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.”
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.
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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