Well diggers tackling water woes in a megacity: The case of Bangalore, India

by Dennis Schüpf

Bangalore was once called the city of lakes. In recent years not only has it been called the city of burning lakes due to dumping of toxic waste in the lakes, but also predictions show that severe water crisis will turn the city uninhabitable by 2025. Despite this, the overexploitation of groundwater and its socio-ecological consequences are overlooked by policy makers and users alike. The Mannu Vaddar community, with their traditional well-digging skills, can improve the urban resilience against water scarcity and offer a solution towards the shrinking groundwater levels of the booming city. 

This essay presents a glimpse into the water woes of one of Asia’s fastest growing cities, dubbed as India’s Silicon Valley, with a perspective on groundwater. It thereby seeks to highlight the interconnectedness of the urban and rural space by addressing traditional well-digging in the context of sustainable water management. A photographic documentary is added to witness the work of the Mannu Vaddar. Even though Bangalore might seem to be an isolated case, it is only one tiny piece of the whole struggle to cope with an exploitation driven growth agenda, demographically as well as economically, incompatible with finite resources. 

Historically, Bangalore was once considered a city of lakes with 285 lakes until hit by reckless urbanization fueled by the ever-growing IT industry. In comparison to the Bangalore of ten years ago, almost half of the lakes have dried up and been taken over as new spaces for modern settlements. The lakes which were originally made for irrigation helped to recharge groundwater levels. The metropolis does not lack rainfall at all, with about 972mm of average annual precipitation during April and November and around 60 rainy days in a year. The crucial point here is the city’s inability to make the rainwater percolate back into the ground. Unfortunately, an immense amount of rainwater that could recharge the aquifers, instead flows down the buildings and roads of Bangalore, which became a concrete jungle over the years. It is estimated that 93% of the city has been paved.

Bangalore’s water lifeline is the Cauvery river located 100km south of the city. The river supplies nearly 1,900 million liters of water on a daily basis for a growing population of around 13 million citizens. Nevertheless, about 3 million people struggle to access the municipal water supply especially during the severe dry months. As construction continues at an alarming pace, there is no assurance of either drinking water provision or other basic amenities in new building complexes. Consequently, the number of private borewells increased especially in the more populous periphery of the city, which is mainly suspended from the municipal water supply system. Groundwater, accessed through the digging of borewells, became the primary source of water for rapidly growing districts in the periphery and some parts completely depend on it already. At least 40% of the current total water demand of Bangalore is met by groundwater resources. But as the demand for groundwater increases borewells must dig deeper, since the water levels shrink to zero. In addition, there is no data to keep track of the number of borewells. It is estimated that the amount of borewells lies above 400 000 with a lot of wells that have already dried out. 

At the moment, Bangalore tackles its water scarcity with (private) tankers that supply water often at a high price and with a questionable water quality. In many areas of Bangalore groundwater is contaminated by industrial pollution, sewage, and high nitrate levels. But millions of citizens heavily rely on the truck delivered water. In conclusion, the mentioned dynamics contribute to a large extent to the depletion of groundwater and easily result in political conflicts with residents competing over access to the dwindling resource.

In this context where the (ground)water crisis makes the social consequences exceed the environmental costs; it is time to shift the focus from the urban to the rural landscape. Not even 50km away from Bangalore, quite on the outskirts of the megacity, live the Mannu Vaddar, a community of well-diggers, that traditionally provided people with the access to groundwater. For generations, the Mannu Vaddar are the keepers of the knowledge of how and where to dig wells. The tradition of well-digger communities in India, as well as the cultural well heritage, can be traced back more than 1000 years. Back then the first open wells allowed humans to explore inland away from the dependency on rivers and other water resources. However, in the early 1980s Cauvery water supply along with borewells replaced the culture of open wells in Bangalore, which at that time had been the main source of drinking water. 

This shift towards modern water management allowed the city to expand geographically, as well as economically, since more water was pumped. But the dramatic drop of overall water levels in the region in the past years has led to a corresponding decline in the demand for well-digging. In the current situation people are in a rush to dig deeper borewells to extract the last bits of water from the aquifers with mechanic pumps. The human-environmental gap widens and the disconnect between urban spaces and their water flows intensifies.

How could the revival of traditional well-digging contribute to solve Bangalore’s water woes?

The ability of the Mannu Vaddar comes into play exactly where Bangalore’s capacity to store rainwater ends. The low water levels correlate with too much concrete jungle, hence the fact that there is not enough rainwater percolating back into the ground. This is where the well-diggers enter the arena of urban water management. Wells, dug in the right location, can recharge the groundwater levels by connecting them to the shallow aquifers. These aquifers are an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock through which water can be stored in the ground. Hence, the Mannu Vaddar help to make water move through these different types of rocks and soil, which is crucial to tackle the depletion of groundwater resources.

Therefore, the Mannu Vaddar’s skill comprises more than mere physical labor. It includes the crucial knowledge on soil types, rocky layers, and other traits of the region’s aquifers to successfully strike water. ‘We feel and smell it in the soil’, says Venkatesh a 23 years old well-digger, who belongs to the Mannu Vaddar community. Mannu literally means soil. There is no doubt that their craft requires a deep knowledge and sensitivity to work the natural element. It is physical work combined with the human senses that make them reach the natural source of water under the surface. The technique and knowledge are passed on across generations when the young well-diggers work alongside with skilled elders. 

Pedhanna (52), an experienced member of the Mannu Vaddar, has been digging more than 3000 wells in his life. His son, Venkatesh (23), surpassed the sheer number of 1000 by the age of 23. Many young well-diggers do not seek for labor or a career in the metropolis, even though the constant fear for jobs is present. During the week, the Mannu Vaddar migrate from the rural outskirts to the city to look for work by knocking at the doors from house to house. Although the job opportunities today lie within Bangalore many young men still appreciate the natural surroundings of the village and prefer this way of life from the urban hustle.  

Their work is done by hand and with simple tools. With nothing but shovels and metal skewers the well is dug deep into the earth by one Mannu Vaddar. When the soil is softened by the skewer, two well-diggers pull it up with a bucket attached to two thick ropes. This process takes place even under hot climatic conditions. The Mannu Vaddar know very well when they are about to strike water. The smell of the soil and its consistency changes and when it lumps, the well-diggers can be sure that they reached for the edge of a shallow aquifer. Just a few centimeters deeper and water will fill up the dug pit. However, the security and the insurance of the well-diggers is poor, regarding the risk climbing up and down inside the wells. 

Unlike the extractive borewells, the wells of the Mannu Vaddar are not narrow, but open with the ability to recharge and access the higher aquifers. The aquifers in turn can fill up rapidly under Bangalore’s rich precipitation. The so-called recharge wells, typically 20ft. deep with 3 diameters, collect rainwater and revive the shallow aquifer. Apart from well-digging the Mannu Vaddar community is cleaning and  maintaining all types of wells across Bangalore. The input of the well-diggers supports the creation of a river below us in areas with aquifers in the city.

Coming back to the bigger picture the linkage between the overexploitation of groundwater and the recharge of the aquifers is fundamental to cope with Bangalore’s water woes. By law groundwater rights are attached to the land, so that the owners can extract as much water as desired without limitations. Apart from the right institutional response, wells, not borewells, can play a crucial role in the rejuvenation process of groundwater. An interview with a young well-digger makes it clear how the change in demand of work goes hand in hand with the water crisis in Bangalore. As the demand for typical open wells declined over the past years, recharge wells became increasingly important, since its owners want to recharge the borewells that already ran dry. 

In this context the Mannu Vaddar can play a crucial role towards rainwater harvesting and water self-sufficiency. The city’s capability to make the water percolate to the ground is crucial for a sustainable water management in the long run and the Mannu Vaddar bear the ancient knowledge to move towards this goal. 

Dennis Schüpf is a Master student in International Development studies with a focus on socio-environmental conflicts related to water resources. Based in Germany, his work as a documentary photographer spans from urban to rural perspectives on environmental and social issues with an emphasis on the stories of people. 

Hydro power projects as a resource curse

Indian Buddhist monks and nuns attend a special prayer session 'Avalokesteshvara Initiation' with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama at Yid-Gha-Choezin in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh state, on November 10, 2009. The Dalai Lama held a mass audience with tens of thousands of devotees on a "non-political" visit to a region near India's border with Tibet that has drawn shrill protests from China. AFP PHOTO/Diptendu DUTTA (Photo credit should read DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Buddhist monks and nuns attend a prayer session with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in Tawang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh state, on November 10, 2009.  Source: AFP PHOTO/Diptendu Dutta.

by Soumik Dutta

On May 2nd, 2016, two people, including a Buddhist monk, were killed when police fired at a crowd of protestors in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state bordering China—injuring ten others. The protest was sparked by the arrest of Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk active against mega power projects in the Tawang district.

Anti-dam protesters in Arunachal include various student bodies, environmental groups, and civil society organisations. This January, hundreds of Buddhist lamas joined protests in Tawang, a smaller district in the province, to say no to large dams in the ecologically, culturally and strategically sensitive area. Various Indian national level media outlets reported the Tawang protests, and people’s Facebook news feeds were abuzz with the Tawang firing.

At the root of the protests are changes to India’s energy policies, said to be crucial for the country’s economic development. India’s National Hydro Power Policy of 2008 had identified a total capacity potential of 1, 48,701 MW of hydropower in the country, of which 50,328 MW was in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Of these, the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydro project 80% of the construction of which has been completed has been stuck since December 2012 following massive protests in downstream Assam.

At the root of the protests are changes to India’s energy policies, said to be crucial for the country’s economic development.

The Arunachal Pradesh government has signed several Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with various companies for over 100 big and small hydropower projects in the state, and 13 of these with a total installed capacity of 2791.90 Mega Watts (MW) are in Tawang. The abundance of rivers in the Himalayas and the nation’s ever-growing demand for power propelled the government of India to envision a national hydro power policy that would exploit the vast hydro power resources of Himalayan states like Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh.

Energy is crucial to the economic development needs of every nation. Hydro power, which was considered clean energy with very negligible impact, has however turned out to be quite the opposite. Often, projects have socio-cultural impacts on communities dependent on the river and often have disastrous environmental results. In many cases, the myth about hydropower being cleanest and safest is turning out to be untrue. Human lust for more economic development and the consequent need for more power has created a situation where water, the most abundant natural resource, has become a bane—a resource curse.

The Arunachal firing is a case in point. Many other states in India have witnessed similar protests and ruthless oppression by the government. In fact, when it comes to hydro power projects globally, a politician-corporate development nexus that results in the oppression of civil protests has become a common scenario. International organizations, politicians, investors, and developers are uniting to participate in the systematic plunder of the most abundant natural resource, water, in the garb of economic and sustainable development of nations.

 

Sustainable energy or environmental conflict?

Hydro power is often put forward as a clean, sustainable form of energy. In the case of India’s Himalayan states, there are both public and private benefits. Apart from the incentive of generating revenues from sale of hydro power, the certified carbon reductions (CERs) from the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has worked as a strong factor for both the private project developers and the government for pursuing hydro power projects.

But NGOs like the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF) are of the opinion that these proposed and upcoming hydro power projects would adversely impact the fragile Eastern Himalayan ecosystem, which is also a seismically vulnerable zone that has experienced several major earthquakes over the past few decades.

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Source: SANDRP

On April 7th, in response to a petition filed in 2012 by the SMRF, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environment clearance granted by the Indian environment ministry for the $64 billion Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in Tawang’s Zemingthang area. The NGT asked for new impact assessment studies and public hearings for local people.

The NGT also noted that the project promoted by the steel conglomerate LNJ Bhilwara Group did not consider its impact on the habitat of the endangered black-necked crane, which is endemic to the region. The bird is rated “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species and is listed in schedule 1 in India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.

The black-necked crane also has significant cultural value to communities in the region. “We connect it with the sixth Dalai Lama who was from Tawang,” said Lama Lobsang Gyatso, the general secretary of SMRF, speaking to Uneven Earth. “He wrote poems on the bird. Apart from local sentiments, the bird has been labelled endangered by law. The Bombay Natural History Society selected Zemingthang [an area within Tawang] as an important bird area for this reason.”

As a result of its activities, the SMRF became unpopular with the government, which branded it as anti-development, leading to the subsequent arrest of its leader and the police firing.

As a result of its activities, the SMRF became unpopular with the government, which branded it as anti-development, leading to the subsequent arrest of its leader and the police firing. Undaunted, after his release on bail, Gyatso’s SMRF, along with another NGO, 302 Action Committee, submitted a memorandum to the deputy commissioner of Tawang demanding a probe by central bureau of investigation(CBI) New Delhi into the May 2nd killing at Tawang. The state government had constituted a magisterial inquiry and suspended several police officers involved in the incident.

Gyatso and his associates reiterated that if CBI investigation into the incident is not done, they will resort to demonstrations in front of the United Nations office New Delhi, apart from protest rallies in Itanagar and Tawang.

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Affected Citizens of Teesta raising awareness against the dam projects on the Teesta river in Sikkim, another northern state. Source: ACT.

Cultural genocide: Sacred Buddhist River in peril in Sikkim

Protests against hydro power projects across India are not new. In Sikkim, communities have been protesting against the Rathong Chu hydropower projects since the mid-nineties, when the Sikkim Democratic Front Party (SDF) government, under Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, had decided to go ahead with a proposed 30 MW hydropower project on the Rathong Chu river, despite tremendous pressure against it, mainly on religious grounds.

Rathong Chu is considered to be a ‘sacred’ river according to Neysol and Neyig Buddhist texts, the water of which is used even today for an annual Buddhist festival – Bum Chu, at the Tashiding Monastery. This has been an important Buddhist tradition since the time of the erstwhile Chogyals (Kings) of Sikkim from the Namgyal dynasty.

Eventually in 1997, under scathing criticism of infringement on cultural and religious rights of Buddhist minorities, the Chamling government decided to scrap the project. Ironically, the same Chamling-led SDF government allotted another project on the Rathong Chu river, a little further downstream, in the year 2006. In fact, the project capacity now was enhanced from 30 MW to 97 MW! While the earlier project was called the Rathong Chu HEP project, it was now rechristened the Tashiding Hydro Power Project.

“We will not stop until we are able to stop attacks on Buddhist religious sites in the name of development.” -Tseten Tashi Bhutia, of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee.

But local groups continue to fight against these proposals. “We will not stop until we are able to stop attacks on Buddhist religious sites in the name of development”, said Tseten Tashi Bhutia of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), an NGO fighting against the Tashiding and Panan projects, speaking to Uneven Earth.

As part of these protests, Sikkim witnessed the longest indefinite hunger strike in the province’s history. The action was called on 20 June 2007 by the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), an NGO formed to fight the government’s decision to build seven large-scale hydroelectric projects within the ancestral lands of the indigenous Lepcha community. Although the Lepcha are also found in other parts of India and in Nepal, around 86 percent of their 9000-strong population resides in Dzongu.

The Dzongu area was traditionally known as Myal Lyang in Lepcha language or Beyul Demazong in Bhutia – the latter meaning ‘land of sacred and secret treasures’ and the former meaning, essentially, paradise. It was here that, according to legend, the Lepcha god created the first Lepcha man and woman from the sacred snow of the mighty Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga)—the world’s third highest peak, which the Bhutia and Lepcha revere to this day as a protective deity.

In fact, within the core area of the proposed Panan hydroelectric project (300 MW) are a host of sacred sites: the Kagey Lha-Tso Lake, the Drag Shingye caves, and the Jhe-Tsa-Tsu and Kong-Tsa-Tsu hot springs, which are said to be endowed with healing properties. Indeed, the entire northern district of Sikkim has numerous such ‘treasures’, each of which was blessed by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the patron saint of Sikkim. Panan is one of the more disputed projects proposed for Dzongu – an area not only sacred but also falling dangerously close to the Khangchendzonga National Park, an area rich in flora and fauna.

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Source: Save The Teesta

The hydro bubble is bursting in India

Hydro-power projects are often proposed as a tool for profit generation, local economic development, and a renewable, sustainable source of energy generation. However, this win-win situation is turning out to be a nightmare of sorts with most of the ‘clean’ energy projects in these states failing to take off after several years of having signed the MoU with state governments. In many cases, the registration process they followed flouted the CDM norms, with project design documents often filled with blatant lies.

This is then coupled with delayed projects accruing huge debt—liability burdens which are being passed on to the respective states. After almost a decade of signing their MoUs, both the companies as well as the respective governments have accrued huge debt burdens due to inordinate delays in implementation with pretext after pretext—making many projects economically unviable due to the present day inflation and market rate of interest.

The returns on investments are bad, production cost high, and sale price of a unit of power low.

In the financial year 2015, India generated 1048.7 Billion Units (BU) of electricity, out of which only 133 BU was from the hydro power projects. Out of the 1048.7 BU electricity produced, 90% is sold through long-term power-purchase agreements, while the rest is traded on the short-term spot market. It is here that corporate power producers will have to make their profits.

But Sikkim, with an annual state budget of $315.86 million, has equity participation worth $230 million. Simply put, it took on huge debt to buy equity and with project delays and abandonment, leading to spiraling burdens that are then being passed on to the people. This has resulted in an absurd situation, where the production cost of one unit of electricity has become more costly than the sale price.

In March 2016, India’s ministry of power intervened to restore three stalled power projects in Sikkim; Panan (300 MW), Teesta VI (500 MW), and Rangit IV (120 MW) with total installed capacity of 920 MW. In a meeting held at New Delhi between the Sikkim government, the private developers of these projects, and the national hydro electric corporation of India (NHPC), Sikkim was asked to either incentivize the independent power producers, or cancel their MoUs after compensating them for investments in the projects.

The independent power producers are not keen on further investments, as breaking even will be impossible in the short term. The returns on investments are bad, production cost high, and sale price of a unit of power low.

 

The mega hydro power projects that fail

Hydro power projects all over the world are subject to widespread criticism for alleged human rights violations. Apart from the catastrophic environmental and geological disasters they trigger, they also resort to land acquisition—often forced—leading to displacement of people. These mega projects are most often imposed upon people in the garb of development; allowing a nexus of governments in collusion with corporate entities engage in this process of plunder. International funding agencies like the World Bank and private equity investors pump in huge quantities of money. Often, these companies or their front (shell) companies are based in tax haven countries and the money trail is obscure.

These mega projects are most often imposed upon people in the garb of development; allowing a nexus of governments in collusion with corporate entities engage in this process of plunder.

For example, in South America the Yacyretá Dam on the Parana River, which lies on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, generated controversy and criticism during its planning and construction, and is often referred to as a ‘monument to corruption’. While initially the construction costs of the dam were slated at $2.5 billion, eventually they escalated to $15 billion.

Environmental and social impacts run rampant. In China, the Three Gorges Dam project was held responsible by scientists and environmentalists for causing draughts in the upstream of Yangtze River and for increasing the frequency of landslides and earthquakes along areas next to the structure. The project also submerged a number of factories, mines and waste dumps, and a few industrial centres, which are alleged to have polluted the river. Biodiversity experts believe that the Three Gorges Dam has affected hundreds of animal and plant species in the Yangtze River and threatened the fisheries in the East China Sea.

Another glaring example would be in Brazil. Best known to the world for football and samba—and the upcoming Olympics, the country is now in the limelight for anti-dam protests against the Belo Monte Dam project which has been under construction since March 2011. The project, situated on the Xingu River in the state of Pará, faces fierce resistance from the Xingu’s Indigenous peoples and social movements, with support from international agencies.

With an expected 11,233 MW installed capacity, Belo Monte will be the world’s third biggest hydroelectric project when it starts full-fledged operation in 2019. The project was first proposed in 1975 but subsequently abandoned due to stiff opposition from environmental activists and local people. It was redesigned and revived in 2003, and received partial environmental license from the Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) in February 2010. The redesigned project, which is being constructed with an estimated investment of $13bn, is now battling at national and international tribunals against charges of displacing thousands of indigenous people and devastating over 1,500km2 of Brazilian rainforest in the Amazon basin.

In Tawang, hydro power projects have also failed to meet development promises by the government. While work on 13 hydro-electing projects in Tawang is currently going on, the government has planned a total of 28 mini- and micro-dams in the district. Even though the power requirement of the district is 6.5MW, if all these mini and micro projects were to produce the electricity as shown on paper, it would be more than 20MW. However, even after many of these projects were completed, they failed to produce adequate electricity, so much so that there are long hours of power cut even in Tawang’s sub-zero temperatures.

aapsu-candle-light-vigil-450x300
Source: Save Tawang

Conclusion

Development of every nation comes at a cost. The complex nexus and vested business interest of corporate groups, international funding agencies, private equity investors and powerful politicians have created a systematic plunder of natural resources, be it water or coal. However, development needs to be sustainable and not detrimental to the environment. The May 2nd killing in Tawang is a grim reminder to the policy makers that the development path chosen was fraught, to say the least. Globally, due to inflation, escalation of project costs and low returns on investments, many mega projects have failed to deliver as expectated, some have even failed to take off and too many have led to dissidence, socio-cultural rifts, and environmental disasters.

 

Soumik Dutta is a Graduate in Economics from Scottish Church College University of Kolkata, and a a freelance investigative journalist covering hydro power projects and protests by affected people, corruption of government and corporations, and environmental violation by infrastructure projects. He has published his stories in the likes of Outlook Magazine, Cobrapost, hundredreporters.org, and thirdpole.net. He loves travelling, music, reading, and good food.

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