Village wells receding into people's memories. A major water crisis lies ahead?

Many decades back, wells were not only chief source of drinking water and irrigation for people, they were also part of the villagers' culture and tradition. However, depleting underground water level seems to be changing all that and the climate change seems to be the biggest culprit

Chandrakant MishraChandrakant Mishra   15 July 2019 8:15 AM GMT

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Village wells receding into peoples memories. A major water crisis lies ahead?

Nearly four decades ago, the village wells were not only the chief source of drinking water and irrigation for people. These were also part of the villagers' culture and tradition. Many wedding ceremonies were organized near the wells. However, depleting underground water level seems to be changing all that. The climate change seems to be the culprit.

"During the wedding ceremony of my younger brother, I had performed many ritual ceremonies near a well. But during my grandchildren's weddings, these ceremonies were performed near a hand pump with wells running dry," said Indravati Devi, a 70-year-old resident of Rakshvapur village at Vikas Khand Pipraich in Gorakhpur.

Hindu ceremonies demanded digging a hole near a well five days before a wedding. "After that, we used to pour water from the well into that hole. The bridegroom was asked to take a bath from that water," Devi recalled.

But now every well in her village has run dry and hand pumps were the only option, she said.

'Wells have run dry'

Like Rakshvapur, there are many villages in the country where the wells have run dry or water is not clean enough for use. Decades ago, the villagers believed that the well water also had medicinal effects and could cure diseases.

In Bihar and elsewhere, the well water also was used for religious festivities and worshipping gods. "My grandmother used to prepare prasad for kharna using well water. Wearing shoes was prohibited near wells. My grandmother used to pull bucketful of water from the well. Times have changed. Hand pumps and tube wells have substituted wells," said Dr Jai Shankar Mishra, a 52-year-old resident of Darbanga.

Historic significance of well water in India

The relevance of digging a well is also mentioned in Matsya Puran. In 3000 BC, during excavation of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, it was inferred that wells were constructed using bricks by people in Sindhu. Wells were also significant and used during the period of Mauryas. In 300 BC, during the kingdom of Chandragupta Maurya, there's an illustration of irrigating crops using water from wells in kautilya.

A survey by the Central Water Resource said that there were 2.6 million wells in 661 districts of our country. These were used to irrigate 12.68 million hectares of land in states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. These wells were more than 70 meters deep.

Water conservation: People need to pull up their socks

Ruthless exploitation of underground water has led to massive drop in water levels in several states. Also, perennial rivers are running dry posing a challenge to efforts towards water conservation. The government has started deepening ponds under the MGNREGA scheme, ignoring wells.

Non-governmental Organizations (NGO) have initiated measures to conserve water by saving these wells. Continuous drop in underground water levels will have a devastating impact on the country's future.

Ruthless exploitation of water in the name of Success

In 1954, the Exploratory Tube wells Organization (ETO) was established under the central agriculture department. For the first time, wells were substituted by tube wells which became the chief source of water supply after 1960.

The government also picked up the tab for tube wells. The ushering of Green Revolution in 1960s led to a sharp rise in demand for water. People started exploiting underground water using tube wells and bore wells.

Earlier, people pulled up a water bucket from a well using a rope. The process was laborious and the villagers didn't take out more water than what they needed. The advent of tube wells saw people pressing electric switches to pump out tons of water. Wasting water in the name of success had an immediate impact on shallow water wells. People started discarding the wells and encroaching the land.

The government negligence also depleted natural water sources.

"If we have to revive wells then we have to revive rivers. Wells will revive if we do not reduce water level of rivers," said KG Vyas, a geologist and member of the Paani Roko Abhiyaan Yojna in Madhya Pradesh.

During 1980s, nearly 10 lakh wells were the only source of irrigation in Bundelkhand, Mahakaushal and Rivanchal regions. The use of wells for irrigation is still prevalent there.

Different wells were allocated for various purposes. Drinking and irrigation for instance. Now, 96% of the wells are unsuitable for drinking water. People have installed hand pumps in their homes. A majority of them are either not in use or run dry, said Sanjay Kumar, the national coordinator of Parmarth Sanstha in BundelKhand.

"However, these can be revived with a small investment," he said.

Increasing industrialization and urbanization have increased the demand for water and reduced its availability per person. According to a survey, there was a demand for 750 billion cubic meters in 2000. It is expected to increase to 1050 BCM by 2025 and 1180 BC by the year 2050.

At the time of India's independence in 1947, the average availability of water per person was 5,000 cubic meters a year. It reduced to 2,000 cubic meters in 2000. By 2050, the water availability per person is expected to reduce to 1,000 cubic meters a year.

The wells built by the government were given to people for use. But they have encroached on the land. "Life will exist with water. People should understand the importance of water. Awareness is the need of hour," said YB Kaushik, a regional instructor at the Central Underground Water Board.


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