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An Indigenous Community Might Just Rescue Bengaluru From a Water Crisis

The prediction of a parched Bengaluru becoming ‘unlivable’ by 2025 has brought the well-digging Manuvaddar community back in focus.
May 8, 2019, 11:00am

Each morning, Lakshmaiyyah—the gentlest old man I’ve met—makes four 10-minute trips to a lake in Sarjapur town, in Bengaluru, Karnataka, with two buckets in hand. The 75-year-old brings the filled buckets back to water the only native tree in the area—a haladu mara (Haldina cordifolia)—under which his wife lays buried. “Until five years ago, the ground water naturally nourished it,” he says. “But since then, the ground has dried up and if I don’t do this, then the tree my wife lies under will die.”

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Lakshmaiyyah on his daily trips to and from the lake behind his house to fetch water for the tree under which his wife lays.

Lakshmaiyyah belongs to the Mannuvadar community, the traditional well-diggers from Karnataka in India, who have watched in agony as, over the last few years, Bengaluru dried up around them. For generations, this community has been famous for “sniffing out” the best spots to dig for water in Karnataka—their deep understanding of the soil and the bedrock allows them to get an accurate sense of where the water is likely to be closer to the ground. Armed with a sabbal (digging spade), a shallow pail, a steel rod and a rope to test the soil strength, the Mannuvadars have been building the most well-crafted wells in the country. At the moment, Bengaluru is at the peak of summer, and its residents are facing one of the most severe water shortages, especially in newly-developed areas and IT-corridors that were once dotted with open wells, which held water throughout the year. Over the last three years, experts have been urging the government to stand up and take notice of this water crisis, predicting that Bengaluru would be ‘unlivable’ by 2025 if the trend continues.

Until about the 1970s, the Indian landscape was dotted with wells as the main source of water. Since then, the popularity of machine-drilled borewells, that dig deeper and deeper into the surface aquifer, has gone up—almost completely replacing the wells in cities and towns. And the profitability of the Mannuvadars' profession has declined in tandem with the water table.

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When I visit the Mannuvadars on a hot day in April, they greet me with excitement—somebody is interested in the work they believe is going to fix the city. One of the people I encounter is 38-year-old Ramakrishna, a fifth-generation well-digger and one of the most prolific members of one of the Manuvaddar villages in Sarjapur. For the last couple of years, he has been pushing to get the 600-strong community here to ditch the “Uber business”—which many seem to have flocked to—and get them back to the ground. He feels happiest in and around water—jumping into open wells, lakes and ponds constantly. He even steps into a ditch on the road just to create a splash.

Since early 2018, Ramakrishna has been leading his community to partake in a revolution he believes is going to save the water-stressed city, with the only jobs the Manuvaddars thrive at: digging wells. The Million Recharge Wells Project, which was started by urban water activist and campaigner S Vishwanath last year, aims to build, theoretically, “a million wells” that can trap water on the surface—from rains and runoff—and force it back into the ground to rejuvenate the aquifer. And anyone can do this with the right tools. “Once the water is underground, there is no saying where it will come up,” says Ramakrishna. “So, this is an act of sharing water with neighbours and eventually the entire city and state.”

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Ramakrishna (second from right) and his team digging a series of recharge wells at an apartment complex on Kanakapura Road. They keep digging until they hit a rock, going to roughly 20-feet deep, which normally takes a day per well.

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Two men normally descend to the bottom—one digs and the other fills up the tray with mud and rocks.

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The Manuvaddars are extremely proud of the fact that their hands and feet are the same colour as the earth they dig.

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Ramakrishna throws a stone into an open well but would rather jump into it himself as he feels happiest in and around water. He hopes that as people’s attitudes change towards water usage, the profession will pick up enough for them to be able to survive the way he and generations before him did.

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Gullies of Bhovi Palya are strewn with Uber taxis. Younger Manuvaddar men have seen this as an easy option out. The gender dynamics have shifted too—where once most women went out to dig wells, they now get more stability and pay as domestic help or cooks in neighbouring towns.

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Ramakrishna feels the water being pumped up in the one borewell around their village. The first one the government built dried up, but this second one now has enough water for the entire village as well as the neighbouring one. He doesn’t know when this will run out too, though.

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