For Mr. Balasubramanian ‘Baloo’ Sastry, it is a ritual that cannot be missed. With his grand-daughter for company, the 81-year-old walks to his open well and measures the increase or decrease in water level every day at 7 am. He has rigged up a float and a wire, and on a good rainy day, he has seen the water level come up by several feet. He takes particular pride in the rainwater harvesting system that he has rigged up to recharge his well. The rooftop is connected via a beautiful blue drum filter filled with sand and charcoal. The rainwater then falls into the well like a waterfall.

His well was built by Arumugam, a mason who single-handedly dug the 40 feet-deep well and lined it with concrete rings. Arumugam is no more, but Baloo Sastry remembers him with fondness. The well has 18 feet of water, and it is the peak of summer in May, when the reservoirs of K.R.S and Kabini feeding the city are at a dangerous low with just about 45 days of water. The well has enough water to meet the entire needs of the family and the quality of the water is potable.

Unlike the Cauvery which is 100 kms away and 1000 feet below the city, the water from the well has to be pumped up 40 feet only and from the site itself. This makes it the cheapest water in town at Rs 1 /- a kilo-litre, with the lowest embodied energy and carbon footprint. In a pinch, even where there is a power cut, water can be hauled using the traditional rope, bucket and pulley.

The land of the open well

This is not an isolated case in the city. In the south of the city, in Basavanagudi, is the Indian Institute of World Culture – a beautiful library and a place where talks by eminent people on various matters are regularly arranged. There is an open well tucked in the premises, which caters to all the water requirements of the institution, and has been doing so for decades.

The Vikasa Soudha is the administrative capital of the state along with the Vidhana Soudha. The entire construction of the Vikasa Soudha happened with the waters of the wells dug in what is now the basement. Further down is Cubbon Park, one of the lungs of the city. Here in the vast sprawling gardens are seven wells, each with plenty of water.

In the north of the city is the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Renewable Energy Development (MGIRED), an institution located next to the Rachenahalli lake. The well in the premises has a turtle swimming in it. The crystal clear water fulfills most of the water requirements of the campus. Thanks to a citizen group having adopted the lake, rejuvenation of the shallow aquifers has occurred.

The city and the well

Bengaluru for long was a region of tanks and wells. The tanks stored water for irrigation, but recharged the aquifer. The wells would be located around the tank and this earth-filtered water would be used for drinking and cooking purposes. Many tanks dotted the cityscape; 262 tanks were recorded by the Lakshman Rau committee. The wells were however not counted but were approximated to be around 10,000 in number.

One has only to go to the adjacent Kolar District to understand how the tanks and wells would have looked like in Bengaluru before urbanisation took over.

Kolar – the land of tanks and open wells. Bengaluru too was like this before urbanisation

In 1895, the city ran its first urban water supply scheme from Hessarghatta on the Arkavathy river. Slowly, the tanks started diminishing in importance, and with them, the wells. From 1982 to 1984, a continuous drought for three years meant that many wells went dry. This was also the era of the advent of the borewells. People went deeper for water and gradually, borewells supplemented wells as a source of water, especially for construction purposes and then for domestic use. The city now has an estimated 400,000 borewells.

The well-diggers

Shankar and Ramakrishna are doing the rounds in a locality called Sadashivanagar today. They go from house to house looking for wells to clean. They are from the Mannu Vaddar community, traditional well-diggers for hundreds of years. Their ancestors dug lakes and wells from Gujarat to Karnataka. They continue to ply their trade in the city. In the village called Vaddarpalya near Sarjapura, more than 120 families of well-diggers reside.

Well-diggers from the Mannu Vaddar community are traditional well-diggers, earning livelihoods

Their knowledge is encyclopaedic and they know the localities where open wells still exist: Palace Orchards, Sadashivanagar, Shivajinagar, J.P.Nagar , Malleswaram, Rajajinagar , Yelahanka, Vidyaranyapura, and Mathikere, to name a few. All the old localities of Bengaluru still continue to have wells.

To clean, they first lower a lit lamp in the well. If the lamp goes out, they lower a table fan to blow air and clean up noxious gases such as methane and carbon monoxide which may have accumulated in the well. Once again a lit lamp is lowered; this time, it burns bright.

Then one of them climbs in with the help of a rope. A pump is placed, and water is pumped out continuously. Accumulated dirt and silt is removed, a bucket at a time. When the work is done, lime is added, followed by alum and potassium permanganate. A day later, the well is ready for use.

If the water-table has fallen, they will deepen the well with a few concrete rings too. In case a new well is desired, they will dig one and line it with precast concrete rings. The diameters can vary from 2 feet to 8 feet. A 20-feet deep , 3-feet diameter precast concrete ring lined well can cost approximately Rs. 40,000 depending on the hardness of the soil.

Policy and wells

Two recent policies and programmes have been helping the open well movement. The rainwater harvesting policy – making it compulsory for new homes to have rainwater collected or recharged – has meant that many people are opting for recharge wells. While the policy mandates a minimum of 3 metres depth for recharge wells, it is advisable to go to 6 or 9 metres depth, to enable more rainwater to be recharged. Given adequate aquifer conditions, it is possible that the deeper wells can also yield water.

Recharge wells are made mandatory through a rainwater harvesting bye-law

The other policy (rather, programme) to have positively impacted well construction and revival of old wells is the lake rejuvenation policy. Around Kaikondarahalli Lake on Sarjapur Road, a government-aided school has dug a small, shallow well just 10 feet deep . This meets the water requirements for their toilets and garden.

Nearby, a set of apartments saw their deep borewell go dry. They revived and cleaned up an old open well which had filled up with silt to a depth of 40 feet. Now, a small pump hums merrily and supplies potable water to the apartments.

The revival

For the future, Bengaluru will have to look at local resources for water. Tanks will need to be protected and de-silted. Waste-water treatment plants will need to treat domestic sewage, and after further polishing in constructed wetlands, will need to fill lakes. Rainwater harvesting will supplement water and recharge the shallow aquifer. Finally, open wells will need to be revived , cleaned and brought back to use.

Shallow wells have the lowest cost per kilo-litre for water, the lowest embodied energy, lowest carbon footprint. They also “talk” to us on a daily basis – they warn us of impending summer or a drought, encouraging us to conserve water. They reward good behaviour such as recharging wells, by filling up with clean water. They punish bad behaviour such as dumping garbage or sewage around it, by getting polluted and worthless.

An unused and polluted well

Cubbon Park is set to revive its seven old, open wells, clean and rehabilitate them, and bring them back into service. Lalbagh is doing the same for its three old, open wells. The Kempegowda International Airport has preserved, protected and recharged some of the old, open wells in its vast premises, and these now yield water, thanks to the recharge that has been done.

Time for Bengaluru and its citizens to go back to the culture of open wells, reward its well-diggers with livelihood, and resurrect its shallow aquifer to bring water resilience to the city.