Doing interviews, coproducing groundwater: tracing the spatial, temporal and vertical (Part 2)

I have organised this article in three parts based on the three key areas of coproduction. Part 1 reflects upon words- words used everyday to describe the topography, the geology, the processes, and practices. Part two focuses on space- space that is not just horizontal but also vertical as we speak about groundwater. This verticality of space urges us to focus on another dimension, a dimension of depth, of thickness, of volume. The third part, that is closely associated and embedded (in some places) with space is that of time. Time is often looked upon as an axis for the past, present and the future, but the verticality of space urges us to look at it within the ground, processes that run across time and within time, occurring simultaneously. 

Sorry, can you say that again

In this first part, I want to draw the attention towards words- words describing groundwater, its understanding, processes, and practices. When I began the interviews, I came across many words which described the landscape and certain characteristics of these landscapes. ‘Raan’ is most used in Osmanabad to describe a land parcel, a farm. I have only encountered Raan in other geographies where it often refers to untended land, forest, etc. For eg. ‘Raan majlay’ was quite common phrase referring to vegetation that grown on land or farms that are not tended or looked after. However, in this field area, raan was used for everything about the landscape- in some places, farm, in some the landscape itself. What was interesting was it was also used to describe the verticality or depth of the landscape with changing rock types or geology while drilling a borewell- ‘raan badalalay’ (raan has changed)

The GSDA and CGWB descriptions of Osmanabad geology commonly use a phrase- ‘moderately dissected plateau’ which can be loosely translated into a description of an undulating topography. This seems to be a peculiar feature of the Deccan Basalt plateau which encompasses more than 80 percent of Maharashtra’s landmass. The GSDA reference manual says that ‘occurrence, storage and movement of groundwater is greatly controlled by morphological set up in Hard Rock terrain.’ Thus, attention to topographical features and its role in shaping water availability (and non), flows, storage and discharge is important. But how is such a moderately dissected plateau brought into everyday discussion. I was first introduced to it through words- words that caught my attention (for I have never heard them before or ignored them for common sense). Many farmers referred to ‘umata’ an upland feature in the watershed, while describing success of sources, duration of water availability in an area. ‘Umata’ were also those farmland parcels wherein water had to be transported through an intricate series of arrangements involving pumps, valves, and pipes. 

The seemingly flat landscape may mislead someone from recognising the relevance of ‘umata’ and ‘jhol’

Other words like lavan (describing the small streams in the area), chaval (a farmland that has peculiar character for water retention- due to its location in the valley area- which again has another word called jhola– opposite of Umata), vapsa (a condition of farm/land when it becomes-or is made suitable for sowing). These words are often associated with a physical/topographical feature, a phenomenon that occurs in the local landscape and thus forms the foundation of knowledge that shapes everyday practices.   

Encountering the water conservation structures in these interviews often meant their association through a particular programme rather than a focus on its properties (like earthen bund or cement bund, weir, bund etc.). For example, I encountered the most common intervention in watershed or water conservation called Cement Nalla Bund (a CNB) through different names and references- in one instance it was a KT Weir (Kolhapur Type Weir), in another it was a Vasant Bandhara (due to its associated with the Vasundhara watershed programme?), while someone pointed out it was a ‘naala bandh’. In such cases, an interview conducted in the farm revealed interesting insights than the same conducted in other settings (room, office etc.). 

Of patta, pokali and percolation

Space forms another dimension in my analysis of these interviews. How space is described and mobilised to draw attention to the processes and practices of groundwater has immense value to pursue such a coproduction of groundwater knowledge. 

While describing Deccan Basalts, the word ‘flows’ (or layer, in some places) is often used to identify rock strata that may be conducive or non-conducive for groundwater accumulation and movement (see this for example). I encountered these flows through ‘patta’ (literally belt) described by farmers as extensive subsurface belt of certain rock type that enables identification and movement of groundwater. It is interesting to note that I encountered ‘patta’ only in descriptions of shallow (or unconfined) aquifers or subsurface. Never I came across the word ‘patta’ to describe a spatial extent in context of deeper subsurface or confined aquifers. While assumptions about such patta did need observations of multiple open dugwells, the relative confidence while making these claims was much higher than the often ‘fate driven’ search for water in deeper spaces of the earth through drilling of borewells. 

Laal Patta (Red Belt/Layer) visible in a dugwell

In other instance, such a loose rock stratum, a stratum that is so porous that is makes it ‘mau’ (soft) in description was also referred as a ‘pokali’ (a vacuum). That groundwater is not available until the beginning of this strata of pokali. While this is not a literal vacuum but is occupied by extremely conducive rock types like the red layer or highly weathered vesicular basalt (mau manjarya), it was useful for bringing our attention to those shifts in imagination accompanied by possibility of groundwater in those spaces. I believe, these patta and pokali describe aquifers in the area that has shaped a collective experience of knowing, locating, and accessing groundwater. 

While discussing borewells, the talk often narrowed down, it moved towards experiences of the sources themselves and no major claims about the subsurface were discussed as seen in case of shallow aquifers. However, a typology of confined aquifers, deeper subsurface groundwater did emerge through those interviews. Through their experiences of drilling borewells and those of others in the village, a classification was brought into notice. It consisted of a Doh system (can be translated, in hydrogeological sense, into a perched aquifer type system) where the borewells did struck water but did not sustain over two or three seasons eventually becoming intermittent. ‘Doh’ means a small pond like water body- usually referred in case of surface water bodies. In other cases, thanks to ones nashib (fate), the borewell struck the jhara or a nasthat ensured a perennial and long-lasting source as compared to a doh. It is interesting to note the shift in describing groundwater in shallow and deeper systems. In shallow, reference to patta meant geological feature (lal gerucha patta) while an extension in deeper systems transformed into the water flow itself (‘panyacha’ jhara or ‘panyachi’ nas) rather than emphasizing the geological feature. This understanding about sources and through them about the subsurface has led to series of practices around borewells like transferring water from them to dugwells, reboring failed borewells, deepening the bore further to improve storage etc. 

Ballestero suggests that thinking about groundwater, thinking about these rock formations ‘require a form of volumetric thinking that is only possible by articulating horizontality and verticality’ (2019). It is here that I bring attention to this verticality of imagination, observation, and practices. In these interviews, verticality was brought into reference through two key points- water levels and depth of sources. While water levels fluctuated, depth was often static- a given character in the drama of groundwater. Though water levels are the most valued ‘data input’ to arrive at groundwater understanding, it was one of the most diversely understood parameter. Asking about ‘paani patali’ meant a variety of things and its context. For example, it was often associated with drought or water scarcity years. It was not seen as something that has progressed over the years (like water level has depleted) but rather something that fluctuates every year. 

The temporality of groundwater

Continuous use of groundwater leads to falling water levels over the years. An observer of data for many decades may easily reach to this conclusion. However, in the process, we miss the intergenerational aspects of such change. What was true for many older people in the village was a fiction for the younger farmers today. That streams in the village flowed even during the summers (little, but did flow), that dug wells needed to be only 25-30 feet deep can only be a fragment of old age imagination. This transformation of rural landscapes over decades has led to a transformation in ways of knowing groundwater, accessing, and using it. 

A newspaper article describing increase in post monsoon water level in the district

In short term-like within few years, this temporality, unlike a linear progression, shifts back and forth across the axis. Water levels, discussed above, are often changing- depleting and recovering, a phenomenon that was associated with series of related events- extraction for irrigation, transfers from deeper aquifers, droughts, rainfall (excess, unseasonal etc.). 

Many farmers complained about sources of groundwater drying up by March marking the beginning of a summer with scarce water supply, intermittent borewells, poorer recovery in dug wells etc. ‘Percolation’ while being a spatial process- movement of water from one point to other, also has a temporal component that is well understood by the users. Instead of taking permits for lift irrigation from tanks, farmers prefer to buy lands near tanks wherein restrictions on extraction during summers are not applied. In comparison, tanks, when they reach dead storage are banned from use for irrigation with confiscation of lifting devices, cutting off electricity supply etc. However, officials cannot restrict the process of percolation which causes water from the tank to percolate in the wells nearby. Thus, temporality of groundwater movement is well understood and mobilised by farmer community. 

Many of us often come across phrases/sentences like ‘our village our water’, ‘not letting any water outside our village’ etc. Farmers, though, in some parts of the watershed must pump out water from wells during the monsoons- a purposeful activity aimed at reducing soil moisture and thus water retention in farms, to ensure crop productivities. When asked if this counters the need for recharging more and more groundwater during and after monsoon on which many government programmes are focused, they suggested the inequities of land properties mandated some to undertake such an activity. The farmers in ‘chaval jameen’ (land prone to water retention) resorted to such an activity. It was a contradiction of sorts that a MGNREGA supported in-situ dugwell recharge programmes aims to do exactly the opposite. This seemingly rebellious act is not seen as one damaging the larger objective of improving groundwater situation in the village by letting off water ‘outside of the watershed or the aquifer’. 


Movement of groundwater is another aspect that I will write sometime soon. The reason is simple- the topic demands its own attention and much of the interventions or strategies for groundwater conservation, recharge and improving access have been shaped around theories and experiences of groundwater movement. Starting with the most basic as to why pumping one well (or not pumping) affects other wells in the vicinity, why most wells are near streams, why naala deepening benefits certain wells and not others, why are horizontal boreholes drilled in the dugwells, why drilling of one borewell leads to failure of other or why increasing borewells in a landscape lead to loss of water from dugwells. There are a lot of tensions, inconsistencies and substantiating examples emerging from pursuing these questions in the interviews, and I hope to write about it in the next blog. 

Doing interviews, coproducing groundwater: tracing the spatial, temporal and vertical (Part 1)

When interview research method meets groundwater

Interviewing is cornerstone of any qualitative research. There are many different approaches to organising and conducting these and I would not go into the details about their typologies as that is not the intention of this article. My key interest here is- what happens when the interview as a research method meets hydrogeology? What happens when interviews themselves and through them enable groundwater understanding? I trace these questions and put down my observations based on my experiences of using un/semi structured interviews during my PhD fieldwork. 

Before I dive in further into the article, I need to highlight that I am no expert when it comes to qualitative research or for that matter using/deploying research tools. Much of what is presented here is through my use of interviews ‘in the field’ and ‘through the process’ of evolving the approach. When I began the fieldwork, much of the discussions were unstructured that evolved into semi-structured method of interviews. However, the linearity as the earlier sentence suggests may not be visible in the process. 

I interviewed farmers, community members, Krushi mitra (agriculture extension officers), Jalsurakshak (water extension officer) and elected members of various village level committees. While I also interviewed scientists, government officials, and practitioners from NGOs as well as subject experts, much of the focus of this article and the emerging understanding is based on my interactions in the villages. I did much of this fieldwork in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra, although I also ventured in other districts a bit like Jalna and Ahmednagar. 

Doing interviews, coproducing groundwater

The reason I describe this as coproduction of groundwater is for two key reasons: as a researcher, I position myself with a background of working in this sector which brings in my own understanding to the field as well as to the process. In turn, this has led to shaping the approach I took for these interviews, the way questions were shaped and organised in the interviews and while conducting the interviews how the responses led to emerging questions which were again shaped by my understanding of the subject and field. Thus, at the outset, I want to shed the image of an ‘objective researcher’ towards the one of an ‘active researchers’ who equally contributed to the coproduction of this understanding presented here. 

Secondly, participant farmers and members of the community engaged with me through a certain notion of my background and identity- a urban, upper caste, researcher doing some research in a faraway university and someone, who possibly, may contribute to some beneficial work in the community/village. Having introduced through an NGO, this further escalated expectations that I did best to address but not quell. Recognising this mutual relationship was important in collectivising understanding of groundwater that led to its coproduction. 

The key contribution I wish to make through this article is to establish an approach that can inform ways of understanding groundwater beyond the ‘techniques of hydrogeology’- to develop understanding of groundwater through qualitative research methods that relies on oral histories, memories (individual and collective), everyday practices, experiential and traditional knowledge. Doing so, I hope it will contribute, through epistemological intervention, a shift from a techno-scientific discourse towards a more grounded and engaging process that values groundwater knowledge making as an everyday process . In doing so, I hope it also quells the dichotomy of indigenous vs modern knowledge, of good vs bad data, of scientific and superstition. 

Experiences across space and time

Like most interview situations, there are certain characteristics that determine the nature of the interview. I identify three: place where the interview is conducted, time of the year when the interview happens, and participant background, although, I think there may be many more. While participants background has been identified as an important criterion while doing and assessing interviews in many other settings, I would like to emphasize on the place and time of interviews from groundwater perspective. 

Water moves, stops, percolates, evaporates and saturates rocks. Water is pumped, contaminated, transported and stored. These things make it important to acknowledge and value the place and time of the interviews. I conducted most of the interview in the farms, near the wells, walking along the farm bunds, near the standing crops. I spoke to some farmers across the watershed, in upstream and downstream areas, near the stream and away from them, in irrigated farms, and in rainfed farms, near storage structures (like percolation tanks, storage tanks), and away from them. I did speak to some in their home, in their kitchen, understanding how water is brought in, or is supplied, how it is stored and used. These proved important as places determined the spaces that groundwater occupies and shapes- its flows, the porous rocks, directions of flow, behaviour of wells, ways of storing it, getting the infrastructure in place etc. 

At the same time, during what time of the year I conducted the interviews also shaped the discussions. While I began the discussions in the field as the summer of 2022 set in, many of the in-depth interviews began with the onset of monsoon. For example, interviews conducted in the summer consisted of observations and experiences during that period of the year- borewells stopping and starting, dug-wells being filled up from borewells, recovery of the well, new borewells being drilled etc. Interviews during the onset of monsoon focused on soil moisture, making land eligible for sowing, percolation from storages into dug-wells etc. Such diverse discussions meant a spectrum of groundwater practices and knowledges being dwelled upon. 

In the next part of the article, I will outline the key learning that has emerged from this experience. I have certain aspects that I have come to focus as I have begun re-hearing these interviews and in the process being transported back to those places and times of the year 2022.