“Sakarbai” (or "sugar woman" in Marathi, the state language of Maharashtra) is the old drinking well in Pravah. It draws its water from the groundwater available in the underneath aquifer.
Farmers said that Sakarbai water used to be sweet and pure, envied by many in the surrounding areas. However, since Sakarbai's water got mixed with wastewater percolated in into the ground, it is considered too "contaminated", "smelly" and "dangerous" for drinking and it is used only for cooking.
Sakarbai is still the main well in the village and women and children fetch water from it daily.
"The well is called “SAKARBAI” [sugarwomen] because its water used to be so pure and fresh, and sweet. So when travelers were passing through the village and we used to give them water, they used to say “We would love to transport this well to our village, because this water is so good, so sweet!” So the water was so good that it used to taste like coconut water. “She” [the Sakarbai] used to give us the best water. Even in summer, we used to climb down the well to get whatever water we could. But after we started using wastewater for irrigation, she was really badly affected. It’s no fault of hers, but the water became disgusting. Even the filter water doesn’t taste at all like Sakarbai water".
Aarti, woman farmer, Maratha caste, about 65 years old
Narrating (in)visible waters through wells
India is the world's largest user of groundwater. In rural areas, 90% of villages depend on groundwater for their domestic needs and 65% of net irrigated area are served by groundwater.
Following a British colonial law dating from 1882, water rights are linked to land ownership. So while being a shared 'resource', groundwater access is spread unevenly, favoring landowners, large agri-businesses and industries. Furthermore, groundwater's invisible and fugitive character makes it difficult to assess its quantity, quality and direction of flow.
Yet, the wells scattered across the landscape challenge groundwater’s invisibility, bringing it directly to the surface. Wells tell stories of water abundance and scarcity, cooperation and competition, making manifest the changes in farming practices and cropping patterns in a region. Looking at wells allows the assessment of water quality and quantity through visible marks, colours, tastes, smells, sounds.
The history of groundwater can be told through the historic perspective of its wells and the ways people narrate them.
Wells of Water, History
and Power in Tamil Nadu
Eri Variyam (‘tank committees’) is an ancient system for managing and distributing local water sources in Tamil Nadu, South India. The system allocated each farmer water according to the size of their land.
However, wells now commonly run dry and are often not maintained by land owners. In collaboration with Farmer Producer Organisations, an organisation called MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF ) in Chennai have developed a well rejuvenation programme. So far, 134 wells have been rejuvenated in the district of Villupuram. Inclusion in the programme is conditional upon farmers equally sharing the water, which can be challenging in a context of local and customary laws or practices and caste norms around land ownership.*
*Notes from an interview with FPO in Tamil Nadu in February 2020