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Groundwater has failed Andhra Pradesh’s farmers. Between 1997 and 2006, about 4,500 farmers committed suicide, unable to repay loans they had taken to drill borewells. MOYNA and ASHUTOSH MISHRA found farmers scoffing at rules to dig deeper for an uncertain resource. They have few alternatives. The Andhra government intends to check the increasingly depleting groundwater reserves by roping in farmers to monitor groundwater use. Will it result in a shift to less water-intensive crops?
A Shekhar, 25, committed suicide a year ago. A resident of Burgupalle village in Andhra Pradesh’s Mahabub - nagar district, he had bought half a hectare (ha) for growing paddy.
He borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh to sink three borewells but did not find groundwater. Shekhar could not repay the debt, so he hung himself in his house. His wife, along with their two and four years old sons, left the village to find work in Hyderabad, said Bal Swami, once Shekhar’s neighbour.
Swami has a debt of Rs 5 lakh. He sunk 15 borewells between March and April this year. The deepest was 106 metres. Over the past six years he has sunk 39 borewells. Two yield water. He uses them to grow paddy on about a hectare to make ends meet. His remaining four ha lie unused.
In Velgonda village, 25 km from Burgupalli, farmer Venkat Reddy, 50, sank seven borewells—the deepest at 122 metres—in one day in April. Two yielded water. Rig owners refused to drill further because the rig was not powerful enough to drill through the rock bed. He is now contemplating a loan from a bank to repay the interest for the Rs 4 lakh he borrowed from lenders in his village. R Krishtaya Naik, sarpanch of Macharam village in the district, had to sell 1.2 ha to repay the debt incurred four years ago after sinking three borewells.
Explaining the desperate attempts of farmers to find water, Swami said if one hits water, one earns. And then the loans can be repaid in two to five crop seasons. Otherwise, it’s a difficult life forcing farmers to take extreme steps such as suicide.
Finding groundwater is a gamble. Between 2009 and 2010 the groundwater department of Andhra Pradesh investigated 15,263 sites and recommended 7,335 sites for borewells.
(Read about the state of groundwater in Andhra Pradesh)
“There is no foolproof way of finding water,” said Sudershan Reddy of Vepur village where 80 borewells were drilled this year; four yield water. Geologists sometimes help farmers find the spot where groundwater would be found. They charge Rs 1,000-5,000. Sometimes people blessed with special powers, or water diviners as they are called, bail out farmers by locating the right spot. They use coconuts, neem twigs to locate groundwater, and usually charge Rs 500 or more
(Read more about local solutions).
“Even with machines and gadgets we are not 100 per cent sure of hitting water. We cannot disregard native knowledge,” said N Eswara Reddy, capacity building expert with the groundwater department. “Use of coconuts for precision could be debated, but not dismissed,” he added.
Dhanalakshmi’s eyes turn moist every time she looks at the portrait of her husband in her house in Ayyavandlapalle village in Pulicherla mandal. Her husband Siddaiah Naidu consumed pesticide in 2004 after the five borewells he sunk on his 1.2 ha failed.
His neighbour, K Muniratnam Naidu, has sunk seven borewells in the past nine years. He is planning one more this year. “I cannot let my land be at the mercy of nature. If it does not rain the groundnut crop will be ruined, and we might starve,” he said.
In the nearby K V Palle mandal, Raja Reddy who owns about five ha, has tried to kill himself thrice. Seven borewells failed Raja; he has a debt of Rs 2 lakh with an interest rate of 3 per cent per month. He returns late to avoid creditors who pester his wife Lakshamma.
Raja’s daughters live with relatives 20 km away because of the everyday embarrassment with creditors. “He asks me to leave the village with him because he cannot stand the humiliation of turning a pauper. But where do we go and what do we do?” his wife asked.
Raja drilled his last borewell to 198 metres. He wanted the water for his tomato crop, which fetches good returns. Fellow villager A Venkataramana Reddy said there were a few small tanks in the village for irrigation, which remain dry in summer.
“We need water and cannot grow anything without borewells, so we keep trying despite failures,” he said. Venkataramana, who grows groundnut, has two failed borewells, a debt of Rs 1 lakh with an interest of 3 per cent per month.
Drilling to new depths
Chittoor is prone to drought, which makes it worse. As per official records about 56 per cent of the total irrigated area in the district is watered through borewells. Therefore, drilling to new depths is not unusual. The average depth of groundwater in the western mandals of the district is about 152 metres, said Vijay Shekhar of the nonprofit, Foundation for Ecological Security. T Basavaiah, deputy tehsildar of K V Palle mandal, though, claimed groundwater in the mandal is at 106 metres. A farmer claimed it is deeper.
“We drilled to 170 metres on the advice of a geologist. We did not find water. The geologist asked us to drill to 213 metres, but the rig was not powerful enough. We gave up,” said Muniratnam Naidu of Ayyavandlapalle.
The density and depth of borewells are a result of the shift to commercial crops, lack of alternative irrigation sources and deficit rainfall, said B Venkat Reddy of the non-profit, Sahajeevan. “Chittoor has seen a shift to tomato farming. It requires intensive irrigation between February and July, the driest period,” he said. “Tomatoes fetch good money, with farmers receiving as much as Rs 35 per kg at times.”
While the dry regions of the state take the lead in the number of borewells, coastal areas are not far behind in groundwater exploitation.
Donkina Jaleswar Rao, former sarpanch of Butchayyapeta village, borrowed Rs 60,000 from a moneylender two years ago for digging a borewell in his 0.6 ha. Despite drilling to 100 metres, he could not find water. He has a debt of Rs 1.4 lakh and has no clue how he will clear it. The rig owner charged him Rs 80 per foot (0.3 metres) of drilling; the pipe, called casing, came for Rs 250 per 0.3 metres. He gave up after 100 metres as he had spent all his money. “Now I have to depend on the rains for paddy and sugarcane,” he said.
D Bheema Shankar Rao, deputy director of groundwater department, denied pressure on groundwater in the district. Groundwater in the 42 basins of the district was within the safe limit, and while the average groundwater level in the district during May was 8.2 metres, it was 5.57 metres in November, which was normal, he said.
With Visakhapatnam emerging as an industrial hub, organizations like Fishermen’s Youth Welfare Association led by T Sankar have launched a campaign against groundwater mining by industries. Last year, Sankar wrote to the chairman of the state Coastal Zone Management Authority and the member secretary of the state pollution control board alleging that Hetro Drugs, a pharma company, was drawing water at Rajayyapeta village turning the water in surrounding areas saline. He is awaiting reply.
There is an undercurrent in Tagarapuwalsa town, 25 km from Visakhapatnam, against Divi’s Laboratory. The pharma unit has set up a pump house with four borewells on the banks of the Gosthani, which serves the drinking water and irrigation needs of over a million people. Rao, though, said the unit had not polluted the river.