Vyshnavi Kancharla is on a mission. The Class IX student of Zilla Parishad High School, the only educational institution in Andhra Pradesh’s Rajagopalapuram village in Chittoor district, wants to ensure that no girl child in her locality misses school owing to lack of water and menstrual hygiene facilities.
Every weekday, the 15-year-old reaches school early to discuss with teachers ways to improve attendance of her schoolmates and teach them water conservation. Till a few years ago, residents of Rajagopalapuram, a remote village of 120-plus people near the industrial town of Satyavedu on the border between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, had to walk miles to fetch one bucket of water. “I have grown up seeing water scarcity. We didn’t have a separate toilet for girls (in school). When I started getting my periods, I could not leave the house. My mother could not go to work as she had to take care of me. This affected our household income,” says Kancharla. “My friends faced the same problem. Attending school was the last thing on our minds.”
Things changed about three years ago when a handwashing station and drinking water filters were installed at her school, and toilets and a borewell set up in the village to ensure uninterrupted water supply as part of a corporate social responsibility project by PepsiCo Foundation, in association with non-profit WaterAid and local gram panchayats.
A safe water supply is the backbone of a healthy economy yet globally it is woefully under prioritised. Over the years, states, as well as the Central government, have invested billions of rupees to provide water to citizens. Between 2014 and 2019, the investments in water-related infrastructure increased at a 15% compounded rate, reaching $21 billion in the year ended March 2019. Yet, only a little over 21% of Indian households have access to piped water, shows the latest data by the National Sample Survey Office. To put things in perspective, India is home to about 17% of the world’s population but has only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources and pumps out 25% of the world’s groundwater.
“Water is a fundamental human right. We have implemented solutions to increase access to safe water, including restoring wells, harvesting rainwater in schools, and building piped water supply systems for household-level access to safe water,” says Viraj Chouhan, chief government affairs and communications officer, PepsiCo India. The project, covering 44 villages, concluded before the pandemic.
“It’s on us (the residents) to ensure that we keep the water and toilet clean,” says Kancharla. As minister for girl’s protection in the school cabinet committee, she also encourages students to communicate their problems to teachers, and monitors the cleanliness of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and water conservation in the school.
The school strength is 180 (including students from neighbouring villages), of which 89 are girls. Before the renovation of toilets, usually six-seven girl students would be absent daily due to unavailability of functional WASH facilities. The attendance is now almost 100%, show the school's records. “More 23 million girls in our country drop out of school annually because of lack of menstrual hygiene facilities,” says Vyshnavi.
Shashirekha Yellampalli, 20, was among those who had to drop out of school at the age of 15 to make the daily trip to fetch water from a well outside the village and manage the house for her parents who are labourers.
After water resources reached Rajagopalapuram, Yellampalli promised herself she would ensure that no girl dropped out of school like she did after Class 10. “I wanted to study but there was never enough water,” says Yellampalli, who works as a helper at a pharmaceutical company in Satyavedu.
She has learnt how to operate a motor pump, clean the borewell, manage reservoirs, and fix taps. She works with other residents to clean the water sources. “Our community members have opened a bank account, where we save money for repairs. Now there’s clean water for cooking, cleaning and bathing,” she says. “It took us years to get a basic thing like water, but now we can focus on living better.”
Also read: Yamuna, the river of dreams