The Gender of Caste: Identity, Political Reservations and Access to Water Resources in Rural India

A village councilor’s caste was more salient than their gender in their decisions to determine access to water for low caste communities.


In India, caste discrimination can cause inequitable access to public goods including water, education, and health facilities. According to Hindu tradition, when a lower caste person uses a water source, they could potentially contaminate it, thus contaminating any future use of that water by higher caste individuals. As a result, in some communities, local village councils responsible for water allocation do not invest in providing water pumps in low caste areas. As women are often responsible for collecting water, a distant water source has a significant impact on a woman’s time and her safety. This study aims to understand whether women and low caste individuals serving on village councils improves water access to low caste portions of the community. By taking advantage of a natural experiment in which village councils were randomly assigned to reserve a certain number of council seats for women and individuals from a low caste, this paper examines the impact on households’ access to water and the amount of time allocated by women to this household task in India, as well as the impact on children affected by water-borne disease.


In India, the caste system plays a significant role in the segregation of water resources. Village council reservations for low caste individuals can improve water infrastructure for low caste hamlets.

  • In villages with leadership positions reserved for lower castes, leaders from low castes were more likely than those from high castes to invest in water infrastructure for low caste hamlets, as measured by improvements in the walking and waiting times for low caste women to obtain water. These results did not achieve statistical significance.
  • The reservation of leadership positions for women did not improve low caste women’s access to water.
  • In villages that had a majority of low caste citizens, having a lower caste village council member correlated to a decrease in the time spent collecting water.
  • Political reservations have no impact on water-related diseases or children’s health outcomes.

In short, a leader’s caste affiliation was more significant than a leader’s gender in determining a community’s access to water. Even so, the political reservation system only had an impact if low caste members’ population share is high enough.


The study covers three randomly selected villages in the Birbhum district in West Bengal, India. A survey was conducted between June 2006 and November 2007, collecting data on village characteristics and related spatial distribution of public goods. Household-level data was collected from 15 households per village. The final sample consisted of 13,210 individuals, of which 6,568 were female.

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