Barefoot technicians: the water-women of rural Gujarat
In rural Gujarat, as in the rest of India and many parts of the developing world, women are usually the ones to fetch and collect water for the household. They are also, usually, the ones most affected when pumps or systems break down; often forcing them to take time out from other activities to travel further in search of clean water, or do without.
Mechanical faults in village hand pumps are all too common, as are leaks and other problems in rural pipelines. Repairs are often slow to arrive (if they arrive at all), and occasionally, government-employed or contracted repairmen may even submit false repair reports, claiming that the water supply has been repaired and is operating normally, when this is not the case.
For the women of Vata, a rural village in the Sabarkantha district of Gujarat, the problem was getting out of hand. In response, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a non-governmental organization of poor, self-employed women workers (many of whom are rural women farmers), began working with the state government to train women in Vata and other villages on hand pump maintenance and repair.
Water infrastructure and mechanical knowledge were typically considered to be male domains, and many of the men of the village were initially skeptical of the initiative. They doubted that the women would have the technical aptitude for the work. But over time, they were impressed to see that the women were indeed able to repair faulty pumps and keep them working well.
In 2000, the women won a government contract to operate and maintain hand pumps in four districts of Gujarat (Kheda, Anand, Sabarkantha and Vadodra) ensuring both recognition and payment for their work. And upon contract renewal in 2003, the Gujarat Water Board provided them with further training in plumbing. More recently, the women succeeded in negotiating for fairer compensation, ensuring a government approved minimum wage even after deductions for work-related expenses such as transportation, supplies and equipment repairs.
To date, around 1000 women have been trained in water pump maintenance and repairs as part of SEWA’s Water Movement. These "barefoot technicians" – so called because some of them did not even own a pair of slippers – play a leading role in the maintenance and repair of more than 4900 hand pumps in three districts across rural Gujarat, helping to ensure improved access to safe drinking water for themselves, their families, and their communities.
- FAO. 2013. Ending Poverty: Learning from the Good Practices of Smallholder and Marginal Farmers. Rome.
- SEWA. 2005. Towards Economic Freedom: The Impact of SEWA. Ahmedabad.