Linking water access to women’s rights for larger social change

An Ashoka Fellow, Biplab Paul, realized after experiencing states of flood and drought, that people in poor, underserved communities had little hope of upward mobility when they suffered from a lack of access to something as basic as water. In response to the drought in Gujarat, Paul designed an irrigation system that relies on rainwater harvesting and large underground water reservoirs. But the innovation didn’t stop at the technology – rather, The system is operated entirely by the women in the community, who also take loans through Paul’s organization, Naireeta Services Private Limited, and sign five-year contracts to replay service and construction costs.

While Paul has now won numerous awards and received wide recognition for his rural development effort, acceptance didn’t come easily, as Ashoka reports:

Locals were initially skeptical of the new women-led system, but were eventually sold on its influence and authority. This has led to an important cultural shift in Gujarat.

“In India’s patriarchal society, changing people’s perception of women’s roles takes decades of time,” he [Paul] said. “But one impact is very clear. The primary occupation for men is agriculture, and irrigation is essential for their livelihood. Now, to get a single drop of water for irrigation, men have to approach women members for their permission to gain access.

This automatically gives women the upper hand on a critical resource, which translates as a recognition of women’s role in society.”

This approach, one where the solution to a particular challenge simultaneously tackles other large cultural and social challenges, can serve as a model for future approaches to some of the other grand social challenges we face in India. If issues of gender and social equality can be tied in with initiatives to bring proper water, sanitation, health and nutrition to the poor and marginalized, change can happen at a much faster pace, be more inclusive, and hence more sustainable.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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