give the Kilroo pipeline another try.

“But as we completed the process of laying the pipes, the then-AEE at the Public Health Engineering, Mohammad Shafi, reached the spot along with a Junior Engineer and the local police and dismantled the pipes without letting us know why,” said Din.

After this, he and others from the locality gathered the broken pipes from the hills and met their panchayat head.

A fresh resolution was passed in the panchayat to arrange water for the settlement from another water spring at Thanda Paani but several months have passed and nothing has come of it, rued Din. The government too has proposed a similar water supply scheme but even the tenders have not been floated yet, he said.

“In the meantime, we have requested and convinced the Hindu population of Koti Dhar to allow us to pipe out water from a spring there. So far we’ve dug around 2.5 kilometres and laid pipes underneath. We’re pretty sure Kota Top residents will get drinking clean water within the next few months,” said a determined Din.

(The author is a Greater Kashmir-based freelance journalist and a member of 101reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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