Caste and Water

May 14, 2018
Madison Weisend ’20 Environmental Studies
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Water is the lifeline of our world, the quencher of our thirst, the sustenance of aquatic ecosystems, and the backbone of the global economy. I was given the opportunity to study abroad in India during my sophomore year at MMC, and have been living in the state of Rajasthan, which lies on India’s northwest border and is home to the country’s largest desert, since August of 2017. Rajasthan is geographically the largest state in India, holds 6% of a monstrous 1.3-billion-person population, but only has access to 1% of all water resources on the subcontinent. Water is being pumped into Rajasthan from other states through canals, and campaigns are in action to build rainwater harvesting infrastructure, but the struggle to give such a large population enough water to carry out their daily lives cannot be denied. I recently spent a week in a small village on the outskirts of the Thar Desert to interview locals about their experience with water scarcity for my final paper of the semester.

I have been trying to look at water scarcity through the lens of different social hierarchies that act within India, such as gender, local government, and the caste system. You may have ever heard of the caste system, as it is entirely native to India and the Hindu religion. While incredibly complex and almost impossible to be understood by a foreigner to India, the caste system can be summarized by saying that all Indians are born into a particular social class that formally places them within the hierarchy of the Hindu faith. The highest caste, or class, work as priests in temples, while the lowest caste has been referred to as “The Untouchables,” and have been historically assigned to do degrading labor such as the removal of human waste from sewage pipes. The caste system has been illegal for generations but is still highly influential in the everyday lives of Indian citizens, affecting the ability of those from lower caste families to acquire jobs, benefit from public welfare programs, and gain access to water.

Aside from forcing lower castes to drink from separate water fountains as was practiced in the U.S. for generations, lower castes also face the inability to take water from public water sources such as lakes, ponds, or water storage tanks, which are particularly vital for communities living in arid ecosystems like the Thar Desert. The organization that housed me during my week of study, formally known as Gravis, has been working to give people of all castes and identities more equitable access to water since 1983. A member of the highest caste who felt that their seat on the social hierarchy was being challenged after personally experiencing the growth of caste equality within the community turned to fire as a final struggle to maintain status. In 2005, after decades of hard work to give lower castes and socially disadvantaged families a fair chance at water, a single act of anger and arson left Gravis lying in a literal pile of ashes. Their campus was rebuilt, and now thirteen years later serves as a place where people of all castes can come together to discuss community development, eat, and be merry, which are all manifestations of the remarkable work that the employees of Gravis have done despite the nearly insurmountable obstacles of India’s past stepping in their way.

People like you, me, and the team of Gravis that can feel the weight of water pressing down on the shoulders of Mother Earth, but just because we can feel the pressure doesn’t mean we understand the entirety of the issue. But speaking quite honestly, how can we be expected to? Water in its purest form as a clump of hydrogen and oxygen is simple enough to comprehend, but the way that it flows in and out of communities through the grip of the world’s most powerful people is most definitely not. To wrap our brains around the crisis at hand, water scarcity cannot be approached from just a few narrow angles, and the just like the communities that rely on it, this issue is intersectional and multi-dimensional, and needs to be treated as so to allow for some really innovative solutions to be brought to the table. Alongside the lower castes of India are women, refugees, child laborers, and millions of other individuals who sit on all corners of the globe, awaiting a quiet moment to slip their two cents into the water conversation. So next time you are walking the NYC streets with an umbrella overhead, take a minute to look up at the faces that walk alongside you and think about how they may experience the wet stuff.