AT 3 a.m. on November 28, 2015, residents of Bommareddigudem village in Telangana’s Medak district woke up to the familiar drone of a borewell rig in operation. It is common practice in the village, like in most other rural habitations of Telangana, to dig deeper and deeper to find water to irrigate the parched lands. The clandestine drilling takes place mostly at night as the residents fear that the local authorities may attempt to stop it as proper procedures are not followed to drill new borewells.
Kumar Ramulu, 45, belonging to the dominant Mudhiraju community, has been raising sugarcane in his four-acre (1.6 hectare) field for more than two decades. For several years, the yield had been poor. In 2014 and 2015, the crop failed. The wells Ramulu had previously sunk are dry. The 150-foot-deep well he frenetically got dug in the wee hours of November 28 also did not yield water. Ramulu had hired a contractor for Rs.40,000, borrowing the money at 36 per cent interest. The contractor was in a hurry to finish the digging before dawn and be out of plain sight but a desperate Ramulu urged him to drill another well about 200 ft away. It was 6:30 a.m. As the contractor began drilling, Ramulu once again went to the moneylender to borrow another Rs.40,000 to pay the contractor. The second attempt also failed.
At daybreak, the Dalit neighbourhood in the vicinity of Ramulu’s land began to wake up. Rakesh and his brother came out to see what the noise was all about. Three-year-old Rakesh’s curiosity got the better of him and he ventured closer to the first pit. He lost his balance at the edge of the well and fell into the pit. He was stuck at a depth of 30 ft, with a heavy head injury. Rescue attempts commenced immediately. As the news spread, regional television crew descended on the village and started giving a blow-by-blow account of the rescue operation to their viewers. Men who were working on another borewell in the neighbouring Nalgonda district rushed to Bommareddigudem and joined the rescue attempts. After 25 hours, they were able to lift the lifeless body of Rakesh from the pit. Ramulu spent the next 45 days in jail, while his wife once again went to the moneylender to borrow Rs.25,000 to pay the police. The borewell operator was arrested and let off on bail after 15 days.
The accident involving Rakesh is not a one-off incident. Telangana’s countryside is replete with stories of children falling into open borewells. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) statistics for 2014, 50 people (42 men and eight women) died when they fell into open borewells. Almost half of them were under 30. Activists said this was a gross underestimation as several deaths that occurred in the hinterland went unreported. Arribandi Prasad Rao, a retired professor of Hyderabad’s Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University, said there were close to 100 such deaths a year in Telangana alone and nationwide, the figure could be in the thousands.
The right procedure to drill a borewell is to seek permission from the mandal authorities, who will intimate the State’s Ground Water Department (GWD), which will send a geologist to ascertain the right spot to dig a well on the basis of the depth of the available source and spacing between two wells. It is mandated that there should be a distance of 820 ft between two wells and the water drawn should not be more than 1,000 gallons for a whole cropping season. The GWD has based this estimation on the requirement of “irrigated dry”, or ID, crops such as maize, millets, chillies, vegetables and cotton. They are considered the best crops for a semi-arid, water-stressed region. But as Telangana reels under the worst drought in 60 years, the authorities have relaxed the spacing between wells to 500 ft, but only in canal-irrigated farmlands. Neither Ramulu’s first failed borewell nor the second one would have met the criterion, as his four-acre land, split into two equal plots, does not have a 500-ft radius.
“Most of the digging happens outside the purview of the government authorities after the Water Land and Trees Act (WALTA), of 2002, came into force” G. Sambaiah of the GWD said. He was referring to the Act implemented by undivided Andhra Pradesh, which Telangana has adopted. The Act not only mandates spacing but also disallows any commercial borewell within 820 ft of a drinking water well. This was done to check the rampant use of groundwater. Records with the GWD show a 16-fold increase in the number of borwells between 1986 and 2000. The three decades for which data are available indicate that the number of borewells in Telangana increased from 23,929 to 14.5 lakhs. Seventy per cent of Telangana’s farmlands depend on groundwater for irrigation. But as the State witnessed a second consecutive drought year in 2015, groundwater is used only for drinking.
Government officials blame the accidents such as the one in Bommareddigudem on greedy rig owners. There are between 20 and 30 rig owners in each of Telangana’s nine rural districts and two to three times that number in Hyderabad city. The GWD estimates that borewell drillers make not less than Rs.15 lakh a month. The cost of digging one well is anywhere between Rs.50,000 and Rs.75,000. All the drilling companies are registered with the GWD and yet they flout the law. They capitalise on the farmers’ desperation for water. It would have cost Ramulu another Rs.5,000 to close the well he had sunk, which would have meant borrowing again.
A retired GWD official, not wishing to be named, blamed the inadequate staff strength for the inability of the department to implement the Act effectively. He said: “Each district requires about 10 members to carry out the department’s work, but we are functioning with about four or five. And our duties also include the execution of the WALTA.” An increase in the staff strength would help us carry out more inspections, he said. “While all the loopholes cannot be plugged, along with some punitive measures, this could act as a deterrent,” he said. The GWD only has the powers to recommend action. The revenue authorities have the powers to penalise those violating the Act.
WALTA rules do not apply to municipalities as water use in their jurisdiction is assumed to be largely for domestic and drinking water purposes. The estimation does not take into account the exponential increase in apartment complexes and the pressure this is putting on urban groundwater resources, without any means to replenish them.
Instances of children falling into open borewells are only one aspect of the drought conditions in the State. Suicides by farmers, fluorosis and heat stroke are some of the other. The State government has admitted that as of April 30, 122 persons died owing to the heat wave conditions that prevailed between April 14 and 26.
Y.K. Reddy of the Hyderabad Centre of the India Meteorological Department said: “Normally, heat wave conditions happen in the second half of May, but occasionally they occur in April as well. The last time temperatures soared [to 45° Celsius] was in 2010.” What is more alarming is that the mean maximum temperature, the value of the highs of the past three decades [1981-2011], has increased by about half a degree Celsius compared with the previous average [between 1971-2001] in several parts of the State. For instance, Ramagundam, a town in north-central Telangana, recorded an unprecedented high of 46.1 °Celsius in April, Y.K. Reddy said.Water crisis
What is unfolding now is a calamity that was not witnessed by at least four generations in the Deccan plateau. Almost all of Telangana’s reservoirs are dry. A combined presentation by the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Department (RWS) and the Irrigation Department to the Chief Minster recently gives an appalling picture. The Central government’s recommendation of daily water supply for each rural household is 40-55 litres, far less than the 150 litres sanctioned for cities, but even that target is impossible to achieve.
Every summer, several of Telangana’s villages go dry and the local authorities make arrangements to supply a minimum of 15 litres every day for each household for its cooking and drinking water needs. For the first time this year, water was transported to “thousands” of villages, Ravindranath, who is in charge of the RWS’ calamity relief, said. As on April 25, 2,081 “habitations” had no water. This number rose to 2,151 in four days. Last year, 482 habitations needed water in the corresponding period. The State has about 20,000 habitations, which means that about one-tenth of the State’s 2.15 crore people living in rural areas have no access to water by April end. Medak, Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao’s home district, is the worst affected with more than 800 habitations without water.
In the adjoining Mahboobnagar district, 400 habitations face water scarcity. Even Adilabad, the district with its southern boundary marked by the Godavari river and the northern border by the Penaganga river, faces a severe water crisis. Adilabad generally does not experience severe droughts but this time more than 200 habitations, several of them in difficult-to-reach hilly tribal neighbourhoods, are without water.
Around this time of the year, the government hires even private borewells to “augment” any water source available to ensure a semblance of supply. In all, 6,144 private borewells have been hired to supply water to 3,643 habitations across the State, the maximum number being in Warangal district, followed by Nalgonda district. The water is then rationed to the entire neighbourhood in the vicinity of these wells. Sridhar Rao Deshpande of the Irrigation Department, speaking about his recent visit to some villages in Mahboobnagar district, said: “There is always some perennial water source that villagers keep as a reserve during such situations. Villagers trek for a whole day to get a pot of water.”
Another official of the Rural Water Supply Department said: “People don’t take a shower. They wear the same clothes for weeks. Village residents take a small pot of water and go into the fields for their morning ablutions. They don’t require much water, and so the situation does not appear alarming, but city folks are used to an entirely different kind of living. We flush the toilets every time we use and take long showers. Our water needs are more.”
Near Bommareddigudem, Chirangi Malla Reddy is digging a 1,000 foot borewell in broad daylight. He does not require permission to drill because this is his first well on a 12-acre plot his family owns right near a canal fed by the Manjeera river, which has always irrigated his sugarcane crop.
In March, for the first time, the river ran completely dry. The Singur dam on the Manjeera, a tributary of the Krishna, is visible on the horizon. It was conceived as an irrigation project, but it has become one of Hyderabad’s main lifelines in the past two decades with the rapid growth of the city. The water in the dam is now below the dead storage level, as is water in most of the region’s reservoirs which also serve Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh (see chart).
Rakesh’s parents Byri Sailu and Moruramma and Ramulu’s parents have enrolled for the 100-day job guarantee scheme, like other able-bodied members of the village. The Telangana government had widely discredited the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) around the same time last year as a “substandard, inefficient and ill-conceived way of spending public money”. But in the past two months, works under the MGNREGA have been scaled up across the State in view of the collapse of the rural economy.