Echoing the darkness – Water wells after the borewell revolution

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

I vividly remember the first time a bore well was dug on 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.

Little did I realise 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 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.

For centuries the wells were part of our life, culture and folklore: The evil but foolish lion was duped into jumping at its own image reflected in a well; the weary traveler always took a restful sleep after drinking its sweet water; ghosts preferred to reside in them and emerged to startle the protagonist; enemies were dispatched and thrown into them; places were named after certain special wells (small towns still carry names like Lal Kuan, Bada Kuan) and most important, digging a well was regarded as great punya. They 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 and to a child offered a never-ending source of adventures, both real and imagined. There was a well into which, to escape British reprisals, a cannon, guns and battle-gear were supposedly dumped after the unsuccessful Mutiny of 1857. As children 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. Last year I went back to the well after a gap of many years. The well was dry and the turtle 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 guess.

As borewells took over, the wells were pushed back into the shadows. 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.

The 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 up to the rude reality that once your neighbor gets a borewell, the output dropped and 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.

Text and Photographs by Sahastrarashmi

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