Villagers recruiting guards to protect precious water wells

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 April, 2010, 12:00am

When five wizened village elders recently walked into Vijay Singh Rathore's office in Bikaner, Rajasthan, asking for information about private security guards, he was puzzled.

Most of his customers are rich industrialists who need to protect their high-walled mansions from thieves, not poor villagers from the surrounding countryside.

'I was even more taken aback when they said they wanted an armed guard to protect the well in their village,' said Rathore. 'There is such an acute shortage of water that the only way to make sure no one else has it is to post a security guard to stand by the well.'

Farmers in some villages surrounding Bikaner, a desert region prone to droughts, are pooling their limited resources to hire private security guards to guard wells and ponds so that no outsider can sneak in to steal water.

The desert, the relentless sun and the lack of rain in Bikaner, a city in the middle of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, north India, are features that have shaped the daily lives of people here.

Women wear the brightest of bright colours as a stunning contrast against the brown of the desert. Even the food they eat is designed to be cooked using a minimum of water - they use milk or buttermilk instead.

In the fierce summers, when droughts happen, crops and livestock die for lack of water. 'I've heard that when these guards are posted anywhere near a pond or water tank, even poor thirsty cattle belonging to outsiders are shooed away. The guards won't let them drink from the pond,' Rathore said.

With years going by without rain, farmers have to drill their water wells deeper and deeper, at considerable cost, to hit water, which is why they are prepared to spend money to protect this precious resource from water thieves.

'The guards I've seen are being paid up to 200 rupees (HK$34.80), sometimes more, which is huge sum for villagers but they say they have no choice. A woman from another village was thrashed by people in Aadsar village when they caught her taking a bucket of water at night,' said social worker Anisa Jain.

The guards also ensure an equitable distribution of the limited water.