Boyalagudem’s Search for Water: Rajendran Narayanan

Guest post by RAJENDRAN NARAYANAN. Boyalagudem – The name sounds like one of those nondescript railway stations in south India that an express train whizzes by in utter condescension of its portly status. Except that in this case it is much worse. There are no railway tracks in a 50 kilometre radius of this village, tucked away in a corner of Mahabubnagar district in Andhra Pradesh. The landscape here is various hues of brown with not even a pretension of greenery anywhere, barring a few adamant shrubs as if standing up for their fraternity.

A not so covetous claim to fame of this region is its proneness to drought. People here spend each year in the hope that weather cannot play a prank every year. Prayers are offered each year in the second week of June to please the rain gods so that the chosen gods can have mercy this time around. But, the gods in turn haven’t been too pleased with the prayers so offered for the past few years.

Boyalagudem's scramble for water
Boyalagudem’s scramble for water

To cut to the chase, water is scarce in this region and so is electricity. Most villages in this part of the district have a central water pump connected to a storage tank that gets water when the State takes pity and provides electricity. Thus, no electricity implies no water. Electricity comes and goes at random times of the day and consequently there is no fixed schedule regarding the availability of water. Some desperate villager wakes up at 4 AM and rushes to the water pump in the hope of getting water. Another sleepy villager  walking out to take a leak at that hour observes an active man with four colourful pots running to get water and rushes back to his house to join the early riser in the daily water fetching ritual. News of water availability spreads and within 30 minutes one can see majority of the villagers, from 6 year olds to70 year olds, wiping their sleep off their face, walking, running or cycling, each with four to six bright colourful plastic pots to the solitary water pump. Multicoloured fluorescent pots form a long and winding queue to usher in the day. The chaotic queue naturally lends itself to quarrels and verbal skirmishes about who came first and why somebody has come with eight pots to hoard water.

Then suddenly, after a random time, water stops flowing from the tap connected to the tank, leaving behind that circuitous multicoloured trail dry and empty. The lucky ones can now have the luxury of ablutions with a   mug of water and the rest have to wait for the State’s call till they can answer nature’s call.

Scarcity of resources is the seed of clout and control. And, in the Indian context, two other C’s go hand in glove with clout and control, i.e., caste and class. Roughly 50% of Boyalagudem comprises of Scheduled Castes (SC), about 40% comprises of Other Backward Castes(OBC) and the remaining 10% is  a smattering of Muslims and Reddys. Putting to sleep the spiel of majority and democracy, it’s the “upper-caste” Reddys that dictate the workings of this village. In particular, a young man with a big round dot of vermilion on his forehead, symbolising his allegiance to his religious creed, holds the key in this village. He is a curious mix of being officious and obsequious and the dominant trait of the two surfaces depending on his audience. He introduced himself to me saying- “Sir, myself, Karunakar Reddy, Sir. Myself Reddy, no! Upper caste. So, all village people respecting me. Arthamayinda (Understood)?” His words and demeanour were replete with the stench of his dominant position. It came as no surprise to see that his was the only house in the village that would qualify as a bungalow by any standards, what with back up power, parking space and so on.

About two years ago, a government tender was floated seeking contracts to lay water pipelines in Boyalagudem. Apparently, through honest means, the contract was awarded to a person from Ieeja, a nearby town. Most people in the village were excited at the prospect of not having to walk 2 to 3 kilometres to fetch water everyday. However, Karunakar Reddy and his brethren had a problem with the contract. Our vermilion dotted gentleman, K.Reddy, insisted that his chosen man be awarded the contract. This angered a large majority of the SCs and the OBCs because their claim was that in the event that the contract goes to Karunakar Reddy’s chosen man, pipelines would only be laid around the houses of his sycophants and would in turn give rise to water monopoly in the village. A section of people from the village belonging to a youth organisation went to “The Bungalow”  (“The Bungalow” is how people in this region refer to the residence of the Congress MLA, DK Aruna) and approached the local Congress MLA to intervene and prevent K.Reddy to acquire the contract that was rightfully awarded to a neutral person. The local MLA spells her caste exactly as that of K. Reddy and it is believed that she gave a fair and impartial judgement on the matter. The water pipeline contract was now completely revoked. Neither the neutral person from Ieeja was given the contract and nor was K.Reddy’s chosen man.

It’s been a month since my last visit to Boyalagudem. Panchayat Elections are round the corner now. And Boyalagudem, like most other villages in the region, is bustling with activity. A stranger walking by with a beaming smile invited me over to K.Reddy’s house for breakfast. Free breakfast was being served there for all and sundry. The bigwigs of the three main political parties, Telugu Desam, Congress and the YSR Congress, have been gearing up with strategies and plans to bolster the chances of their respective candidates for the post of Sarpanch. The key strategy revolves around distributing food, money and more importantly dava(meaning medicine); an innocuous and flattering nom de plume of its much maligned real name, alcohol. In the backdrop of the Panchayat elections, a different shade of the story surfaced. Among other versions, a section of the populace indicated that the root of the problem is not the pipelines, but the absence of the electrical transformer. According to them, the Congress MLA had turned K.Reddy’s plea of getting the contract down and insisted on the contractor from Ieeja to continue with the work. Some of them remarked on the complete fairness on the ministry’s part in the contract saga. The focus has seamlessly shifted from non-existent pipelines to a non-existent transformer. The blame has thus naturally shifted from “The Bungalow” to the contractor. Apparently, the contractor from Ieeja ran out of funds to install a transformer after laying all the pipelines and the village is waiting for an additional Rs 40,000 to be sanctioned by “The Bungalow” for the installation of the transformer. Some villagers have placed a requisition for the same and the authorities from “The Bungalow” have promised to release the funds in the “near future”. Within a month, as if by magic, the impartiality of the people from “The Bungalow” has assumed prominence and K. Reddy is being treated as a martyr of the lost contract in the village. Not only has the antagonism towards the vermillion dotted messiah of the village seemed to have waned within a month but also that some other villagers blame the impartiality of awarding the contract for the water crisis. They feel that because K. Reddy should have got the contract because he lives in the same village and  could easily be held more accountable for completing the work as opposed to the contractor from Ieeja.

Reality had changed clothes in a month’s time. Or perhaps, it has changed the grammar of oration.  What other people in the village wonder is – is the pipe real or is it a pipe dream? The more people one interacts with, the more versions of the same event emerge. Is it just the “Rashomon Effect” in action here or has dava sunk the bitter truth in its bosom. The end result is that people in Boyalagudem continue to travel 2 to 3 kilometres every day even today to fetch water at hours that qualify as odd to most of our ilk and K. Reddy engages his set of ardent fans to procure water for his household in case  his personal water pump runs dry.

Meanwhile, the rain gods probably continue to discuss when and how to accede to all the offered prayers.

Rajendran Narayanan has been working on implementing a phone based information and grievance redress system for NREGA workers in Ghattu Mandal in Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh and would like to thank  Kalyani Raghunathan for providing assistance in editing the piece.


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