Beginning of the fieldwork: Sites of encounters
With an aim to investigate the meaning of ‘participation’ that the local people, the development practitioners and other relevant actors hold about development projects implemented with the spirits of ‘community based natural resource management’ (hereafter CBNRM) I chose community based water management as my research issue. In initially decided to do my fieldwork at Padmapukur union under Shyamnagar Upazila of Satkhira district of Khulna Division of Bangladesh. Shyamnagar is a coastal Southwestern most sub-district of Bangladesh where people remain desperate for ‘fresh drinking water’ all the year round. Instead of ‘safe drinking water’ I had to write ‘fresh drinking water’ as the ground water in this region has become vulnerable to salinity and people are mainly concerned with organizing water sources for ‘fresh drinking water’ first which doesn’t taste salty.
During the beginning of the third week of January 2021 I went to Padmapukur to gain an overall idea of the union and to find a suitable place to stay so that I could commence my fieldwork there. However, as the central aim of my research is to collect and interpret the multiple layers of meaning people attach to ‘participation’ while organizing and maintaining a CBNRM based fresh water management project, I started to look for such initiatives which I thought should have been there in plenty. However, my assumption was found mostly wrong as it was seen that in Padmapukur fresh water management has taken a more individualized form with the introduction of household based rainwater harvesting initiated by the government and non-government agencies. Rooftop of every household is used here as a catchment point from where rainwater in the rainy season runs down through a plastic pipe and is collected in plastic tanks for year round drinking purpose. Some NGO’s, within the limit of their capacity, donate the necessary equipments to the poor households while some other NGO’s provide these on micro-credit terms and conditions. This individualized approach runs contrary to the community approach and hence doesn’t fall within the purview of the central aim of my research.
As a result, I kept my search for a location where people are predominantly dependent on community managed fresh water sources and I came across some unions like Moutola, Bhurulia where pond sand filter (hereafter PSF) stands for the main source of fresh drinking water. PSFs are built at the bank of ponds which require community participation to ensure regular maintenance and repair. Considering the community cooperative nature of PSFs I have eventually decided to conduct my intensive ethnographic fieldwork at Bhurulia union since in comparison to Moutola, Bhurulia is a bit closer to the Shyamnagar sub-district headquarter. This proximity to sub-district headquarter seemed important to me as my initial stakeholder identification came up with actors who hold their offices in the sub-district headquarter and hence are available there. Moreover, while just roaming around these two unions and mingling with local people I luckily found a household at Bhurulia ready to facilitate my accommodation while doing my year long fieldwork.
Soon after finalizing the field site I paid attention to build rapport with the local people, tried to make them aware of the purpose of my research and reason for me to stay there for a prolonged period. It took me quite a few days to convey my message clearly. Because, the moment they came to know my interest in fresh water management system they readily considered me as someone either from the GOs or NGOs and hence a potential actor who has the authority to install more PSFs in the locality and/or who can bring more water centered projects and/or who can be a good source of micro-credit or any other incentives. ‘Projectification’ has become so dominant an idea in the area that I began to think the extent of the connection between the dynamics of community participation and the facilitation of projects by the GOs and NGOs. I guess an in-depth search of this connection will cover a wide part of my research.
Since this is just the beginning of my fieldwork, I have adopted Fetterman’s (1998) ‘big-net’ approach that suggests mingling with everybody in the field. I, accordingly, tried to get familiar with everybody who was accessible and had willingness to share their time with me. As a male, I found it comparatively easier to mingle with the menfolk of the union. Local tea stalls at bazaar, especially in the morning and evening, are treated as good meeting places where people discuss many different issues. These tea stalls are the organically facilitating spots where informal chatting groups are spontaneously formed without any prior plan and agenda. These informal chatting forums are locally called as ‘adda’ and good source of information about the demographic compositions, occupational patterns, educational scenario, internal politics, local conflicts and factions, religious contours and rituals, problems and prospects connected to the well-being of the local people. I have already made some regular ‘adda’ mates who are generous enough to help me in every possible way to get my research done. In one of those addas in approached them to tell me the location of the PSFs, both functioning and non-functioning, in the union. With their information and participation, I could persuade them to draw a social map indicating the locations of all PSFs that the union has. The social map has been further verified in some other addas held with some other people. Moreover, I personally walked around the entire union along with some local people1 and found the social mapping correctly pointed out the location of PSFs. However, I have not yet succeeded to make any significant rapport with the womenfolk though they seemed to be the most important actors while the issues of PSFs are concerned. The only woman with whom I have become most familiar with is the wife of the household head who has given me a place to stay in his house.
Of all the ponds that have PSFs at their banks, I have found one particular pond very interesting to begin my investigation with. This pond is situated at ward no.1 of Bhurulia union, very near to the local bazaar. This pond has three PSFs at three corners of the pond. Two of them had been installed by two different NGOs and water from these PSFs are collected by pumping manually operated tube-wells attached to the elevated water reservoir where pond water comes through a filter bed and people collect purified water from the taps attached to the lower end of the reservoir. The other one is almost the same except that water here is pumped from the pond with the help of a electricity run water motor and there is a solar panel that produces necessary electricity to operate the motor. This one had been installed by the Department of Public Health (DPH) which is a government organization and administratively responsible to ensure safe drinking water for the country’s population. Due to the availability of three PSFs in one pond many women gather here to collect fresh drinking water. While collecting water women love to get involved in informal chatting with each other. These informal chatting among the womenfolk seemed to be a very rich source of information and observation. I hope during my next visit in February, 2021 I will be able to make rapport, rudimentary though, with the women who come to collect water from this pond. This pond also seems to be a good case of competing interests among three different organizations who are trying to make their niche by establishing their own ways of water governance and regulations.
Taking the above mentioned pond as the starting research locale, I have made an ethnographic survey by formulating an idea of ‘end user radius’. Talking with the people who come to collect water from these three PSFs, I have made an attempt to find the farthest households that use the PSFs. Afterwards, an ethnographic survey had been conducted covering this radius to know better about the local people and their socio-economic conditions. One research assistant who accompanied me from Dhaka and two local research assistants, who had been given a short training on administering ethnographic survey questionnaire, went door to door to collect data. Along with the research assistant, I also took part in conducting the ethnographic survey. The survey is yet to be finished as the radius is considerably large and consists of a great number of households. I am hopeful to complete the survey at the beginning of my next stay in February, 2021. These ethnographic survey questionnaires will help me to identify different categories of people and to select suitable respondents from those categories. As soon as the selection of respondents is done in-depth informal addas will be held with them with an aim to collect narratives regarding their views on water crisis, community management of PSFs, gender dimensions, GO and NGO intervention and many so on.