One hot April afternoon, I ran into Sajji, who oversees the construction of the new house on the corner. He radiated good news. Madam, he said, we put in a bore. A water diviner had told them where to drill, and they hit water at 127ft.
The owners of the new house had planted bananas and tapioca even when the foundations were laid. By the time the rain began, the plants were thriving. Neighbours asked about the cost of a borewell. Drilling cost Rs45 a ft, plus the cost of pipe and motor, amounting to Rs30,000 if you hit water at about that depth.
The subject inevitably died down during the wet months. Then, early in August, the sky cleared for a week.
By the end of the week, the borewell drillers were back, this time in Shaaji’s plot just across the road. Seven men barrelled in on a Sunday morning and assembled their drill in half an hour.
Shanti’s son Fen, scrubbed, powdered and ready for church, came with his father to check out the machinery, as did many of the men and boys in the lane. Two workers operated the drill while the others cooked rice and spectators talked about rates and depths.
The cows leaped about as far as their ropes would let them before their owners tethered them further away from the noise. Two dozen chickens raced up Shanti’s driveway to take refuge behind the house. There was a cloud of granite dust as the drill hit rock. At 11 in the morning, they hit water, at 132ft, and we all had smiles on our faces.
The dry spell was welcome to householders in the agraharams closer to town, who shook out their saris for the coming festivals.
Here, in Akathethara panchayat, people worried about cattle fodder and tapioca. The rocky soil here dries out very quickly, especially if the wind is strong. By the time the rain started again, Saar and I had thought more seriously about the coming summer.
When we bought the plot from Old George Verghese, he told us the two pits out front were wells he attempted before he ran out of money. He said he hit water but the wells collapsed in the monsoon and he couldn’t afford to build them again. That and the fact that several nearby households had wells made us confident of having groundwater. But we discovered, after having bought the land, what everyone else had known before, that this was a dry panchayat.
George had stretched the truth about having seen water. The vein of water the other wells tapped into did not run under our land, according to the groundwater department, although we might have luck with a borewell in the northeast corner.
So, we put in rainwater harvesting pipes and a filter and built a sump for storage, but groundwater would let us water the more tender plants in the summer.
We have a granola cruncher’s horror of borewells, although experts assure us that two people tapping water over an acre and a half will not destroy the planet.
The water would have to be chemically tested. And there are no guarantees that we will hit water at all. So we are likely to pussyfoot around, perhaps adding rain barrels under the downspouts. The serious cultivators have necessarily been more proactive. Captain Ramanathan bought 15 acres on the border of Akathethara panchayat in 1965. He had wanted to grow coconut trees and irrigate them. An Oxfam team pronounced that there was a water table below 480ft, but the two-stage pump required to bring it up would make it uneconomical for irrigation. Open wells could supply water at about 15ft, but they were likely to dry up in the summer.
The Captain settled for an open well for household use, dug on the advice of a water diviner from Chennai. It has never gone dry. He did attempt to drill a borewell but got no water at 200ft.
About 20 years ago, he and others talked with engineers of the water authority about a lift irrigation system that would bring water from the Malampuzha reservoir to these high acres. The idea was to farm coconut. The plan fell through because land could not be acquired in the path of the proposed lift. The owner of the 13-acre plot at the end of our lane then put in drip irrigation for a coconut plantation.
Other landowners started rubber plantations. Although people at the time were sceptical about whether rubber, which demanded less water, would grow at our relatively low altitude, the plantations are flourishing.
Captain Ramanathan found a different answer. When the Malampuzha water authority enlarged its filtration unit, he made available the disused quarry on his land to receive the wash water that had to be drained away. For years he used that water to irrigate a lush mixed plantation and build up a prized collection of 16 mango varieties.
The Captain sold most of his holding a couple of years ago. He retained one acre and his open well, which he uses judiciously. It suffices for a family of three or four and regulated irrigation. Mango, he says, doesn’t need to be watered after the first three years. So he may build up another collection.
This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.
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