There was not a single drop of water to drink at the house. Mangamma went to the nearby street tap and turned it open. As before, it hissed making empty sound. The water supply had turned erratic since a few months. Earlier, they would get some water once in 3 or 4 days, slowly it became worse and now they got water once in almost a month. This was their only source of water for all purposes and now the entire neighbourhood faced severe hardship because of irregular supply. Even on the days when they did get water, it would be for a short period of time and the quality of water being not good for consumption purpose. Trying to make the most of this situation, there were one or two water tankers from the city that made occasional trips into the village. However, the poor people could not afford such exorbitant and inconsistent rates on daily basis. Thus the water woes continued to prevail and haunt people of Vangadipalli.
Mangamma went to the bore well at Temple Street in the far end of her town. There were several lines of pots, buckets, cans in the queue waiting for their turns, while their owners were creating big ruckus fighting for positions, jumping queues etc. And all for that dirty muddy brown water for which one had to pump hard. “At this rate, my turn won’t come until late evening”, she thought.
She spotted her neighbour’s son Chikkanna amongst the crowd who was already ahead in the queue with his own big bucket. “Chikkanna, here please fill my pot too along with yours...” she pleaded. “I’ll collect it from you in the evening after I return from the factory. By the way, why don’t you come over for dinner today?” she persuaded him. After his affirmation, she left hurriedly with her other pot to Doddaiah’s farm house. Doddaiah was her former employer and on much pleading would occasionally allow her to draw a few pots of water from the deep well in his farm. Of course, like all other ground water in her town, water from this well too was hard, not good for drinking and smelled strange. But she had to do good with it for now.
Mangamma worked as a daily wage labour in the factory near the outskirts of Vangadipalli. This factory was situated on the banks of what was once a small river. In earlier times, the river fed the fields and farms in the town and also served for their drinking purposes. But with the onset of factory, slowly the water turned into marshy stinking sludge owing to the effluents from the factory. Today the river bed was almost dry, sparing a small stream of dirty froth. The factory outputs had polluted the environment and the ground water table. As a result, the water sources in the town were also highly contaminated. People could only curse the factory for its misdeeds and do nothing else.
However, the factory opened up jobs for people like Mangamma who didn’t own any business or land. Earlier, she used to work in the farms, like that of Doddaiah’s, and big houses in the town which paid very little despite back breaking hard work. That way, the factory work was less tedious and paid modest wages. Though it didn’t make huge difference in her monthly income or lifestyle, Mangamma could now afford to buy a kg of rice more or some extra vegetables for her son. She was happy that she could save a rupee or two at the end of the day. Mangamma’s only dream was to ensure a decent education for her son so that he didn’t have to go through the struggles of a life similar to hers. But somewhere she felt ashamed for working with the factory that was the primary culprit in causing damage to their town’s atmosphere and surroundings. “I wish I had some other better option to earn my living” she rued often.
Mangamma was an enterprising person in that way. She would eagerly lend her help to anyone in need. Though she ran short on cash, she was never short in kindness. She would do the best she could in circumstances. Any function in the town, she would take the lead… whether in cleaning, sweeping, arranging things etc. She would be beside sick children whenever she can, giving their worried mothers much needed break. She would be alongside the midwife during home deliveries. She worked in people’s homes without expecting any returns. She was also a born leader who would counsel women in her neighbourhood about many things. She discouraged early marriages for girls and persuaded people to send their children to school. She would talk about advantages of being educated, about cleanliness and its virtues, about instilling good habits in children etc. People in her neighbourhood respected her for her thoughts and would generally listen. The ladies especially likened her to an elder sister and did hear out whatever she had to say. They all came from a similar background where making hands-to-mouth meeting was very difficult. But they all worked hard and tried their best, everyday.
Last year, an organization from the nearby city had come down and given a presentation on Self-Help Groups at the annual fair. They played a short film on such group formations which paved way to economic security and empowerment of women through their own savings. Mangamma was very impressed. She didn’t rest until she found out more about it. She made visits to the organization’s office in the city and dug out more information.
The concept of the Self-Help Groups is that the members saved as much money as possible, individually every month, and pooled it together as a small shared resource. They would then deposit it in a bank and earned interest on that which was shared amongst all. At times, they could borrow from that resource for their needs and had the flexibility of repaying it as per their individual capacity. The bank also provided a loan to the group if they were interested in taking up any income generating activities. It was the collective onus of the group to ensure timely repayments. Typically, each group had 8 – 10 members and would elect their own president. Thus, they created their own identities and charted a new course. Government also supported such groups and came up with many schemes to encourage them. Mangamma was super excited and wanted to bring this concept into her own town. The organization promised to provide training and other necessary information if she helped in bringing the ladies together as groups. Upon returning, she started mobilizing ladies from her community into Self-Help Groups by narrating the advantages and driving home the point to every single one of them.
She was successful and over a period of time, many women’s groups were formed in her town. Slowly, their economic condition too improved owing to the regular little savings they managed. They began to deposit regularly at the bank. When there was a need for money owing to family functions or purchases etc, they now had a source from where they could borrow. But they all repaid back religiously so as to keep the option open at all times. Mangamma too managed to save about 250 rupees a month. But she didn’t borrow any money yet. ”One day I‘ll send my son to the college in the city. I need to save all that I can for that day” she would be heard saying.
Life is a great leveller. For every good thing that comes in, there is something ominous following. With time, the water crisis in the town deepened. The hardness in water only increased. People began to suffer, and in worst cases die, from rare diseases owing to contaminated water. Children suffered from Flourosis and other malformations. Babies were born with various unknown or peculiar syndromes. Skin ailments became very rampant. Nausea, stomachache and other problems became household reality. All this began to take a toll on people. They were more stressed and unhappy. Their savings too began dwindling, owing to rising medical bills. Drinking water became a precious commodity and people had to buy it from those fleecing tankers. They had to spend almost two rupees per litre of clean water. The town began to suffer and deteriorate. Mangamma watched helplessly as all that she built began to slowly perish before her own eyes. Her health was taking a beating too.
One evening, Mangamma was at Doddaiah’s house cleaning rice. Sitting in the courtyard, she was picking stones from the rice. She could see the television playing in the living room. Her favourite serial was on and she watched it half-heartedly. But something caught her attention all of a sudden during the commercial break. Film star Hema Malini was endorsing water purifiers for homes. Something clicked in Mangamma’s head… “Can it be possible?” she thought. And thought… some more. “Why not?” she kept asking herself. Finally, she decided she would give it a try. She went back home with a firm resolve.
Mangamma went to the city and consulted with the organization that had helped her earlier. “This is my idea, what do you think?” she sought the opinion of the organization’s convenor after having detailed out her plan. “Very good and seems highly possible. With little help you can realize this dream of yours Mangamma” the convenor encouraged her. They discussed it with a few other relevant people and came up with a professional solution. The organization helped her streamline her thoughts and put it together as a plan. Then, they put her on to a technical team who assessed the ground water conditions and contamination levels of the town. They also dug out relevant information on Vangadipalli to assess its rainfall pattern, amount of rain it received annually, the cycle etc. Finally, they came up with a best suited suggestion and discussed it with Mangamma. The organization then invited quotations from cost-effective manufacturers and finalized the best deal along with Mangamma and her group of ladies. On her part, Mangamma using her goodwill got a small area sanctioned from the gram panchayat near Temple Street bore well. Mangamma, along with her group then approached the bank for a loan of three lakh rupees. Owing to their prior good record and a sensible business plan, the bank immediately sanctioned the amount.
Thus three months later, Mangamma and members from her Self-Help Group are proud owners of a Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit in her town. They run this unit as a micro-enterprise and cater to the drinking water needs of the town at much lesser cost than they previously incurred. The people in the town now spend only about fifty paise per litre and are absolutely happy with the quality of water. Their health is already showing improvement. Mangamma is happy to provide her group members with a regular income option while also being able to solve the water woes of the town. They have also installed a Rain Water Harvesting System in the premises to collect precious rain water during monsoons. Mangamma is happy to speak to anyone who cares to half listen about the great advantages of harvesting rain waters. She has many supporters now who have followed her advice and were able to slowly overcome their water and financial troubles. Last heard, they were insisting her to contest the Gram Panchayat elections and be their officially elected leader.
As an aside, Mangamma feels humbled by the fact that people in her town consider her as an inspiring role model. But what she doesn’t know is that she is also an inspiration to the budding author in me that fictionalized true events drawn from her life and came up with this story.