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Water Crisis
Prakasam is one among the nine drought-prone districts in Andhra Pradesh. Officials say if rains fail this year, the last of the borewells in the district will dry up.
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Endruri Yellaiah was once a rich farmer with 20-acre farmland at Ramasamudram village at Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh. These days he works as a migrant labourer at nearby villages earning Rs 100 per day and across districts as an agricultural labourer picking chillies. He still owns his 20 acres of land but gave up farming after the last of his four borewells dried up. His energy is now spent on repaying the Rs 2 lakh he had taken from a moneylender to dig the last borewell.

"The last borewell was a dud, there was no water even at 1,000 metres depth," the former farmer says.

Across the 56 mandals under the Prakasam district, borewells appear to dot the landscape, some located barely centimetres away from the other. Prakasam is one among the nine drought-affected districts in Andhra Pradesh, with a 58% deficient rainfall and a 47.19% drop in groundwater. Despite the drop in groundwater level in the district, the state government through incentives and schemes have encouraged haphazard digging of borewells across the district and across the state.

Five years ago when the Ramasamudram lake dried up, the villagers attempted to cultivate paddy and cotton on the lake bed. They dug over 20 borewells for the purpose, but the crops failed when the borewells on the lake bed also dried up. Dead crop in fields with dried up borewells is now a common sight across Prakasam district.

At Ramasamudram, which comes under Tripuranthakam mandal, villagers estimate that over the years, 1,000 borewells have been dug in and around the village. Only 10 of them have water now. The officials on the other hand estimate that the mandal with 16 villages could together have "roughly 2,000 borewells with perhaps 20% of them still functional".

Officials at the Watershed department under the Rural Development Department said that the actual number of borewells in the district is much higher than the official records, as farmers often do not inform state government officials when they dig borewells.

Almost all villages in the district now rely on tankers for their water, sourced from a few agricultural and private borewells. The water tankers are hired on contract by the state government and paid using World Bank funds.

"Prakasam district received Rs 100 crore from the World Bank that was divided equally among the mandals. This approach by the state government is wrong, the funds should have been spent based on the need for the area," according to a senior official with the Watershed Department.

Borewell policy

75-year-old Bangaru Reddy recalls working under the National Food for Work Programme undertaken in the early 2000s when he and other villagers closed up all of their open wells. The fifth census for Minor Irrigation Schemes 2017 recorded a decline of 67% in open borewells in Prakasam district alone.

"We had closed three open wells here 10 years ago and used that piece of land for cultivating," says Reddy, who has given up farming and is looking after his grandchildren. The children's parents have migrated to Guntur for agricultural labour work. "About 1,500 people from this village have migrated and will return in a few months. Our biggest problem is that it hasn't rained here properly in the last five years," he adds.

In 2011, the state government launched the Indira Jala Prabha scheme to dig borewells in 10 lakh acres belonging to five lakh BPL families of SC and ST communities to provide a permanent solution to their livelihood problem.

The same year the NTR Jala Siri scheme was also launched that incentivised digging borewells, and using sprinklers and drip irrigation systems that are solar-powered.

At many fields in Prakasam, the pipes for the drip irrigation have been bundled together and remain neglected as none of the borewells has water. Apart from the state government schemes, the Members of Parliament from the state have together recommended over 1,416 borewells under MPLADS. The number could be much higher as data on PRS is not up-to-date.

"There is no scientific way of doing things here. There is political interference at many levels. The farmers approach the MPs directly and get funds thought MPLADS. Our department doesn’t have geologists nor are there enough geologists with the water board," says the official, adding that "some farmers take the service of priests who predict water sources using unscientific methods such as using a coconut. The borewell is dug where the priest drops the coconut," the official says, laughing.

Hope

Farmers at Yeragondapalam and Tripuranthakam, like the rest of the district, have all their hopes pinned on the Veligonda irrigation project to save them from the water crisis. The project was designed to provide Krishna river water to the drought-prone parts of Prakasam, Nellore and Kadapa districts. But it has been marred by frequent delays and is expected to take another year to complete.

The project aims to draw 43.58 tmcft of flood water from the Srisailam reservoir to irrigate 4.26 lakh acres of land and also provide drinking water to over 15.20 lakh people in 30 mandals across the three districts. But the project has been facing construction delays.

The official says, "Even the one-year timeline is highly optimistic. The present borewells that provide water to the people at Yeragondapalam mandal will last only till June or July if it does not rain this year. There is no other source of water here. The situation here at Prakasam is about to go from worse to worst in the coming months.”