Of dug-wells and bore-wells

Dug-wells and Bore-wells form important groundwater sources in the hard rock regions of Maharashtra. According to latest minor irrigation census, there are about 25 lakh such sources for irrigation alone. Add to it about 5-6 lakh sources for drinking water needs, the number is well above 3 million sources in rural areas. There are about 28000 Gram Panchayats in the state. So this puts about 107 groundwater sources in each village. Ofcourse let us not allow averages to fool us. This development has been very inconsistent across the state and hence you see villages with about 1000s of these sources while some villages like those in the rustic and rough terrain of Western Ghats, the dense forested areas of Gadchiroli, Gondia and Nandurbar barely have a few of such sources.


The reason that prompted me to write this blog post is the book that I am currently reading. It is titled Charimera, which is a marathi novel written by Sadanand Deshmukh. He was winner of Sahitya Academy Award for his 2004 book called Baromas. Coming from the little represented (in Marathi literature ecosystem) Vibardha region of the state, he brings in a lot of regional context and cultural settings that have shaped the current socio-economic situation in this part of the state. Vidarbha has been constantly in the news of farmer suicides in the region. It has seen one of the highest rate of farmer suicides. This complex but important question is rarely dealt with in Marathi literature and Sadanand Deshmukh through his work, attempts to shed light on some aspects of this problem.

The book starts with a story of a farmer called Udeybhan who is under stress (in the beginning of the story) since his dug-well has reasonably dried up and he has to irrigate his onion crop which would otherwise fail. Given this situation, he plans to drill a bore-well in his farm. That is how the story sets up and immerses the reader in the regional context staring blank at the groundwater and agricultural crisis leading to vulnerable livelihoods.

The story also refers to many events and experiences like how the dug-well used to have a lot of water to pump many years ago, why the adjoining farmer has lot of water for his bore-well but Udeybhan’s bore-well failed to yield water and how banks are unable to provide any more loans and hence he borrows money from a money lender etc. In many ways, this story is representative of what is happening across most of Maharashtra. With dug-wells yielding less water, more and more farmers tend to take bore-wells.

A hydrogeologist will tell you that the dug-well taps a shallow or unconfined aquifer while the bore-well taps a deeper, confined aquifer. That we may yield more water in shallow aquifers than in deeper aquifers. He/She will also tell you how water quality may deteriorate as we go deeper and deeper in search of water. However, there are many other aspects of what attributes and frames do these two distinct groundwater sources shape and inform us about. I am trying to highlight this based on my interactions and understanding about the same.

Traditional vs Modern

One of the oldest dug well recently excavated by the team of archaeologist in Osmanabad suggest the use of these sources of water since ancient times. The said well in Ter in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra is a small diameter, shallow dug-well from the Satvahana period (230 BC to 200 AD) that may have been used for domestic water needs and for conserving groundwater. The traditional nature of dug-wells mean that they have a long history of use, development and eventual deterioration.

With the socio-cultural changes over the years, we have seen a change in groundwater use and the approaches to access this invisible resource. A issue of Bhavatal Magazine in 2018 actually looks at the different types of traditional groundwater sources like Barav, Aad, Vihir etc.

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The book Charimera refers to a past reference when Udeybhan’s dug-well used to yield a lot of water. So much so that sugarcane cultivation was not at all a problem. However over the years the dug-well seemed to have stopped responding to the needs of its owner. One straight claim made by Udeybhan’s colleague is that ever since a bore-well was drilled in the adjoining land the dug-well has stopped yielding water as it used to.

A bore-well in Osmanabad

Bore-wells are modern. They have a history of about 2-3 decades and unlike dug-wells which are large diameter, shallow, bore wells on the other had are small diameter and deeper. The story of introduction of bore-wells in Maharashtra is interesting. The first bore-well rig was brought in early 1970s with help from international organisations like UNICEF to ensure drinking water security across the country. About 330 such drilling rigs worth 33 million dollars were brought into the country. It was only a matter of time that the technology which was brought in to address public water supply issues transformed the groundwater access scenario in the country. What has then ensued is an intense competition of frantic drilling and proliferation of bore-wells across the state. Bore-wells by their very nature (less yield, small scope of irrigation) seem to be more individualistic that dug-wells.

It’s fast and cheaper!

When Udeybhan plans to drill his bore-well he is first grappled with the question of location. Traditionally, there have been people in different communities often called Panadya who would suggest a location for taking up any groundwater source. They use traditional (scientific?) methods of identifying a nas (vein) in the ground that shall yield sufficient quantity of water. However in Udeybhan’s case, he is again led by his farm help who guides his to a certain tree and suggests a location looking at the perennial green foliage of the tree. Thus the location is finalised.

To his unfortunate luck, the first location where bore-well is drilled fails. The description is quite gripping as Sadanand Deshmukh takes us to the location by setting the context of ‘nerve wrecking sound’, ‘the land starting shouting and crying dangerously’, ‘drilling a hole into Mother Earth’ and such phrases to put us into that scene. As people start murmuring about Udeybhan’s bad luck, his wife Bhavanatai comes forward and gives her ornaments to take a loan and drilled at another location. This instantaneous action surprises Udeybhan, but he submits. Bystanders too support this action and lost in all the sounds of confusion, gossip, murmur and utter helplessness Udeybhan makes a rapid decision to drill at another location in his farm. Alas, that one fails too. Now Udeybhan and Bhawanatai stare at a loan, gold ornaments that are mortgaged, a failing onion crop and lack of immediate future.

When the first bore-well is drilled and it fails, Udeybhan’s farm help suggest to construct a dug-well around that place since at shallower depths there was a flow of water that emerged and then subsided as the bore drilled deeper. This suggestion was immediately discarded since it will take at least 2 months time to construct a dug-well and in any which ways it shall not go beyond 60-70 feet. Secondly, it shall be at least 3 to 5 times more costly than a bore-well.

This brings us to an important question when it comes to planning, opportunity and cost. Dug-wells mean advanced planning, they mean meticulous arrangement of funds and it is not ‘seizing an opportune moment’ but actually creating one opportunity. Bore-wells on the other hand can be quite instinctive, urgent or immediate. A bore-well can be set up within a day’s time while dug-wells may need at least one or two months time to be completed set up for use. This means, given a situation of a farmer staring at crop failure, he or she may go for a bore-well than a dug-well. It is cheap, takes less time (and less space too) and can be conveniently drilled, to quote Shakira, whenever, wherever. Dug-wells are no game for such whims and fancies.

Seeing is believing

Unlike dug-wells in whom water can be seen by bare eyes, a simple glance in that pit, bore-wells have a different story. Bore-well water cannot be seen, but can only be felt (by dropping a stone and hearing a noice, or using an electric tape etc.). This brings us to another question of seeing is believing. Dug-wells can be like trustworthy friends, who may not be able to help you all the time, but are there to be seen, to be around, someone you can count on. Bore-wells on the other hand are like those long lost friends, who may come to your help (to your surprise) or may not turn around and this should not surprise you!

There are a few descriptions in Charimera when Udeybhan looks into his dug-well and can only see darkness and a cavity that reminds you of a past that may have been quite interesting. This has a very humane and spiritual connotation, like that phrase looking into one’s owe self and see the darkness within. May be this is one of the reason why dug-wells have long been associated with horrors of the past. They are a gateway of reminiscence of a past long gone, but only comes back to us in the present to haunt us. A Marathi movie that came in about few years back title Vihir (dug-well) was one such attempt to link the philosophical aspects of dug-wells existence. Dug-wells, in one sense, give visibility or a sense of existence to groundwater that is quite invisible and hidden in its nature. They help bring groundwater into the realm of consciousness, if one may say so!

Vihir - Wikipedia

Bore-wells, a relatively recent phenomena are on the other hand quite opposite. They help keep groundwater invisible, are entities that cannot be trusted. This is somehow also reflected in the fact that many farmers with farm ponds prefer to pump out bore-well water into these ponds as the water transcends from deep seated aquifers to surface structures. There are regular news articles and media coverage of events about little children falling into these bore-wells and being trapped, with a huge operation involving multiple agencies attempting to retrieve them! News articles have termed them as ‘Killer‘ for this reason.

In Charimera, the author in a very subtle way makes a comment on the tight and often inseparable connection between land rights and groundwater. This aptly comes out through a reference to recent past when Udeybhan sold a piece of his farm land to an influential farmer/person in their village referred to as ‘KD’. When Udeybhan sold his farm, KD immediately drilled a bore-well in that farm and was able to yield good amount of water, which as per Udeybhan and his farm help was enough to make their old dug-well dry and helpless. There is no way to address this challenge and arriving at collective choices when it comes to groundwater management. Bore-wells, if one has to give an analogy of physchology, are subconscious entities, those who are present but not explicit, something, some being whose presence cannot be denied but also difficult be described!

As we go forward into the future, the deeds of the past and present shall come back to haunt us just as this apt description of what can a ‘dug-well’ mean on the back cover of a book from another Marathi novel called Danshkal by Hrushikesh Gupte (the book is too gripping, by the way). A simple translation (in my capacity) is: ‘There is darkness in the well. If you glance into it, you may feel dizzy. There can be anything in that darkness. Anything means anything. But what that anything is, cannot be understood unless one gets down into the well.’ The author then goes on to tell how well has all the answers, to questions that one may come across, and even to those which one won’t!

Disclaimer: This post contents reference to narrative from the book Charimera by Sadanand Deshmukh. So, I want to thank him and for his book to have enabled to express myself and my thoughts on this.

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