Bengaluru’s borewells, who’s counting?

Ground water bill was passed in 2011. But borewell digging continues unabated. Here’s a look at one area where indiscriminate digging has adversely affected the water table.

As I write this, I hear the noise of yet another borewell being dug on my street. This is the ninth one since December 2011; all within a radius of less than half kilometre, in Kalyan 1st block, HRBR Layout. This is happening at a time when the newly formed Karnataka Ground Water Authority is trying to gather force.

45 houses in HRBR layout were surveyed informally for this piece. Ground water levels, availability of corporation water, implementation of rain water harvesting (RWH) are some of the things that were looked at. What I found out could be the reality across Bengaluru and not just in HRBR layout.

Indiscriminate digging depleting groundwater levels

Kalyan Nagar 1st Block is a fast-developing area bordering the Ring Road near the Horamavu Junction. In the last two years, all the previously abundant, empty plots have been methodically taken over and occupied. Apartment buildings and commercial complexes are prominent among the new constructions.

Early residents, who built their homes around 15 years ago, say that the area has been slowly filling out over the last ten years, with intensive action very recently. There is a BWSSB (Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board) tank and office located adjacent to the area, which is on a high ground, and corporation water supply to the area has been established from more than 15 years now. But most of the houses have borewells as a second source of water.

View of borewell digging in progress on 3rd cross, the truck parked into the road. Pic: Lina Vincent

The borewells are dug at the time of construction itself, since the water connection happens only after the construction of the house is completed.  Out of the 45 houses that were surveyed 70% have borewells and almost half of them have run dry. While the others mostly run to trickles.

The water problems faced by the residents of the layout have reached a peak this summer because of a combination of reasons. – irregular and uneven supply of Cauvery water and dried up borewells which is the result of  indiscriminate digging of new borewells. Though there have been efforts at rainwater harvesting, it has not been enough to significantly recharge the groundwater.

Though earlier most borewells went to the depth of up to 400 ft, now the norm is 800 – 1000 ft. “I got water at the level of 150 feet when I constructed my house in 1997”, says Bhupendra P Shah, one of those who has been actively voicing his concerns on water supply. The current situation has left the residents chasing commercial water tankers (who form a veritable mafia) and the BWSSB helpline that rarely offers immediate support. At the recent Water Adalat on May 4th, people gathered to pour their grievances at the attending officer, but his only comment was that things would be looked into shortly.

RWH is not implemented across board

Among the nine new borewells dug here in the last five months, several are in almost adjacent plots (see map) breaking the regulatory minimum 10 metre distance. The recently established park in the area has also suffered due to a dry borewell. Among the nine borewells, seven are in plots where construction is in progress.

Of these, RWH has been implemented in three, and contractors in other four evade the matter by suggesting that they ‘will plan it when construction is complete’.

The real question however is, are they all getting requisite permissions for their borewells? Or is this issue to be added to the long list of unregulated laws that exist in name alone?

Map of the survey area including the park

What do the groundwater rules say?

The State Legislature passed the Karnataka Ground Water (Regulation and Control of Development and Management) Bill, 2011, in March last year. The bill was meant to provide for the constitution of the Karnataka Ground Water Authority headed by the secretary of water resources department to control indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater, especially in the notified areas like city-corporation, municipality limits or drought hit areas. Department of mines and geology identifies areas which have over exploited groundwater and notifies them.

Its main aim would be to protect potable water sources. The bill would make it necessary for anyone wanting to drill a borewell in a notified area for any purpose to apply to the authority for grant of permit. The bill also makes it compulsory for those in the business of digging borewells to register their machinery with the authority within six months. A non-conformance to the rules would mean the individual or agency would be liable to a monetary fine, or even imprisonment.

On  April 21st 2012 a preliminary meeting was held by S Suresh Kumar, Minister for Urban Development and Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) where the official setting up of a Directorate was discussed.

On the 5th of May, the Karnataka Ground Water Authority, headed by the secretary, water resources department, and functioning under the Department of Mines and Geology, held its first meeting to frame guidelines for the new Act.

Such an act, which has already been activated in states like Maharashtra, Punjab, New Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, is rather late in being passed by the Karnataka Legislature. The water table in Bangalore city is already heavily depleted, due to its rapid expansion (horizontally and vertically) and ever new suburban areas that do not immediately come under the BBMP.

Over 40% of the 800 borewells dug by BWSSB at the cost of Rs. 100 crore, are now defunct with ground water slipping beyond the maximum limit. (source TOI May 6th 2012). The current number of borewells is estimated beyond 1.5 lakh in number.

People’s voices

Each area has its share of civic minded residents, who unite in voicing concerns and finding solutions to problems that affect the community as a whole. However, there are also those who are unbothered, too busy, or plain selfish when it comes to participation in sorting neighbourhood problems.

Shah, one of the activists in the area says that management of water resources has to be a group effort and that people and the authorities have to work together. Also, individuals have to invest time to follow up on their grievances. He adds without follow ups the process is left incomplete.

Sreevidya Balaji a resident from 3rd Cross, quite radically suggests that those who dig a borewell must share the water with everyone. “There should be a regulation of borewell digging; if someone is digging to 1000 ft, then he must take responsibility of sharing the water with others in the street,” she says. She also suggests that grey water treatment should be made compulsory and incentivising those who are adopting RWH. She is one of those whose borewell has run dry since January this year, and adds that keeping a garden has become a luxury.

View of dust filled atmosphere due to bore well digging in the area. Pic: Lina Vincent

Residents also feel that while some areas get very little of Cauvery water, the others get more than their fair share. There are houses in the area where cars are washed with vast amounts of water, and even the street in front of the house is hosed down. When each individual thinks for himself alone, there is no possibility of sharing.

Sundar Balasubramanian from 5th cross insists that the Karnataka Government must follow the Chennai example, where RWH has been strictly implemented in houses and apartments, and every fly-over is connected to water harvesting pits. “Kalyan Nagar’s water table will be fully charged if the (Horamavu) under-pass and fly-over in the area are fitted with RWH processes, instead of the water running off into a stormwater drain.” he says. This can be followed all over the city as well.

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