Meet the Manuvaddars, the community of well-diggers who work in the shadows of the city’s IT hubs

Monsoon clouds hang thick, and there is the promise of a downpour. Nearby, the Huvinane (Margondanahalli) lake froths silently as hordes of water tankers noisily jostle for space with other vehicles on the narrow roads.

Last year, Bengaluru saw floods, inundation and record rain. But for residents of Fern Meadows, a cluster of 70 houses in Byrathi, on the northern edge of the city abutting on peri-urban villages, massive IT parks and residential complexes, their retirement haven turned barren. For over 20 years, the complex, once surrounded by farm land and plantations, had relied on a network of five borewells for their water. Last year, all but one dried up. Water tankers, sucking water from other borewells kilometres away, became their lifeline.

“There are so many borewells in the area now that our groundwater has completely drained off. We had no other water source and we needed to find a way to revive our borewells,” says Prithvi Devaiah, a member of the colony’s residents’ welfare board. And that’s how Devaiah and the other residents chanced upon their unlikely saviours: Manuvaddars, the community of well-diggers.

Walking along the colony, Peddanna, 37, gauges the inclines. He has been a well-digger for 21 years and has dug nearly 5,000 recharge wells and 800 open wells, Peddanna tells me. He has learnt to “read” the land and its relationship with water.

In the shadows

Peddanna’s team of five work by hand, removing 70 kg of soil at a time, and after reaching a depth that will allow rainwater to filter through or seepage to collect, they lower concrete rings and crushed stone to seal the enclosure. Over 60 such recharge wells are proposed to be dug in the neighbourhood now. In two years, the residents hope the rain will bring the borewells back to life. But Peddanna wants the residents to make the wells their sole source of water. “These wells can easily give 32,000 litres of water daily, even during the summer,” he says.

A city with a population of more than 10 million and which has no water source to call its own, Bengaluru often features at the top of doomsday lists predicting water crises. After all, the quantum of water drawn from the under-dispute Cauvery is reaching a saturation point, while groundwater levels are plummeting, particularly in the large urban swathes where piped water is yet to reach.

Working in the shadows of the city’s IT hubs, the Manuvaddars and their traditional wisdom may hold the key to Bengaluru’s water woes. As more than 4 lakh borewells suck the city dry, a new campaign called ‘A Million Recharge Wells’ hopes to bring the “well” back in the city’s water lexicon.

“Even if you consider small wells (3-feet-wide and 20-foot-deep), they can yield around 500 MLD (million litres per day) for the city, or 25% of the demand,” says Avinash Krishnamurthy, Director and Project Manager for Biome Environmental Trust that is helming the campaign.

There is also a clear ecological benefit: shallow aquifer wells recharge groundwater, while borewells only bring the water up. While high-functioning borewells can retrieve water only at 600 feet or deeper, open wells can give up to 50,000 litres of potable water at just 60 feet. Open wells also share a symbiotic relationship with nearby lakes: one recharging the other when levels dip.

Lost connection

The economics of it is more enticing: open wells give water at less than ₹2 per litre, borewells at ₹9 per litre, and piped water from Cauvery at over ₹25 per litre.

And then, there is water heritage. The city’s demographic has changed, and with it, the emotional connect with tanks and wells, which sustained the city until 50 years ago. “We have to begin creating this connection with the landscape and water heritage and bring it to the contemporary city,” says Krishnamurthy. In pockets of ‘old Bengaluru’, one can still find the attachment. “It is like the Ganga. Without it, we can’t work or survive,” says 65-year-old Muniyappa, a dhobi in Frazer Town, about the open well there that supplies over 40,000 litres of water a day. Many older temples continue to rely on the wells in their backyard.

The campaign is slowly reviving the livelihoods of well-diggers. Three decades ago, nearly all the households in Bhovipalya in rural Bengaluru were engaged in well-digging. As Bengaluru grew, the demand, and space, for wells diminished. “Nobody wanted to build open wells any more. We would walk around town for days and approach houses with disused wells. But convincing the residents of their importance was tough,” says Ramakrishna, who has been in the profession for the past 20 years.

Now, with renewed demand, sometimes as high as three wells a week, about 50 people from Bhovipalya have switched to well-digging full-time. “Each well can employ up to four people and sustain them for a week,” says Ramakrishna.

There is much to do though, particularly on the government’s part. The hope, says Krishnamurthy, is to create a decentralised system of water supply and incentivise recharging, as opposed to the current system that consumes highly subsidised, highly-limited river water.

The Belagavi example

Perhaps, Bengaluru can learn from the impressive turnaround by Belagavi city in Northern Karnataka. The 800-year-old city had its moment of reckoning in 1995, when a drought brought it to the brink. The city, which receives more than 1,500 mm of rain annually and sits on porous soil, had run out of water. Civic officials and citizens turned to an ingenious and quick solution.

They revived the open wells in the city: Congress Well, dug in 1924 to supply water to delegates of the Belgaum Congress Session, and the British-era wells in Veerabhadra Nagar (1908), Shetty Galli (1885) and Math Galli (1883), among others. Today, 23 years later, the 29 revived wells work in tandem with the city’s water supply to quench the thirst of nearly half the city’s populace.

“It has reiterated our faith in the sustainability of water from open wells,” says R.S. Nayak, chief engineer of Belagavi city corporation and the architect of the open well system.

Recently, though, Belagavi seems to be going the Bengaluru way by dreaming up ambitious engineering solutions. Just like the IT city set its sights on the Cauvery in the 60s, Belagavi seeks to bring the Ghataprabha river (some 35 km away) under the ‘smart city project’, forgetting its wells and the solution under its nose.

(Additional reporting by Rishikesh Bahadur Desai in Belagavi.)

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