Nashik: "At least I can sleep now without the fear of getting injured or the stress of not having water for the next day," said Sunita Pardhi, who belongs to the Thakur scheduled caste in Nashik's Bardechi Wadi. Pardhi, and other women in the village, had to risk injury or even death as they rappelled down to fill a few pots of water from the drying village well. After three years of an organised struggle to get access to another water source, and with help from nonprofits and the panchayat, the women managed to convince the government to provide a water pipeline in March 2022, using the local legislator's funds.

The Union government's ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) aims to provide tap water to every household in rural India by 2024. Until now, 50% of households have a tap connection, an improvement from August 2019, when the scheme started and 17% of households had a tap connection. The mission's dashboard shows that in Take Deogao Gram Panchayat that represents Bardechi Wadi, only 32% of the households have tap connections. Of these, not a single one has been provided to Pardhi's hamlet.

This meant, for around five months every summer, women and children would rappel down a 60-foot well and spend hours waiting for water to seep into the bottom. In India, filling water for use at home is largely a woman's job. Globally, women and girls spend 200 million hours every day collecting water, and in Asia, one round trip to collect water takes 21 minutes, on average, in rural areas.

The water pipeline has freed up time for Bardechi Wadi's women and children but patriarchal norms, lack of a high school in the village and of other opportunities for development means that these free hours have just turned into more time for household chores, our reporting found.

The difficulty in accessing water for this hamlet of around 200 people also holds a mirror to the government's water supply claims, and highlights the need for better water management, especially in searing temperatures, such as in March and April this year, which exacerbates the water crisis in several regions.

How the women won a pipeline

Less than 50% of the population in India has access to safely managed drinking water. Despite a 14-percentage-point jump in access to water supply over 17 years to 2017, nearly 600 million Indians face "high to extreme water stress", such as those living in Bardechi Wadi.

Bardechi Wadi is located in the Trimbakeshwar region of Nashik district and has acute water scarcity every year along with several neighbouring villages. Despite being less than 3 km away from Middle Vaitarna dam, one of the dams that supplies water to India's financial capital Mumbai, the water is of little use to these villagers. Until now no pipeline brought water to the village.

The village's well, its primary source of water, dries up by January or February and the water scarcity continues until the summer. Water tankers empty water into the well but in between the visits of the tankers, villagers are dependent on 'tipvan' (collecting small portions of water that has seeped out of the well's floor).

Until a few months ago, women would climb down this well using iron levels like a ladder, when the level of water in the well was low. At the last step, which is around the halfway mark, they used a rope to rappel down further. Often, women spent hours in the dead of the night, using a torchlight, and risking being injured or being bitten by a snake, a scorpion or being attacked by a wild animal, because waiting until the morning might mean all the water is the well has already been collected by other households in the hamlet. Besides, time spent in filling water at night meant time saved for other chores during the day.

Women no longer have to rappel down the 60-foot well in Bardechi Wadi, seen in the background on May 7, 2022. On days with no electricity, there is enough spillover into the well that the women can use buckets to draw water.

After a video of the women rappelling for water went viral on social media in 2019, a new pipeline was sanctioned to bring water from a perennial well near the dam, to storage tanks in this village.

This pipeline was not funded with money from the Jal Jeevan Mission but from funds of the Member of Legislative Assembly from Igatpuri Hiraman Khoskar and Panchayat funds. The JJM programme is yet to begin in Take Deogao panchayat, although the mission says 71% of Maharashtra's households have taps under JJM.

H L Khatale, Block Development Officer of Trimbakeshwar said that works under JJM are planned according to a village action plan (Take Deogaon also has one).

"The action plan lays out the order of priority for works to be undertaken in villages. But under JJM, we have to give household tap connections even to the most remote hamlets and we will implement a scheme in this hamlet as well," said Khatale.

IndiaSpend also reached out to the central government's Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation that runs JJM. This story will be updated once they respond.

The day IndiaSpend visited the village in May, there was no electricity for an hour or two which prevented villagers from using the motor to fill water. But villagers say that they can time filling of water based on the timing of electricity cuts. The main issue instead is the capacity of the storage tanks.

"Excess water from the pipeline is drained into the well which is not desirable since women will have to draw water from it again. Instead, a bigger tank will allow them to draw enough water from the taps," said Bhagwan Dhoke, an activist with Shramjeevi Sanghatana that works in the tribal regions of Nashik and other districts in Maharashtra.

Khatale said he would look into the villagers' demand for a bigger tank.

A 2019 video showing women of Bardechi Wadi rappelling down the well to fill the water accumulated in a ditch at the bottom.

'Generations of women have been suffering'

Hausabai Pardhi cradled her one-year-old baby in her arms on a hot day in May. Until a few months back, she would take the newborn to the well, where the other women would help place a pot of water on her head. Balancing the baby in her arms and the pot of water on her head, Hausabai would walk home every day.

"A woman had angrily said in front of the village that had she known about the water scarcity here, she would never have agreed to get married and live here. Patriarchal norms mean even today the responsibility of arranging water for the family lies on women," said Dhoke.

"Generations of women have been suffering like this," said Shalubai Pardhi, in her fifties. Men consider it beneath themselves to fill water, said Nivrutti Pardhi.

Despite getting relief from the drudgery and danger of filling water by climbing into the well, the women and girls of Bardechi Wadi have little opportunity to utilise this free time elsewhere due to lack of access to high school and other opportunities.

Bardechi Wadi is primarily dependent on agriculture for income and agriculture is monsoon-dependent. The villagers grow one crop a year, usually rice or millet, and for most, the crop is enough for subsistence. Most men migrate for work, while the women work on the farms and take care of the home.

The nearby village, Vavi Harsha, has a school until grade X, but for further studies children have to go around 30 km or an hour away, to Igatpuri, using the erratic bus service.

"I want to go to college one day but my parents won't send me because they feel it is unsafe. We saved time in filling water but otherwise what is the change in our lives?" asks Sangita Pardhi, a grade IX student. "We are just working in farms or doing other chores instead."

"Asach astay (that is how it is)," says Sunita Pardhi, as she went back to her farm with her five-year-old son to prepare the land for the upcoming sowing season.

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