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

Many decades back, wells were not only the chief source of drinking water and irrigation but also a part of villagers’ culture and tradition. However, depleting groundwater level is changing all that

Chandrakant Mishra
| Updated: February 19th, 2020

“During the wedding 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 as wells are running dry,” said Indravati Devi, a 70-year-old resident of Rakshvapur village in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.

Nearly four decades ago, village wells were not only the chief source of drinking water and irrigation for people, but they were also a part of villagers’ culture and tradition. Wedding ceremonies were organised near the wells. However, depleting underground water level is changing all that and climate change seems to be the culprit.

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 would be asked to take a bath with that water,” Devi recalled. But, now, every well in her village has run dry and hand pumps are the only option, she said.

According to a survey by the central water resources ministry, there are now about 2.6 million wells in 661 districts in India. These are 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 are more than 70 meters deep.

There are many villages in the country where wells have run dry or water is not fit for use. Decades ago, villagers believed water from such wells possessed medicinal values that could cure diseases.

In Bihar and elsewhere, well water was also used for religious festivities and worshipping gods. “My grandmother used to prepare prasad for kharana (during chhath pooja) using well water. Wearing shoes near wells was prohibited. 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, 52, a resident of Darbanga.

Earlier, nearly 10 lakh wells were the only source of irrigation in Bundelkhand, Mahakaushal and Rivanchal regions

Wells in India have a centuries-old history

Matsya Puran, one of the 18 major puranas, talks about wells. In 3,000 BC, during the excavation of the Harappa and Mohenjo Daro site, it was inferred that people in Sindhu constructed wells using bricks.

Wells were also a significant part of the society during the period of the Mauryas. There is an illustration that shows crops being irrigated with water from wells in Kautilya during the kingdom of Chandragupta Maurya around 300 BC.

Water conservation: People need to pull up their socks

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

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

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

Earlier, people would draw water with a bucket from a well using a rope. The process was laborious and villagers didn’t take more water than needed. The advent of tube wells saw people pressing electric switches to pump out tonnes of water, resulting in a lot of wastage. People started discarding wells and encroaching the land that had them.

During Green Revolution, people started exploiting underground water using tube and bore wells

The government’s negligence has also resulted in the depletion of natural water sources. “If we have to revive wells, then we have to revive rivers. Wells will revive if the water level of rivers does not fall,” said KG Vyas, a geologist and member of the Paani Roko Abhiyaan Yojna in Madhya Pradesh.

In the 1980s, nearly 10 lakh wells were the only source of irrigation in Bundelkhand, Mahakaushal and Rivanchal regions. The wells are still used for irrigation.

The region also had wells allocated specifically for drinking water. But, now, water from 96% of the wells is unsuitable for drinking. People have installed hand pumps in their homes. A majority of the wells are either not in use or have 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 industrialisation and urbanisation have increased the demand for water and reduced its availability per person.

According to a survey, there was a demand for 750 billion cubic metres (BCM) in 2000. It is expected to increase to 1,050 BCM by 2025 and 1,180 BCM 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, it is expected to further reduce to 1,000 cubic meters a year.

“Life will exist only if there is water. People should understand the importance of water. Awareness is the need of the hour,” said YB Kaushik, a regional instructor at the Central Underground Water Board.