All’s not well since the borewells took over

By Sahastrarashmi

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

~ Seamus Heaney

An old water well in Rae Bareli, Uttar PradeshI vividly remember the first time a borewell was dug in our fields. It involved a manual dig to locate water and then began the long and back-breaking effort to create the deep shaft, all the time praying that the initial promise of water at the site held. We watched with bated breath as the final few feet were dug. The final tense moments that led to a clear stream of water. And whoops of joy. The hole in the land's heart held promise of ending our dependence on the fickle canals (at the mercy of government officials) and the unbelievably arduous and slow process of well-based irrigation (which was of limited help anyway). More so, we secretly nursed the hope of never-ending splashes in the thick cool jet of water which the pump would coax out of the earth's bosom — an untiring mechanical elephant. It was a gift — revitalizing, and allowing of endless indulgence.

Pulleys of a hand-drawn water well in northern IndiaLittle did I realise then that I was witnessing the end of an era. It was a time when after the Green Revolution, the largely manual system of farming was on its way out and was being replaced by mechanical and power-based infrastructure, which was far most efficient but which also, as we were to learn later, exploited the land and encouraged waste. It was slower to reach rural Uttar Pradesh but change was inevitable.

A neglected water well in Rae Bareli, Uttar PradeshFor centuries the wells were part of our life, culture and folklore: The evil but foolish lion duped into jumping at its own image reflected in a well; the weary traveler who always took a restful sleep after drinking its sweet water; ghosts who preferred to reside in them and emerged to startle the protagonist; enemies dispatched and flung into them; places named after special wells (small towns still carry names like Lal Kuan, Bada Kuan) and most important, digging a well was regarded as great punya — karmic merit earned from the doing of good deeds.

A water well in Uttar Pradesh, IndiaThey also mysteriously connected faraway water sources — as in, the water of a holy river would emerge in a temple well far away. A few were entrances to tunnels (real and imagined) and associated with fortuitous escapes. Every village had a horror story of kids falling into wells, sometimes true but often manufactured to discourage excessive curiosity and peeping. The landscape was dotted with fascinating wells, which to a child offered a never-ending source of adventure, both real and imagined.

From my childhood, I remember a well into which a cannon, guns and battle-gear were supposedly dumped after the unsuccessful Mutiny of 1857, supposedly to escape British reprisal. We spent hours peering through the overgrown thickets around it (it was in disuse even back then) hoping to spot the cannon. We did sometimes find canon shot pellets, which confirmed the myth as far as we were concerned. Another had a turtle living in it. I could never figure how it managed to get in the well in the first place but it did stay a long time. Every summer vacation I would go to the well and peep in. It would be there. It probably survived on the leaves of the overhanging banyan tree but I could only guess. It was mostly still, stoic and definitely alone.

Two years ago I went back to the well after a gap of many years. It was dry. The turtle was absent. The soil on one side of the well had caved in, creating a huge subduction zone. It had probably left the well through a passage through this cave-in. But again, I can only surmise.

As borewells took over, wells were pushed into the shadows. Ironically, they were all over — in village squares, backyards, by roadsides, in orchards and amidst fields — but to the people they were lost in plain sight. As trees took root in the plaster cracks they were overgrown and became physically and metaphorically invisible. They died out quietly, without fuss, unnoticed.

Ornamental detail on the wall of a water well in northern IndiaThe promise of endless water failed to materialize. The power situation was dire from the start (a single connection was enough to tick-mark the rural electrification target) and continues to be so. Soon people woke to the rude reality that once your neighbor gets a borewell, the output dropped. As they multiplied certain borewells were prone to drying up. The water table was fast plummeting and the capacity to pump out infinite volumes of water proved a mirage. As wells dried up people were forced to queue up and pay the owners of deep borewells for irrigation. Since power was limited (and often supplied at night) it was back to late night watches on the farm. Business as usual.

Sahastrarashmi spent his boyhood in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh and graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Though an IT professional by occupation, he prefers to be defined by his preoccupations: he is a consummate traveler, trekker, nature lover, art aficionado, photographer and writer. He writes on nature, trees, birds and muses on evolution at The Green Ogre

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