Women drink water from the Navagraha well as R.S. Nayak, city engineer of Belagavi Corporation, looks on
Water smart city: Belagavi revives its abandoned wells
Shree Padre, Belagavi
Every summer, until a few years ago, tempers would rise in the municipal corporation of Belagavi (formerly Belgaum), a city in northwest Karnataka. Armies of women fortified with kodas (water vessels) would barge into the mayor’s office, demanding water. They led morcha after morcha for water. Officials from the corporation, wherever they went, would be encircled by people demanding water.
Such heated protests have been petering out over the past 10 years. The city has revived a great many of its traditional wells, tanks and lakes, and there is water for everyone. “We are now in the third week of June,” says Sanjyot Bandekar, mayor of Belagavi, with relief. “The monsoon hasn’t really set in. If it was those difficult years, we would have been really tense. From early morning, corporators would have been besieged with phone calls from aggrieved housewives saying, ‘Give us water’.”
In 1995 the city faced acute drought. The monsoon was late by a fortnight. Belagavi’s water supply came from the Rakoscope reservoir, 22 km away. That year, the reservoir dried up. The municipality found itself supplying water to angry citizens just once a week. Corporation officials didn’t know what to do.
At this critical juncture, people began to recall how their old wells had served them. Before the Rakoscope reservoir was commissioned in 1964, these open wells were a reliable source of water. But, alas, most of them had been crammed with garbage or were lying abandoned since the city had switched to piped water sourced from the reservoir.
During the drought year the municipal corporation hesitatingly began to revive the Kapileshwara tank, a huge water body about half an acre in size. About 100-150 volunteers from five or six yuvak mandals worked, digging shoulder-to-shoulder with officials from the municipal corporation even on Sundays, recalls Vijay More, ex-mayor. It took a month. Lo and behold, the tank began to yield water.
Encouraged, the municipal corporation turned its attention to the disbanded open wells. They were familiar with a British-era document that mentioned the existence of 700 wells topped with water. M. Vishweshwarsayya, a legendary engineer who designed the Rakoscope water supply scheme, had mentioned in his project report that the city’s chain of open wells could sustain its water supply. The Rakoscope reservoir was needed just for the city’s projected population growth, he had said.
So Belagavi’s municipal corporation embarked on a mission to revive its old wells and water bodies. In 22 years it has restored more than 100 wells and 10 lakes. Thirty-two large wells provide 400,000 litres per day round the year. Nearly one-third of the city’s population of 600,000 citizens gets part of its water supply from wells. There is no shortage of water even during the peak of summer.
Belagavi has been recently selected for the smart city programme. But what the municipal corporation has done with its water is even smarter. It is weaning the city away from dependence on rivers, dams and canals, and showing other cities the way forward.
The Khanjar Galli well was repaired in 2010-11 and now supplies water to12,000 people
The initial steps
The first well the municipal corporation revived was Math Galli. Recalls R.S. Nayak, city engineer of Belagavi Corporation, the brain behind the well revival plan: “We were very apprehensive about whether we would succeed. We hoped the well would yield clean water in sufficient quantity to supply to residents.” Fortunately, Math Galli fulfilled all expectations. This boosted the corporation’s confidence. It went on to revive another well, Shetty Galli.
Well water was tested to find out if it was potable. Next a filter, pump and pipeline were installed. Only 40 litres per day was drawn to augment the existing supply. The Shetty Galli well, a perfect rectangle, was constructed by the British in 1885. Math Galli was also built by the British in 1883. A fire station was located near it.
Amazingly, both wells contained an unbelievably large quantity of water. “In one well we installed four 5 HP pump sets to drain the water but for seven to eight hours, the water level appeared unchanged,” recalls Nayak. “We could easily lift 400,000 litres of water from each of these wells. Surprisingly, water levels don’t go down in these wells even at the end of summer.”
The corporation paused at this stage and decided to seek expert opinion before going ahead. Fortuitously, Dr Adiveppa G. Chachadi, Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Goa University, was in the city for some work. Officials from the corporation sought his opinion on scaling up their well revival plan. Dr Chachadi surveyed the city and prepared a groundwater flow map and report. Most public wells were located on water flow lines.
This encouraged the corporation to go ahead with its plan. The Rotary Club, Lions Club, Indal factory and local people pitched in. But the leadership for the effort came from the Belagavi City Corporation.
City engineer Ravindra Satu Nayak, 58, the driving spirit behind the mission, explains what restoring wells entails. “It’s more labour-oriented,” he says. “The muck has to be professionally removed. We employ only qualified well-diggers. The wells were filled with foul-smelling debris and, sometimes, poisonous gases.” Workers were given masks and gloves. Cleaning was carefully monitored to ensure no worker was injured.
The Barah Gade well at Hutatma Chowk with 12 dummy iron pulleys
The Congress Well
In 2004 the historic Congress Well was revived. Built in 1924 to commemorate the Congress’ historic Belagavi convention which was presided over by Mahatma Gandhi, the well cost Rs 4,370 and three annas at the time. The Congress Well went on to supply water to half the city. But once tap water was introduced, this well, like scores of others, turned into a dustbin.
“Later it became infamous as a ‘suicide well’,” says M.K. Hegde, resident editor, Vijaya Karnataka. “Wild plants grew around it. It became a den of rowdies. Decent folk were afraid to come near.” Today the well, surrounded by a beautiful garden, brims with light blue water.
Another successful revival was of a well at Hutatma Chowk named ‘Barah Gade’ because 12 pulleys used to be deployed to lift water from it. Households would collect water from this well and paaniwallahs would supply its water on small hand-pulled carts to residents.
In 1964, when piped water was introduced in Belagavi, households were ambivalent about getting connected to the pipeline. When efforts to woo residents failed, the then divisional commissioner had what he thought was a brainwave. Since residents were refusing piped water, he ordered closure of the wells. Barah Gade was closed. Ironically, 50 years later, the same government machinery had to work hard to reopen it.
Over the years, the area where Barah Gade once flourished had become a parking lot. When corporation officials began their revival efforts, there was resistance. Auto drivers and the owner of an ice-cream parlour objected vehemently. It took the corporation two years to overcome the opposition. In 2013, it revived its efforts. Then, corporation officials realised they didn’t know where precisely the well was.
Nayak then hit upon an idea. He began combing the locality for its oldest residents. Finally, 94-year-old Yalagi offered to help. He said he used to play near the well as a boy. Nayak took him to the spot. Yalagi placed four stones on the ground after looking at the spot carefully. “The well was between these stones,” said the old man. “This used to be called ‘freedom fighters’ circle’. Elderly people would gather here for chit-chat.”
Thereafter, the Barah Gade well was found and cleaned. It now supplies water to the surrounding locality. To retain its old charm, 12 iron dummy pulleys have been mounted on the well on all four sides.
A similar strategy was followed for rejuvenation of the Kudachi well. Corporation officials sought out the oldest person of the locality. He led them to a place where there was a big stone. At first there was no sign of a well having existed there. After digging through mounds of garbage for a considerable period, the well revealed itself.
The Rotary Club shouldered the revival of six wells over three years. Their most outstanding achievement was the revival of the well in Veerabhadra Nagar. “The well had become a dumping ground,” says Chaitanya Kulkarni, former club president. “We got a matching grant of $26,000 from Amwell Rotary Club of England. They were impressed when we told them revival of the well would provide water to 10,000 people. In fact, three representatives of that club came all the way from England to attend the inaugural function.”
Built by the British in 1908, the Veerabhadra well is a three-in-one well. Two underground tunnels six feet high connect the three wells together. The well is flush with water. Another one is being revived in the cantonment area. Workers finally found it after digging more than 60 feet.
Around 70 smaller wells, connected to a plastic tank, are used for local supply. According to need, one or more standposts are constructed. Water is not lifted from the 10 lakes the corporation has revived. The lakes are intended to recharge groundwater and ensure drinking water is always available.
Problems and solutions
Initially, when the team from the municipal corporation went to inspect the wells, anti-social elements used to protest. But they finally came round and even helped out. “Where water is concerned, no one is an anti-social. There are cases of rowdies joining the mainstream after cooperating to restore water,” says Nayak.
A notorious rowdy named Maruthi had his adda a den for drinking and gambling, near the Veerabhadra Nagar well. When officials from the corporation began trying to revive it, he threatened them. But the team under Nayak refused to budge. They tried reasoning with him. Maruthi pleaded that his adda was his only source of income. Out of compassion, the officials offered him a job as valveman, a post he had aspired for in the past. He took the job and became a changed man for a while.
“His mother thanked us. He used to hand over his earnings to her,” says Nayak. But, in a twist of fate, Maruthi went back to his old ways as a rowdy, landed in jail, and passed away.
Ironically, another challenge the corporation faced was getting people to accept well water. The water was always tested to find out if it was potable. But convincing people to drink it wasn’t easy.
Nayak went from house-to-house with two assistants and a koda of water. He would request the lady of the house to bring him a glass. He would then extol the virtues of well water and drink it in front of the family. The mayor, corporators and even the local MLA had to employ this strategy. “I had to literally market water from the well,” laughs Nayak.
Fortunately for the corporation, none of the revived wells was contaminated. But the corporation found the problem of contamination in one or two private wells. The process of salvaging these wells could be a model to follow for thousands of other contaminated wells in the country.
“If a well is contaminated, there is the danger of the contamination spreading to other areas. We have to identify the source. It could be a gutter or faulty underground drainage. We use dyes that are generally used by laundries to check the point of contamination,” explains Nayak.
It is far better to eliminate contamination of a well and make its water potable than to dig a new well. House owners abandon contaminated wells, not realising they can be made usable. Every corporation should spread knowledge of such techniques.
“This is not rocket science,” Nayak reiterates, “Contamination is always local. You have to observe where it is originating and then reverse it. Corporations should be trained in such techniques.”
The second Kapileshwara tank that was dug by the corporation only for immersing Ganesh idols
Another challenge the corporation faced was preventing contamination of water sources during Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival that is celebrated exuberantly in Belagavi. The idea of preventing contamination appealed to the people but they asked where idols should be immersed.
The corporation came up with a solution. It built 10 immersion tanks across the city. Of these, a sufficiently big tank, also named Kapileshwara tank, is widely used. In 11 days around 300 idols — more than 50 percent of the idols in the city — were immersed in the allocated tanks. After the rituals were over, the corporation cleaned all the tanks and refilled them with fresh water.
The corporation is now exploring the possibility of reducing electricity costs still further by harnessing solar pumps. Out of 76 paise required for distributing a kilo litre of well water, 40 paise are spent on electricity. Trial runs with solar pumps were carried out two years ago.
Very shortly, the Barah Gade well will be fitted with a solar pump while the old electricity pump will be retained as a standby. This hybrid system will scale down costs.
Topography and rainfall
How do scientists explain Belagavi’s successful turnaround, with nearly three dozen wells supplying four lakh litres per day, through the year? The answer, say scientists from the National Institute of Hydrology (NIOH), lies in the city’s topography and the rainfall pattern in its catchment area.
“The topography of the city is shaped like a bowl, surrounded by hillocks on three sides. Its basaltic terrain permits maximum groundwater recharge. The ability to recharge and hold water is very high in this terrain,” says Purandar B.K., a scientist with NIOH. “If the surrounding environment is kept suitable for recharge and not more water than can be recharged is lifted, these wells can supply water for at least 50 years.”
“Kanakumbi and Chambotti that are just 25 to 40 km from Belagavi are high-rainfall areas. They get around 5,000 to 7,000 mm of rain. The old wells are on the flow path of groundwater. Fortunately, till now urbanisation has not affected these lines,” explains Dr B. Venkatesh, also a scientist with NIOH. “There are a few low-lying marshy areas where rainwater remains stagnant long into the season. The cantonment is on a huge flat area of 500-600 acres. Such undulations are good for groundwater recharge.”
The Barah Gade well being desilted and cleaned
Small is better
Belagavi’s decentralised water system keeps the city hydrated at low cost. “We have water in the Hidkal dam, commissioned in 2000, which is 54 km away. But here there is clean water right under our feet. It’s a time-tested source,” says Nayak. “You don’t know whether tanker water is contaminated or not. Yet people wait hours for it and even squabble over it. No one is sure about the quality of water from a borewell. But you can see water from an open well right before your eyes. Well water is like 24/7 water. You press a button and 10,000 people get water in their homes.”
“The carbon footprint of our decentralised water system is much lower than cities with an equal population in the rest of the country. This has been evaluated by government officials from other regions,” says Nitin Koth, a social activist.
Also to be noted is the sharp contrast between a distant mega project and a tiny local one. Three-stage pumping and 900 horse power (HP) is required to fetch water from the Hidkal dam. Electricity charges alone work out to Rs 1 crore per month. Fetching water from the Rakoscope reservoir requires 600 HP, one-stage pumping and costs the corporation Rs 20 lakh every month.
Well water requires only 10 HP. Water from a large and distant project costs Rs 12.50 per kilo litre while well water costs 76 paise. Around 40 percent of the city relies on well water as an additional source now.
Before the Hidkal dam was built the corporation used to spend Rs 20-25 lakh per annum on tanker water. Fifty tankers used to be hired from March to June. Even after the dam became operative, tankers were needed. Now the corporation has only two tankers as a standby. Digging of borewells in the well-concentrated areas has stopped completely.
A civil engineer, Nayak says he learnt his lessons about water working for the corporation and interacting with the people. “We learn new lessons every day,” he remarks. He says that every city should have a separate department to map and tap water sources. Instead, a multiplicity of agencies is involved in water issues. “The Karnataka Urban Water Supply Board, State Geology Department, Hydrology Department and Water Resources Department should all be integrated. There should be an officer to coordinate and ensure information is shared,” advises Nayak. Certain areas in the city marked as ‘green zones’ should be off-limits for industries.
Nayak has received eight awards to date for his outstanding contribution. Among them are the National Urban Water Award (2010) by the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, the Outstanding Award during the Bangalore World Water Summit (2012), the Gfiles National Award in 2015 (an award usually reserved for civil servants), and the Skoch Order of Merit Award in 2015 for smart governance.
“My estimate is that Belagavi has 4,000 to 4,500 wells. Out of these 800 may be in use. If we make more wells functional and bring in greater efficiency in water supply management, we can free ourselves of dependence on the Rakoscope reservoir or Hidkal dam,” says Chaitanya Kulkarni whose firm, Chaitanya Associates, has been reviving private wells in homes. So far he has revived 12 wells. “Many sensible builders are doing this in our city,” he says.
Hegde, however, is not happy with the pace of well revival. “It is a big achievement. But the good work done by the corporation should have created awareness about traditional water treasures. Once people realised their value, well revival should have been taken up as a movement. The problem is the common man still treats wells and tanks as dustbins. Their attitude hasn’t changed.”
Nithin Koth and Purandar also emphasise that people need to be convinced about the importance of shallow aquifers, how sustainable they are and why they have to be kept clean and protected.
Nayak is popular among ordinary people and does make efforts to create awareness. But this is not enough. The corporation really needs to make the people of the city respect water. It is painful to see plastic bottles and garbage being thrown into beautiful antique wells, though such cases are fewer now. NGOs and social groups could help.
“NGOs are coming forward to revive wells. An NRI lady contacted us, keen to revive a well that was built by her grandfather. In some areas, there are issues with underground drainage,” explains Shashidhar Kurera, commissioner of Belagavi City Corporation and managing director of Belagavi Smart City. “We have to do more. Having an inventory of wells and closed wells is really a good idea. What we have is scattered information. Even in the master-plan of the smart city we have added this component. In fact, the importance of wells is included in the policy itself.”
Lessons for cities
Noted water activist S. Vishwanath, who heads the Rainwater Club of Bengaluru, says the message from Belagavi is that local water resources and community involvement are key to resolving water issues. “Community attention to wells will subsequently make them think about tank development. Local resources are energy-efficient and cheap. A local engineer can do far more result-oriented work than an outside expert. One has to study local history very well and the community’s usage patterns,” he says.
Every city must map its groundwater, the quantity being used, recharge areas and drainage areas. A combination of groundwater, water from rainwater harvesting and treated water can make our cities sustainable in water, says Vishwanath. Instead of fighting over the Kaveri river, Bengaluru and also Delhi can learn from Belagavi.
Contact: R.S. Nayak – 94481 02297 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org