The Bizarre Social Practice of Polygamy that Saves a Small Village in India

Beneath the scorching sun of the Maharashtra state in India lays the quaint village of Denganmal, nestled 185 kilometres away from the bustling metropolis of Mumbai. Since time immemorial, the village has faced a harsh reality – droughts ravaging the area during the sweltering summer months leaving its citizens parched and struggling to survive. To make matters worse, the villagers have no access to pipelines, leaving them with only two sources of water – the Bhatsa dam on a river and a well, both located hours away.

In the midst of this dire situation, the men of the village resorted to an age-old solution that is also an illegal social practice but is now the norm there for many years – polygamy. In this village, it’s common for the men of Denganmal to have multiple wives, with up to four partners in tow, to ensure their households have access to drinking water. One is legal; the rest are known as “paani bais” or water wives. But is this practice a necessary evil or a violation of women’s rights?

These water wives have one job and one job only – fetching water for the household. In the scorching summer months, they set out at dawn, balancing empty vessels on their heads, and make the treacherous journey through fields, mud tracks, and hilly terrain to reach the river. Each vessel holds around 15 litres of water. These women usually carry two each.

But don’t be fooled into thinking these water wives have any legal rights over the man they marry. They don’t sleep with their husbands, have no say in household affairs, and are not allowed to reproduce. They are simply a means to an end – a way for the men of Denganmal to ensure their families have enough water to survive.

But there is an upside to the implementation of this banned practice. Marrying for water allows women in this conservative rural society, often widows or single mothers, to regain some respect in society. However, when the water wife becomes too old to continue fetching water, the husband might marry yet another wife – younger, stronger, and more capable of hauling water.

But this offbeat solution to an age-old problem raises a dire concern – why hasn’t the government done anything to stop this barbaric practice? After all, under the Hindu Marriage Act, polygamy is illegal. Unfortunately, Maharashtra, the third-largest state in India, has a long history of droughts and reports the highest number of farmer suicides in the country. In fact, over 80% of the districts in Maharashtra (home to 124.9 million people) are vulnerable to drought or drought-like situations, with 42.5% of the state being drought-prone.

So, while the situation in Denganmal may seem unique, it’s actually a symptom of a much larger problem. The villagers are willing to go to great lengths to ensure the survival of their families, even if it means resorting to archaic practices that treat women as mere objects. Moreover, despite many anti-polygamy laws in place, countless unreported women are victims of this arrangement.

It’s a sobering reminder that in 2023, despite all our advancements and progress, regressive thinking still persists in many parts of the world and that water scarcity remains a global challenge, affecting marginalized communities in particular. Despite the men of Denganmal having found an uncanny solution to their water crisis, it’s crucial to remember that resorting to polygamy is not a sustainable answer and violates fundamental human rights. The government must address the root cause of the water crisis, such as climate change and poor water management, and ensure that all citizens can access clean water. Until then, the water wives of Denganmal will continue to bear the burden of their village’s water crisis, and the world will have to confront the uncomfortable truth that progress, in some places, remains elusive.

Andrew s

Andrew has been in the online publishing industry. After receiving his degree in professional journalism from the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, he contributed to multiple websites as a freelance writer and feature editor. Mostly, Andrew tackles controversies and theories that lead to a specific conclusion that either debunk or justify a particular claim. Further, Andrew participates in social developments that aim to simplify every individual's way of life and fight for peace. He is the new Editor-in-Chief of Pressroom Today.

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