Drilling a bore-well – the informal sector at playJuly 19, 2012
They came in the afternoon on Saturday. The bore-well drilling crew came in two large trucks struggling to manoeuver in a narrow tree lined street. One of the trucks had a drilling rig and a large compressor. It costs Rs, 1.15 crores so the owner said and can drill up to 1250 feet. The other one had diesel, more equipment for drilling and sundry other stuff such as cooking equipment for the crew and water for the drill bit to be cooled.
Much before them a hydro-geologist had come swinging a pendulum and marching about looking for a possible spot for drilling. The city has been facing a water crisis due to bad rains plus an exploding demand. Political pressure had sanctioned 10 bore-wells to each Corporator. These were to be drilled in each ward of the city and provide supplemental water. The hydro-geologist then placed a steel rod in a place next to the road and a storm water drain and had walked away. This was the point sacred and inviolable. The drilling crew found it and went about chopping the saplings and tree branches obstructing their rig from reaching the exact same spot, not neither an mm here nor an mm there.
After much back and forth the drill got to the exact spot. A tube level was used to ensure the verticality of the bore and with enough noise to wake and disturb about 6 roads of the neigbourhoods the drilling commenced not before a ‘pooja’ to propitiate the gods of water and earth in true Indian style.
The first 100 feet was easy as this was soil and weathered rock. The dust flew and covered the entire crew as well as a few houses nearby.
Then hard rock was struck at 100 feet, indicated by the grey colour of the dust replacing the previous red. The drilling bit had to be changed and the slow grinding of the earth started. Progress was slow about a foot a minute. The compressor rig drank 1 litre of diesel per minute too and had to be constantly fed. In conversation with the owner it came to light that the mother-lode for the rigs is a small Tamil Nadu town called Tiruchengode.
Almost all rigs operating in South and Western India seem to come from the town of groundwater drilling.
Drilling went on till 10 p.m. in the night. Was there permission needed to drill? Not right now said the rig owner. Do you have to register your rig? Not right now. Can you drill throughout the night? Well we stop if the local residents object usually at 10 p.m. else we keep drilling.
The crew was a motley but cheerful lot from Kumbakonam and Theni. They went about their business professionally and knew what they were doing. The driver doubled up as a cook and started his preparation of egg curry and rice with a gas stove and cylinder right on the road. Freshly cut onions, garlic, ginger and freshly ground masala added an aroma to the whole venture. Mutton will be prepared in the night was the promise.
The two men who coordinated operations took turns on the shift. They both had started work as helpers and through experience had risen to become the drill operators. No school in India teaches drilling for groundwater and the roads are where you learn. For a country which has 30 million or so wells and bore-wells and draws 250 cubic kilometer of water every year this is remarkable. The crucial role of the informal sector in providing water is not well understood. It is they who provide over 60 % of India’s total water demand and not Engineers.
The drilling went on over a Sunday and on a Monday. Up-to 800 feet there was nary a sign of water. In the middle the drill would get stuck and it required all the expertise of the drill operator to take it out. It rained during the evenings and night and yet work went on. There was no protective gear, not even an umbrella on site. They slept inside and below the truck during two nights. Drank whisky from tetra-pack cartons and ate well thanks to fresh food from the master chef on the road.
Anxious residents and Corporator kept tabs sometimes by coming to the site and mostly on the phone. Finally at 840 feet water was struck. It came in a gush up through the drill. There was no expression of joy or relief for the crew. For them it was another day of work. Finally drilling stopped on Monday afternoon. All the drill lengths were lifted and measured to know exactly how deep the bore-well went as well as to make payments. The crew packed up over 2 hours and moved on to their next drilling place about a couple of kilo-metres away leaving behind gravel slurry and egg shells as a reminder of their slog. The pump would be fitted later and the electricity connections given. Water would reach the residents in a week or two. How long would the bore-well last? Nobody has a clue but the smiling owner of the rig assured us onlookers that it would be there for some time.
It is tough work providing water to India’s growing needs particularly during times of drought and low rainfall. Though groundwater is unsustainable without proper demand management and recharge yet it continues to be a source for emergency supply. On the informal sector of people who pick up skills by learning on the ground do we survive. Respect for them and their hard work are due and necessary. That is water wisdom.