Environment
The Manuvaddar (or Bhovi), a traditional well-digging community in Karnataka and other parts of India, are part of the Indian solution for groundwater crisis.

Most countries in the world are dependent on groundwater for almost every water need that human beings have, India, much more than anyone else. In fact, according to S Vishwanath, an advocate of sustainable water management, “India is a groundwater civilisation. We are the world's largest user of groundwater by far.”

But groundwater – much like any other resource at our disposal – is not infinite. In a city like Bengaluru, borewells go as deep as 1500 metres. “Depleting groundwater means farming will be in crisis in urban areas and most importantly, rivers will be in crisis, because as groundwater tables collapse, rivers stop flowing. If India does not learn to manage groundwater learn to replenish groundwater and learn to use groundwater responsibly, the water crisis will continue for a long time,” warns Vishwanath. 

But, there is a solution to the impending crisis: building and maintaining recharge wells and open wells, instead of borewells. There are many differences between an open well and a borewell, including their depth and the way they are built. However, the biggest difference is that – while a borewell can only be used to withdraw water from the ground, an open well can be used to recharge the groundwater as well.

With rainfall deficit in the state, several worrying reports have revealed that Bengaluru will soon run out of water. But the Mannu Vaddars have a solution in the form of open wells.

The Manuvaddar, or Bhovi, is a traditional well-digging community in Karnataka and other parts of the country. V Venkat, who is engaged in the occupation of well-digging in Bengaluru, says, “My grandfather is about 100 years old now. When he was a little boy, he learned this work. He used to build wells. Once my grandfather got old, my father started doing this work. He has been doing it for many years now.”

Ramakrishna, another well-digger who is carrying forward this occupation from his father and grandfather, adds, “Earlier, there was a lot of demand for wells. If someone wanted to build a house, they would first dig a well. They would a pooja, and then build a well.”

But in the last 15 years, people have forgotten the importance of the work that Manuvaddars do. 

Vishwanath points out that there is a notion that water crisis has to be addressed through large-scale investment in infrastructure. “But if we change our imagination to include livelihoods and well-digging, then definitely, the well-diggers will play an important role not only in Bengaluru but across all other cities in India, in augmenting groundwater, bringing up groundwater table and harvesting rainwater. They are part of the Indian solution for groundwater crisis,” he says.

S Vishwanath’s movement, A Million Recharge Wells, is bringing the traditional well diggers back to the fold, giving them livelihood and recharging the groundwater table. Million Recharge Wells has managed to construct and maintain recharge wells and open wells in several parts of the city – including Cubbon Park.

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Here’s the full transcript:

Vishwanath Srikantaiah, water conservationist: “India is a groundwater civilisation. We are the world's largest user of groundwater by far. Groundwater running out means that farming will be in crisis urban areas will be in crisis and most importantly, rivers will be in crisis, because as groundwater tables collapse, rivers stop flowing. If India does not learn to manage groundwater learn to replenish groundwater and learn to use groundwater responsibility, the water crisis will continue for a long time.”

Most countries in the world are dependent on groundwater for pretty much every water need that human beings have… India, much more than anyone else. But groundwater – much like every other resource at our disposal – is not infinite. In a city like Bengaluru, borewells go as deep as 1500 metres – and as a result, we are a generation sucking the earth dry. Sounds ominous? Well, there is a solution to the impending crisis. We need to build and maintain recharge wells and open wells, instead of borewells.

There are many differences between an open well and a borewell, including their depth and the way they are built. However, the biggest difference is that – while a borewell can only be used to withdraw water from the ground, an open well can be used to recharge the groundwater as well.

Vishwanath: “Typically, when it rains in Bengaluru, only 3% to 8% of water enters into the aquifers, which is below the ground, into the groundwater table. This takes a long time to drift down into the borewell. The borewells have gone down to depths of 1,800 feet in Bengaluru. The rate of recharge for borewells is very long,  whereas the rate of recharge for open wells is annual. When we are recharging open wells, we are using annually replenishable water. These recharge wells, take the rainwater, make sure it is not running off or picking up pollutants on its journey, or does not stay in the soil moisture and evapotranspire, but goes down to a depth of 20 feet and travels vertically to fill the shallow unconfined aquifers and become open available as open well water.”

With rainfall deficit in the state, several worrying reports have indicated that it is only a matter of time before Bengaluru runs out of water. But the Mannu Vaddars have a solution to the impending water crisis.

The Manuvaddar, or Bhovi, is a traditional well-digging community in Karnataka and other parts of the country.

Ramakrishna, traditional well-digger: "Since my grandfather's time, we've been doing this well digging work. My grandfather used to do it, after that my father did this work. I learned this from my father and now I'm carrying this forward..."

V Venkat, well-digger: “My grandfather is about 100 years old now. When he was a little boy, he learned this work. He used to build wells. Once my grandfather got old, my father started doing this work. He has been doing it for many years now.”

But in the last 15 years, people have forgotten the importance of the work that Manuvaddars do.

Ramakrishna: "Until some 15-16 years ago, we used to build 2 or 3 or 4 new wells each week. Back then, there was a lot of demand for wells. Everyone wanted a well, and used to commission their building. But now, in the past 15-16 years, very few people want wells. Earlier, if someone wanted to build a house, they would first dig a well. They would do a pooja, and then build a well. Now, there are no wells at all. In a month, we get may be 2 or 3 works, sometimes none. It's become much less now."

S Vishwanath, popularly known as ‘zenrainman’ on the internet is on a mission to change this. His movement, A Million Recharge Wells, is bringing the traditional well diggers back to the fold, giving them livelihood and recharging the groundwater table.

Vishwanath: “We imagine the water crisis to be addressed through large-scale investment in infrastructure. But if we change our imagination to include livelihoods and well-digging, then definitely, the well-diggers will play an important role not only in Bengaluru but across all other cities in India. in augmenting groundwater, bringing up groundwater table and harvesting rainwater. They are part of the Indian solution for groundwater crisis."

Million Recharge Wells has managed to construct and maintain recharge wells and open wells in several parts of the city – including the famous Cubbon Park.

Manjunath N, Project In-charge, Friends of Lake: "In CPR Phase 1, with India Care Foundation, we desilted 7 open wells and connected motors, and arranged for water supply to a sump and water for gardening. In Phase 2, we've completed 34 rainwater harvesting systems. In total, we're going to build 65.” 

It takes almost 15 hours to dig and build a 20 feet deep and 3 feet wide open well. But the end result? Water security for the next few years or even more.

Ramakrishnan: “By using the well water, we can save Cauvery water. For each house, one well will give 1,000 to 2,000 litres of water and that can be used. Like that, if 1,000 people took 3,000 litres of water per day from a well instead of relying on Cauvery water, imagine how much water would be saved!” 

Vishwanath: “The choice is ours: if we want to become a part of the solution or do we continue to be part of the problem. And remember... India is the largest user of groundwater in the world; we need to replenish it.”