Evidence from Rural India: Women can Make a Positive Difference in Water Resource Management

Caption: An Indian woman operates a hand pump to draw water for her family and others by the roadside in Idar, northern Gujarat. Credit: Getty Images

The task of collecting water invariably falls to rural women, in accordance with traditional power structures in developing countries. Yet, the role of women in local governance of water resources is not traditionally dominant.

Relatedly, agency is an important economic concept. Referring to a situation where economic inefficiencies arise when interests do not align between the principal and the agent, this has practical implications in the field of natural resource management (NRM) such as the provision, management and safeguarding of water.

Namrata Chindarkar and Yvonne Jie Chen, Assistant Professors at the LKY School, examine these in a study they conducted in Gujarat, India. Their study surveyed two adjacent sub-districts in Sabarkanta, Bayad and Dhansura. As per a tendering process, in Bayad the contract to service community hand pumps was awarded to an all-women group called the “barefoot mechanics” organised under the group ‘Self Employed Women’s Association’ (SEWA).

In Dhansura, community handpumps were serviced by a regular contractor, a team of male members. They found that gender differences in water service delivery resulted in not only better service quality, but it also had positive effects on female labour market participation.

(these) “barefoot mechanics” were found to provide better quality services owing to a greater sense of social responsibility towards maintaining these handpumps — understandably so — as it is the women in a family that are solely in charge of drawing water resources. Women were also driven to provide better services as they gained non-monetary benefits such as higher life satisfaction and community respect.

SEWA women or “barefoot mechanics” were found to provide better quality services owing to a greater sense of social responsibility towards maintaining these handpumps — understandably so — as it is the women in a family that are solely in charge of drawing water resources. Women were also driven to provide better services as they gained non-monetary benefits such as higher life satisfaction and community respect.

The study found that gender mainstreaming in managing water resources produced significant efficiency gains for society at large. The impact of gender mainstreaming in eliminating the problem of the principal agent in water resource management could be considerable.

As service quality improved, the time taken to repair a broken handpump also decreased. This led to significant reductions in the time spent on water collection and thus reductions in the opportunity cost of water collection. On the other hand, better service quality means there is a higher probability of a woman’s engagement in income generating activity; in SEWA-serviced villages, the probability of women participating in income generating activities is 17 percent higher than non-SEWA serviced villages. However, this did not necessarily translate into a greater probability to secure jobs that are more regular.

Instead of merely providing access to public infrastructure, policymakers could examine their role in a policy development that meets gender needs giving women greater control in resource management. Meeting these practical gender needs, however, would not be without challenging institutionalised forms of discrimination engendered by patriarchal societies.

What is the importance of gender mainstreaming in other areas of natural resource management (NRM), and what can be done to foster it in public policy? Professors Namrata Chindarkar and Yvonne Chen Jie shared their thoughts in a brief interview.

Are there other areas in NRM where gender mainstreaming can help?

NC: Some of the studies which are quoted very often have looked at collective action for resource management and the role of gender, and it has been found that women play a big role, whether it is in joint forest resource management or water user associations. There are management aspects which have been studied before, and you will find a lot of literature which shows that if one brings on women to be part of collective action or such water user associations resource management functions better.

Can women play a prominent role in the absence of anchor organisations like SEWA that play a crucial role in mobilising communities? In the absence of such organisation how can societies foster gender mainstreaming?

YC: I think the perception which sees this work as a man’s job needs to change and I think SEWA did a good job doing this. Atleast in India, the government has realised that women are different in terms of leadership which is why they have reserved seats for women at the Panchayat level so that women can show more support for common source public goods, which men normally don’t pay much attention to.

NC: Yes and no. A lot of the advocacy work is coming from NGOS, not to deny their contribution. At least for water user associations they are supposed to have representatives from all kinds of groups within that community. So almost everywhere in the world where you have other kinds of stratification, there are some institutional rules which are followed to integrate women into these roles.

As Yvonne mentioned, with mandated reserved seats for women in government, the effects will trickle down not only in natural resource management but in any kind of public good provision which has now been empirically shown as well. For other areas in natural resources management, it is not necessarily mandated or required but because essentially women tend to depend on these resources they tend to become partners in managing these resources.

Other kinds of initiatives which I have observed in Gujarat specifically is something called a ‘consensus panchayat’ where they don’t actually hold elections for those panchayats if there is a consensus in the village but these ‘consensus panchayats’ have to consist entirely of women.

It has been observed, though there is no systematic study on that, there is an effort to go beyond just reserving seats for SEWA associated members and giving them entire leadership role in managing everything in the village. And these kinds of initiatives, which go beyond just civil society engagement and come straight from government, will also make a big difference.

Your study showed that SEWA members reported higher IQs. Can you tell us a little about this?

NC: We looked at the difference in the average IQ of trained women compared to SEWA members who are not exposed to training; the latter is our baseline group. The assumption we make here is that SEWA members are all similar to each other and whatever incremental change we observe is because of this training.

That is why we need to have this group of SEWA women who are not trained and not exposed at all to this program to be able to say what we are saying that training altered their IQs.


On 7 September 2015, Dr Namrata Chindarkar and Dr Yvonne Chen Jie, Assistant Professors at the LKY School presented their paper “Putting Women In Charge: Examining Gender Differences In Quality Of Water Services Delivery”. For upcoming events by the LKY School, please visit our website.

Karishma Mutreja is an MPP Student at the LKY School. Her email is karishmamutreja@gmail.com

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