May 16, 2006

Without Water, Indian Farmers Can’t Find a Bride

By Rupam Jain Nair

SIYANI, India - With a big house, cattle and a healthy cotton crop, Indian farmer Praveen Jhala is considered the most eligible bachelor in the village, but with no water in his well he can't get a bride for love nor money.

It has been 15 years since Jhala's only nearby source of drinking water ran dry, leaving him and his patch of land in the western state of Gujarat an unattractive prospect.

Even though Jhala manages to harvest a regular cotton crop, a dozen families have turned him down, unwilling to marry their daughters into a village with no water. He is not alone.

"Marriages are made in heaven but in our village weddings depend on the availability of water," said 39-year-old Jhala.

Hundreds of young men in Siyani, a village of 11,000 people 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Ahmedabad, the state's main city, share his fate.

Some are forced to defy their parents and tie the knot with girls from lower castes or with widows, something frowned upon in India's conservative countryside.

Failing rains, soaring demand from farmers and a growing population are sending water tables plunging, threatening the socio-economic fabric of up to 2,000 villages in the state.

In a relatively industrialized state, village women and young girls walk long distances each day carrying heavy brass pots on their heads in search of drinking water.

"My hands ache after pulling buckets full of water from the well," said Mayaben Rajput, married to a Siyani farmer and who has to walk six km (4 miles) to the nearest functioning well.

"I will never let my sister get married to anyone in this village."

Fights break out around wells that still have water.

Villagers are now pinning their hopes on a controversial dam project on the Narmada river that supporters say will provide much needed water to more than 25 million people.

Environmental activists are opposing work to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar, saying that tens of thousands of families are yet to receive compensation for land lost to the project.

"Water is the source of all the problems and water is the only solution," said local administrator Dhananjay Dwivedi.

"We are trying to improve the situation by supplying water tankers to villages. We hope Narmada waters will solve all the woes of the parched villages."