Kokernag suffers without water

This spring feeds Asia’s largest trout fish farm as well as villages in the vicinity, though Anderwan has not been that fortunate…reports Sameer Ahmad

“I have spent my entire life fetching water from this nullah. It takes one hour every morning and evening to get water home. Although a pipeline was laid a few years ago, no house in the village ever received water from it,” Zaveera Bano, a septuagenarian from Anderwan Sagam in Jammu & Kashmir’s Anantnag district, sums up her daily struggle.

Like most women in the village’s nearly 150 households, Bano is forced to walk more than a kilometre downhill to fetch water, be it wintry or sunny.

Located 20 km from the district headquarters, Anderwan is a far-flung area on a hillock in Kokernag block. It lies barely 5 km from the Kokernag Botanical Gardens, famous for its freshwater spring that originates at the foothills of the Pir Panjal Range.

This spring feeds Asia’s largest trout fish farm as well as villages in the vicinity, though Anderwan has not been that fortunate.

Bano, who has been living all by herself since her husband died 17 years ago, says: “Kokernag is famous for gushing streams and the best quality water. Who’d believe the very inhabitants of this place have been left high and dry?”

Her two sons live separately, while her five daughters moved out after marriage. Before they moved to their marital homes, Bano’s daughters were also burdened by the repetitive chore. They had begun to help her fetch water from the tender age of 10, which Bano says affected their studies terribly.

“They spent most of their time getting water from the stream and hardly got time to focus on their studies. My daughters dropped out after Class 3 or 4,” she rues. “From politicians to local officials, everyone promised to bring water to our village. But those assurances remain unfulfilled to this day.”

Bano hails from Shalnard village, around 20 km from Anderwan. Shalnard, too, was troubled with a similar water crisis, and Bano was once excited to move away after her wedding, hoping to be met with a pipeline connection at her husband’s house. Little did she know that even as a septuagenarian, she would be fetching water in Anderwan, while Shalnard was blessed with tap connections around 20 years ago. The tedious task left Bano with joint pains, which began in her 30s, besides aches in her lower back and legs.

According to the 69th National Sample Survey report, only 118 per 1,000 households in rural Jammu & Kashmir have access to water through taps. It says a person spends 33 minutes per day fetching water in rural Anantnag, and another 30 minutes waiting for their turn at the water source.

Often, one round of fetching is not enough to meet the needs, drinking, washing, cleaning and cooking, which proportionately increases the time spent to get water. Women and children mostly do the chore, and this, according to the UNDP, helps to explain the gender gaps in school attendance in many countries. It is not rare for women to spend up to 4 hours a day walking, queuing up and carrying water!

For the women in Anderwan, the nullah they depend on is neither easy to approach nor its water always fit for consumption. Two years after her husband’s death, Bano had a narrow escape from a mudslide.

“I could have been washed away, if not for the locals present at the spot. I had to be hospitalised for over a week,” she recounts.

The nullah turns muddy during rains, but the stakes are high, especially during winters. Women carrying water slip and fall in the snow-clad path and some suffer grievous injuries.

For Bano, however, the scars run deeper. Years ago, she suffered through two miscarriages due to excessive physical exertion. When she conceived her next child, her sister, who lived in another village, 4 km away, moved in to help with the exasperating task of trudging water.

Water scarcity has affected the lives of children in Anderwan, too. Nayeema Jan is a living example of how dreadful things could get. As a teenager, she was accompanying her mother to the nullah, when a bear attacked her. She remains handicapped till this day.

“It was a hot summer day in 2014. As we approached the nullah, a wild bear drinking water got alerted. In no time, it pounced on my daughter. I rushed to the nearby houses and people instantly assembled to chase the animal away. But the damage was done,” Farida Bano recounts that terrible day.

“After getting over 250 stitches on her head and leg and remaining hospitalised for a month, she did survive, but she will have to live a life of handicap forever. Had there been water supply to our household, my daughter would have been living a normal life now. Who will compensate for our loss?” she asks full of anguish and anger.

False promises 

Most of the residents in Anderwan live below the poverty line and rely on daily wages. Even so, they have pooled some money to buy plastic drums that are kept on either side of the village road. Once in a while, these drums are filled by tankers from the Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department, sparing them from the arduous journey downhill.

Some households also collect water from a leaking pipeline connected with another village down the road. According to Bano, people have made a big hole in it to pilfer water.

Reyaz Ahmad, the 38-year-old village chief, says: “Both Peerzada Mohammad Syed and Abdul Rahim Rather won elections from this constituency. During their campaigns here, both sought votes claiming they’d bring water supply to the village. But the reality is right in front of us. The Government of India has been introducing scheme after scheme to ensure potable water to every rural citizen. This village seems to be an exception.

“During his tenure as the chief minister in 2009, Omar Abdullah had visited Tangpawa, 5 km from Anderwan, and had promised to end our water woes. But we still suffer.”

Their plight deserves immediate attention, especially when the courts in the country have repeatedly termed regular access to drinking water a fundamental right and directed that its supply top the list of government’s priorities.

In the Vishala Kochi Kudivella Samrakshana Samiti vs State of Kerala, 2006, the court stated that water is one of the primary needs of man, second only to air. Any government committed to the cause of the common man is bound to provide drinking water to the public, which should be its foremost duty.

Furthermore, an official from the PHE Department assures this reporter that the village would receive water supply soon.

“I acknowledge that Anderwan has been suffering. We recently brought this village under the Jal Jeevan Mission, for which tenders have been floated and a detailed project report has been submitted. We expect the allotment within this month. Hopefully, within a year, the scheme will be completed,” says Muzaffar Gul, Junior Engineer in the Kokernag sub-division of the PHE.

“The village has no proper source from which we can launch supply. So we have to find groundwater by installing borewells. We are looking for a place with a good amount of water, after which it will be pulled up to this village lying at a relatively higher altitude. Supply from Kokernag spring is not a possibility as this place is on a hillock 5 km away. Our last option is groundwater only,” explains Gul.

A 2019 NITI Aayog report establishes that India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history with 600 million Indians facing high to extreme water stress and about 2 lakh people dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water. While the report has specific data from most of the states, it has failed to record any statistics from Jammu and Kashmir.

Bano dreams of experiencing the ease of a tap connection in her lifetime, a dream that appears distant until the administration figures out a solution to Anderwan’s misery.

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