The fields have gone fallow this winter in Anandpura village. But the Mahua tree has not stopped giving.

Before the sun turned scorching, one morning in the last week of April, Mukesh Vanshkar’s family sat on the tarred highway in Tikamgarh district in Madhya Pradesh, picking white Mahua flowers.

The flowers will shore up the family’s earnings in an otherwise bleak year. Like the other districts of Bundelkhand, the arid region at the intersection of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, Tikamgarh saw poor rainfall last year. Between April 2015 and March 2016, it came to just 50% of the average annual rainfall. In December, the administration put a ban on drawing water from public sources for irrigation. Farmers could not sow wheat in their fields, and families like Vanshkar’s, which got a small share of the produce for sowing and harvesting the crop, have gone without their regular food wages.

To make things worse, now, the drinking water in the village is running low.

The Dalit basti where Vanshkar lives has been particularly hit hard partly because, despite having 50-odd homes, it never had a handpump to begin with.

“We made a thousand pleas, we wrote a thousand applications to officials, but no one listened to us,” he said. “We even borrowed money and paid Rs 5,000 to the sarpanch for the handpump. But he did nothing.”

Left with no choice, the Dalits would walk to a nearby Yadav neighbourhood. Even though the handpump there had been installed by the government, the Dalits would be mocked, and sometimes, driven away. “Chua-choot ke chalte,” said Vanshkar. Because of untouchability.

Now, even that handpump has gone dry. The Dalit families have turned to a well located on the land owned by a Jain merchant. In a fitting irony, so have the Yadavs. But while the Dalits drink water from the well, the Yadavs only use the water to bathe and wash clothes. For drinking water, the Yadavs access a borewell sunk by a member of their community that still has water.

Drought does not deliver an equal blow in the countryside. Access to water is determined by caste and class.

The poor rarely have money to dig wells, let alone sink borewells.

Ten years ago, the state government came up with a scheme called Kapil Dhara, which offered financial support to Dalits, adivasis and other small farmers to dig wells on their land. Aimed at helping poor farmers to irrigate their fields in drought-prone places like Tikamgarh, the wells also act as backup drinking water sources.

Last December, Madhya Pradesh’s minister for rural development, Gopal Bhargava, told the state assembly that more than three lakh Kapil koops had been built in the state over a decade. But on the ground in Tikamgarh, Dalit and adivasi farmers showed incomplete wells that had to be abandoned half-way because the sarpanch allegedly siphoned off the money allotted for them.

It isn’t that the wells of the richer farmers have not gone dry. With the ground water levels plummeting, the entire population of Tikamgarh has been thrown into an endless struggle for water. The difference is that women from poor families walk long distances to fetch water, while affluent families have the resources to deploy bullock-carts, tankers, and if nothing else, motorcycles.

“This year, water is more precious than petrol,” said Balwant Singh, a young man in the Thakur basti of Panchampora village.

Thakurs are the region’s large landowners. Three consecutive cycles of crop losses have eroded their earnings. But in Panchampora, the wells on their fields still have water.

In the Dalit quarter of the village, the only source of water – a handpump in the school compound – has gone dry. A non-profit is supplying water to people through tankers.

As the tanker, yoked to a tractor, chugged its way past the Thakur homes, there were raucous demands that it stop and supply water to the neighbourhood. “We need the water to bathe, we need the water for our buffaloes,” shouted a Thakur seated on an elevated platform. “Fill up our tanks, or we won’t let you pass…”

The tanker-operator, a Yadav, folded his hands, and said, “In Bundelkhand, first of all, if there had not been Yadavs and Harijans, you would not have been seated here. But now I, alone, am more than capable of taking you on…”

The Thakur shot back: “Dekh lo, kulhadi, lathi chal jayegi." Axes and batons might be used.

Then, sensing the presence of a reporter in their midst, both the men laughed. Was the conversation just a show of bravado, or could water indeed trigger a caste war?

Official narrative

Every village that this reporter visited in two blocks of Tikamgarh district complained of handpumps that have gone dry. But the official data for the district does not reflect that.

In the Public Health Engineering Department, which looks after drinking water sources, Ajay Diwakar, the executive engineer said, “Of 9,600 handpumps, 540 are non-functional. Only 250 of them have gone dry.”

But why does the data not square up with the accounts of villagers?

“Only those handpumps where there is no recharge of water are counted as dry,” he explained. “Not those which have a reduced yield of water.” By this yardstick, a handpump that yields a trickle, filling some pots before going dry for several hours, is officially counted as functional, never mind that people no longer use it.

Diwakar conceded that there could be another reason why the official data does not reflect the scale of distress in the villages. The department has no capacity to regularly collect the data. “I have 20 mechanics, 20 helpers and 40 labourers,” he said. That comes to one mechanic for 480 handpumps.

Despite the staff shortage, Diwakar claimed, his department was working overtime to keep handpumps running. New pipes were being added to extend the reach of the handpumps inside the earth. In villages where the water levels have fallen below 150 feet, motor-operated submersible pumps have been installed near functioning handpumps to pull out water. “240 submersible pumps have been installed,” said Diwakar. “After 15 days, if they continue to work, we construct a tank of 2,000 litres capacity, so that water can be stored, and villagers are able to use it.” Only if the pumps go dry, would tankers be deployed, he said.

In contrast, the neighbouring Uttar Pradesh district of Lalitpur has already moved to using tankers. “Submersible pumps are a bad idea,” said Arun Upadhyay, the district’s Chief Development Officer. “If you pump water and store it in a tank, people will waste it, and it will run out faster.”

While this might be true, officials conceded there is also an economic incentive to deploy tankers. The costs are higher, and the possibility of earning commissions on tenders is higher too.

Caste divide

The good part about the installation of submersible pumps is that the government is prioritising the neighbourhoods of Dalits and adivasis (officially, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes).

In Gaur village, for instance, the government installed pumps in the seven neighbourhoods, starting with three that are home to Dalits and adivasis. The village has about 5,000 people and nine neighbourhoods. The two neighbourhood that did not get pumps are home to relatively prosperous Sahu, Brahmin and Jain families, who have sunk borewells in their backyards.

Unfortunately, in one of the adivasi quarters, the pump failed to work – there wasn’t enough water in the underground aquifers. Women of the basti are now walking long distances for water.

The district administration is yet to officially deploy water tankers.

But the rich of the village have unofficially managed to get one.

A tanker owned by the Gaur gram panchayat was parked outside the village anganwadi to fill water from a submersible pump. Santosh Kumar Samele, the man who was commanding the tanker, said the water would be taken to the bazaar mohalla, where Brahmin and Jain families lived.

Who was paying for the transport of water, I asked him.

“We’ll take the money from the sarpanch,” he said.

But wasn’t the government not paying for tankers yet?

He paused. Then, correcting himself, he said: “It’s not such a big amount. If need be, we’ll pay ourselves.”