RAMANATHAPURAM: Ramanathapuram is a perpetually water-starved district, dependent on 1,800 kanmois (tanks) — the biggest of which are the Ramnad periya and RS Mangalam kanmois — and about 3000 ooranies. All of them are dry this year.
So the few waterholes are gathering places and serve the purpose of social discourse. It is here you hear the stoic wisdom of people abandoned to the drought.
“I spend more time at the tap than with my two children,” said Rajalakshmi K. She’s at it from 11 am to 3 pm every day. It goes without saying that all of life’s activities have to be arranged around the vigil at the taps.
Neighbours chuckle as they point to 75-year-old Muthuvelu of Adhankothangudi, for whom it has become a habit to sit near the tap and gaze at it as if watching TV. “If you come out at 2 am and see a shadow moving in the dark near this tap, it’s not a ghost, it’s this amma,” said Bagavathi. “If you let her, she’ll sleep here because she wants to be the first to get water.”
The hole is yet another bit of native jugaad. The water pressure is never enough to reach the tap. So a hole is dug in the ground so that the trickle can be collected from the pipe underneath.
This afternoon, the women guesstimate that water will be released at 3 pm, two hours later. Yet, no one leaves her pot. About 20 plastic pots have lined up. They are the only colour in the drab landscape: fanta orange, royal purple, sensuous lavender, misty green. Some have initials or names written, lest the pecking order have to be arbitrated.
Raniamma (67) said it has been three days since the last trickle. After a few such waterless days, families here turn to private water trucks, which sell at Rs 6 a pot. That’s a lot of money for families that have had zero income from farming this year.
For the people of Ramnad, this year’s drought has been a predicament they have never faced before. As 64-year-old Vazhavandhal M puts it, “There have been times when we had to struggle for water, but it has never been as bad as this.”
Vazhavandhal and her husband Muniyandi A cultivate chilli on their one-acre patch. This year, they sowed Rs 20,000 and reaped Rs 5000. For most families, it’s a choice between food and water. And private water trucks are always standing by to help these families make that choice.
Half a kilometre from this queue three men stand beside a water truck idling on the edge of a small kanmoi. They tell me that they are waiting to fill up from the well drilled into the kanmoi. Rs 6 per pot.
Caste springs eternal
From the small village of Sevoor, people start coming to the waterholes in the riverbed at 6 am, when the sun is still soft. These waterholes are called oothu
For two hours thereafter, women position themselves with their agappais, another drought jugaad you see in Ramanathapuram. This is essentially a long stick with a hollowed coconut shell fastened to one end of it. It is used to scoop up the water from the oothu, even as it oozes from the aquifer beneath.
Some of these holes are dug into the sand with bare hands, and some with machinery. It’s a patient bailing which goes on until the waterhole finally runs dry.
At the oothu, the first comers have to do more work. The side walls of the oothu would have collapsed overnight and the sand has to be cleared to get to the water again. “So we try not to come first. We come around 8 o’clock after everything is ready,” laughs K Mangalam.
However, what is interesting is that some waterholes have long queue, while others have barely a couple of people drawing water. While an outsider might think that it could be because some waterholes have more water than others, there’s a more complex issue at play.
“Ours is the Devendra oothu, that is the Yadavar oothu,” explained S Kaaturaja.
However, Kaaturaja, who was named so since he was born while his mother was working in the field, had no qualms about the unspoken rule.
According to locals, there are only 80 SC/ST families in the village, with about 500 Yadavars.