Celebrating hill women and their role in Springshed development and governance

Guest Blog by: Seema Ravandale

Abstract: The hill women share the special intricate and culturally nurtured connection to forest and water, which makes them better steward or owner of their resources. This demands their participation beyond the right-based “beneficiary” approach, recognizing their accumulated knowledge and resilient and adaptive capacities in recently contested discourse of Springshed development and governance in Indian Himalayan Region (IHR).

On the morning of 10th June 2021, the women from two habitations of Tyarsun village of Champavat district (Uttarakhand) came together to finish the regular maintenance work in Van Panchayat land (Village Forest Council)[i]. On the onset of Monsoon, these women were preparing their forest to hold more and more water. Their volunteer work before the Monsoon includes – collecting dry Pine leaves, chopping off unwanted saplings of invasive pine tree, reshaping the round trenches around newly planted Oak saplings and clearing the debris and mud from the contour trenches to prepare them to soak and infiltrate more water in the ground. When asked about the connection of forest and water, Geeta Devi says – “they cannot exist without each other, and we cannot without them. Forest gives everything, grass, fuelwood, fruits, but most importantly, water. They keep water alive in the spring and this water is lifeline of our village. Our ancestors kept the forest and spring alive for the next generation and we ought to do same duty.” One of the women started humming song of forest in Kumauni language and other women joined her while doing their work.

Women of Tyarsun village had been facing acute water scarcity since more than a decade now, owing to reduced spring discharge in the only water source. According to these women, villagers and outside businessmen cut the forest for timber which has degraded the forest. Moreover, rainfall patterns is changing due to climate change, which led to reduced discharge in the spring (Naula). Degraded landscape and increased frequency of intense rains has further exacerbated the loss of indigenous forest system and water in the springs and streams. The burden of collecting water from sources lies mainly with women, and this has led to extra drudgery for them. The added drudgery and connection to the forest could bring the women of two habitations together, despite their caste barriers, to conserve the forest and spring.  BAIF Development and Research Foundation, Pune initiated the work of Springshed Development in the region in 2017 as a part of the project  “Climate smart actions and strategies in North Western Himalayan region for sustainable livelihoods of agriculture-dependent hill communities” funded under Adaptive Fund Board (AFB) of UNFCC & NABARD, technically supported by HESCO. Interventions adopted were – participatory hydrogeological studies to identify recharge areas, soil water conservation technique on recharge area, community based data monitoring systems, setting up social protocol to conserve and protect the area, benefit sharing protocols for equitable water distribution and setting up informal institution like Pey Jal Samiti (Water Users’ Group).  Pey Jal Samiti, is an executive body, 100% represented by women members and has played a pivotal role in the spring conservation in sustainable manner. The institutional arrangement in the form of Pey Jal Samiti  in collaboration with existing Van Panchayat Samitis could lead to sustained efforts of conservation, inclusion and equitable distribution. BAIF had undertaken the task of rejuvenation in 10 villages, reviving 17 springs, covering around 185 ha lands under soil water conservation and forest rejuvenation. The spring discharges were observed to be increased by two-three folds at an average increasing the water security for these villages.

Contour trenches in Tyarsun village Van Panchayat land_(Photo: Varun Raja)

There are several of such anecdotal evidence from all over the Himalayan region, where these hill women led the efforts for forest, water and spring revival and protection. The women from Nagaland could revive 99 springs in collaboration with NEIDA and state government[ii], the women from Uttarakhand must have revived more than 1000 springs in collaboration with organization like People’s Science Institute, CHIRAG, Himmothan, ACWADAM, etc. and similar stories spiral from all the Himalayan states. In many states, local communities have been supported and facilitated either by non-profit organizations, government, or both to successfully implement the Springshed development. Some of the best practices have been documented by NITI Ayog too.

The Springshed Development to revive the dying springs in the country has recently been taking ground in the policy arena[iii] in India. As per a rough estimate, there are five million springs across India, out of which nearly 3 million are in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) alone. Despite the key role that they play in drinking water security for 90% of population of IHR, springs have not received their due attention and are today facing the threat of drying up, acknowledges the NITI ayog’s working group.  Hence, National Program on Springshed Development to revive 3 million springs across 10 states of Himalayan region has been under consideration since 2019[iv]. NITI ayog’s report acknowledges the importance of participation of local communities with particular attention to women as they are the main beneficiaries in the Springshed development. “The drudgery of women is particularly worth mentioning here; when village springs run dry, women are forced to manually carry water from springs below their village during the lean season (page 6). Since women are the most important stakeholder, conscious effort is made to form women led water users’ group and involve them in recharge activities and decision-making process (page 47).” – states the report. The resource book on Springshed management developed by NITI Ayog and IWMI adopts to a Gender-Equity-Socially Inclusive (GESI) framework for the implementation for improved benefit sharing and sustainability[v]. The GESI framework was first proposed by UN-Women Nepal’s working group, a strategy in achievingequal opportunities for the different segments of society is  based on theories of “inequality and exclusion”[vi]. Likewise, ICIMOD proposes for “Gender-responsive intervention in Springshed management”[vii].  Gender-responsive policies are directed to consider and address the different situations, roles, needs and interests of different genders concerning the policy.  In all the various approaches proposed under Springshed development, the inherent “inequality” and “exclusion” concerning women remain at the center of discussions.  The discourse of women in Springshed development is very young but rooted in long history of “women in water governance”. It will take many more years to mature this discourse as global and national policies on the women in water governance will keep influencing the specific policies on Springshed Development. Hence, it is worth to briefly revisit the history of women in water governance, so that spaces for women participation in Springshed development and governance mechanism can be created in a better and practical ways. 

Women of Tyarsun village working in Van Panchayat land (Photo: Kuldeep Saratkar)

Globally, the participation, decentralization and inclusive policies opened up the spaces for women participation in governance around 1970-80 and in water governance around 1990. In 1992 for the first time the importance of women in water governance was recognized in the Dublin conference on “Water and Environment”. The guiding principles that emerged from this Conference recognized the essential role of women in water management. Principle 3 of the Dublin Statement establishes that “women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water”, and therefore, positive policies need to be adopted not only to address the specific needs of women with regard to water but also to empower them to participate “at all levels in water resources programs, including decision-making and implementation”[viii] .  These efforts around water governance have been demanding the gender equity and active participation of women in the management and conservation of these resources. UN policy brief on Gender and Water too outlines the importance of women in water governance from two perspectives – first, the gendered role of women in taking care of household needs and water fetching created the gendered inequality (women being victim) and second, recognizing their accumulated knowledge about water resources over centuries (women being custodian of knowledge). The women participation based on first understanding is right-based approach but remains at the level of tokenizing the participation in decision making as “beneficiary”. The second understanding demands that women being custodian of the knowledge, they are more legitimate steward/owner of the water resources and hence their participation should not remain mere at the level of “means” (i.e. participation to accomplish the aims of project more efficiently, effectively or cheaply) but “ends”(where the community or group sets up a process to control its own development)[ix].  

Seema Kulkarni traces the history of women and water governance in India in paper published in 2011[x]. Historically, the discussion around woman and water governance is embedded in vibrant women movement around 1970-80 which recognized the importance of women in the development and led to pro-women legislations. Following the decentralization in water governance during 1990, the women’s participation is seen as integral to these new institutions, partly because of the international discourse on right-based approaches shaping global policy agendas but largely because women are seen as best suited to manage the scarce water resources. The notion of representation and participation of women in public sphere has served women, who did not otherwise possess a public voice and identity to demand that their points of view be heard. But the implementation of these policies remains fragmented and non-cohesive due to societal and political fabric of country.

Spring source in Tyarsun village (Photo: Varun Raja)

In recent decade, the women’s knowledge around the vital resources, landscape, ecology, climate, and social and political regime is being discussed. It establishes that such a knowledge also makes them more adaptive and resilient to environmental changes around them[xi]. Throughout the world, women are intrinsically linked to water resources because of their roles and responsibilities in using and managing water. In many indigenous cultures, women have a special and distinct relationship to water, which is rooted in cultural beliefs, social practices, and economic contexts as well as women’s role in reproduction[xii]. In Canadian indigenous culture, women are considered as “water-keepers” and “care-takers” because of their intricate and spiritual connection with the water [xiii].  Even in Kumauni culture of Uttarakhand from where the case study has been documented, Springs are considered so auspicious that newly wedded brides were taken to the local Spring (Naula) before even setting foot in their new homes[xiv] and this is how a woman begins her new life after marriage. Despite these special connection with water resources, these women have often been excluded from discussion and decisions about water management world-wide.

Women of Tyarsun village collecting dry leaves from spring catchment area (Photo: Varun Raja)

There will be inherent fear that women participation in Springshed development may be constrained by such tokenized participation and social and political constructs, as exhibited in the history of country’s water governance, whereas the stories of these hill women depict the intricately woven and culturally nurtured connection to water. Though there are progress and strides to mark and celebrate in bringing woman to water governance and in Springshed development, there is still a need to bring them to the center of discourse in more dignified manner.  There is need to acknowledge them beyond “beneficiary” and to bring their accumulated knowledge into the discussion of water governance, recognizing their amazing resilient and adaptive capacities and regard them as steward/owner of these water resources.  If central government of India is serious about their plan to revive over three million springs in 10 hills states, bringing the women to the center of Springshed development and governance in such manner will be humungous task for all other stakeholders.  

(Seema Ravandale ravandaless@gmail.com)

NOTE: 1. Seema is ex-employee of People’s Science Institute, Dehradun. Currently, she is pursuing master’s in environmental conservation (MS ECo) at University of Massachusetts, Amherst USA as Fulbright Scholar with special research focus on water governance and community participation.  

2. This is being published (On the occasion of World Water Day 2022).

3. An edited version of this was published at: https://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/celebrating-role-hill-women-springshed-development-and-governance

Acknowledgement: BAIF Development and Research Foundation, Pune for facilitating the study tour in June 2021 in 10 villages of Champavat district Uttarakhand.

Van Panchayat Samiti discussing the matters related to forest (Photo: Varun Raja)


[i] Van Panchayat (VP) / Village Forest Council is an autonomous local institution having legally demarcated village forests. All the community forests are managed as per the guidelines in the Van Panchayat Act (Find attached document Van Panchayat Act 2005). It’s the joint responsibility of the state and communities to manage the Forest Council.

[ii] https://www.thebetterindia.com/254892/nagaland-spring-shed-management-process-revival-khrolhiweu-tsuhah-north-east-initiative-development-agency-neida-water-crisis-convseration-women-led-initiatives-india-environment-him16/

[iii] NITI ayog’s working group report on “Inventory and Revival of Springs in Himalayas for Water Security”, 2018.

[iv] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/plan-to-revive-over-three-mn-springs-in-10-hill-states-on-the-cards/articleshow/70580157.cms

[v] Rathod, R.; Kumar, M.; Mukherji, A.; Sikka, A.; Satapathy, K. K.; Mishra, A.; Goel, S.; Khan, M. 2021. Resource book on springshed management in the Indian Himalayan Region: guidelines for policy makers and development practitioners. New Delhi, India: International Water Management Institute (IWMI); New Delhi, India: NITI Aayog, Government of India; New Delhi, India: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

[vi] https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2017/04/gesi-framework

[vii] https://www.icimod.org/initiative/rms/springshed-revival-and-management/

[viii] https://www.iucn.org/news/environmental-law/202103/role-women-water-governance

[ix] Nelson, N. and Wright, S. (1995). Power and Participation. In Book: Power and Participatory Development. Intermediate Technology Publication. UK. ISBN 1-85339-241-3.

[x] Kulkarni, S. (2011). Women and Decentralised Water Governance: Issues, Challenges and the Way Forward. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 46(18). Pp. 64-72

[xi] Kernecker, M., C. R. Vogl, and A. Aguilar Melendez. 2017. Women’s local knowledge of water resources and adaptation to landscape change in the mountains of Veracruz, Mexico. Ecology and Society 22(4):37. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09787-220437

[xii] Anderson, K., Clow, B., and Haworth-Brockman, M. (2011). Carriers of water: Aboriginal women’s experiences, relationships, and reflections. Journal of Cleaner Production. Doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.10.023

[xiii] https://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-12-12/water-song-indigenous-women-and-water/

[xiv] https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/reviving-naulas-the-ancient-water-temples-of-the-kumaon-himalayas-351063.html

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