The Price of Water

Cities have died after they've dried up their water. How long will Bangalore live? It was once supplied by hundreds of lakes, and at the time its population was a fraction of today's, and now there are many more people and fewer lakes because people have drained the lakes and built office complexes and apartment blocks on them. Each year, when the monsoons arrive, they visit also these buildings in low-lying areas and flood them.


Our neighbourhood gets water from the City Corporation on alternate days, and we were all right with that until last month when the bore-well in our compound that served as a backup ran dry. When we sank that well ten years ago we went down only 180 feet. One has to dig deeper these days. A neighbour of our campus at Electronics City sank a well last month and hit water at 1500 feet. He was so anxious he performed the sacred ritual of breaking a coconut every successive one-hundred feet.

The water-diviner who located a fresh spot in our home was confident we had an inch and a half of flow at 380 feet. He determined that with a small fat round instrument quite like a compass, holding which he strutted about front and back of our home. He located three points, and this one with the promise of water at 380 feet was plumb in the middle of the path to the front door, and he urged us to dig there.

"All right," we said. What's the point in having a neat pathway to a home that's lacking in water? The diviner smiled. "I never fail in my predictions," he declared, smiling and showing teeth that were a match with his bright white shirt.

They were a crew of nine who arrived to dig. The driver and the mechanic were Tamils. The seven others were adivasis, tribals who have migrated to Bangalore from a village 20 kilometres out of Bhopal. They said their language was Hindi, but they were speaking an incomprehensible dialect of it. They had no other language.

They started at 1:00 PM (waiting out the 90 inauspicious minutes of Friday's Rahu) and struck water at 3:00 PM the following day. They did the job in a cloud of rock dust, adding shaft after five-foot shaft to the drill bit as it bore down screeching, thudding, rattling, and also groaning. They worked without face masks, without ear muffs, without safety boots which they should've worn because they carried such weights all the time, but they worked in good cheer with dust thick and deep in their hair and on their clothes, and painted on their faces. When they hit the first reserves of water, grey goo flew into their face, and they went on nevertheless, keeping eyes and mouth clear, wiping them clean when they could.

When they hit the big reserve, and water came bursting up to the height of the rig, they grinned with twice more happiness than we felt. When we thanked them they were shy to accept it.

When the manager of the drilling company arrived to settle the account, and when I congratulated before him the chief mechanic who had squatted before the rig the whole time for two days with his eyes on the shaft and his hands on the levers, the manager smiled in approval. "The owner thrives by this man's efforts," he said. And added that the man married six years ago, and will live only six years more. He said that in Kannada, right before the mechanic. "Che!" I admonished him. "For God's sake, don't say that."

"I'm just telling the fact, no sir," he said, insistent for the last word.