Between the city and the salty sea - The wells of Bhuigaon, Thane, Greater Mumbai - Guest post by MS Gopal

Bhuigaon’s fields are watered by small rain- fed Bhowkal (large wells) maintained by women.

 As the concrete jungle of Greater Mumbai reaches Bhuigaon and overuse of groundwater sucks in the sea water, the traditional wells are under threat.

 

 

Bhuigaon is a small agricultural village nestled between the Mumbai suburb of Vasai and the Arabian Sea. Bhuigaon is also in Thane district, the district with the fastest growing urban population in India according to the latest census. The location makes the village fairly prosperous. Most young men commute to Mumbai for work and can afford to build the large homes while the women tend the crops. The village grows bananas and vegetables for Mumbai city and rice is grown during the long monsoon. The people and the village reap the benefits from both sides. The city and the village. The future as well as what could be its past.

The story of Bhuigaon is the story of all agricultural villages within striking distance of a city. You can see the high rise apartments of Vasai from Bhuigaon. However, it’s one of the notified villages that will eventually be assimilated into the Vasai-Virar Municipal Corporation. It’s just a matter of time before this typical village outside a city becomes a typical suburb. One of the residents of this village, Sachin Marti looks like a typical youngster from Bhuigaon. His primary education began in the local primary school. Secondary education was in Vasai. And his college education in Mumbai. The typical ends there. After a year studying finance, he decided to study social service and after his education, he plans to follow his father’s footstep to become a farmer while his friends from the village are going to become engineers and accountants. They will work in Mumbai and use the money to build bigger homes on their village land. It’s at a commutable distance from the city after all.

Earlier the people used to live in the main village and used to work in the fields that surround the village. Now, homes are being built on what was agricultural land, slowly eating away the farms and the wells or Bhowkal that irrigate these farms. If Sachin Marti wants to become a farmer, he will need the Bhowkal to survive. 

The Bhowkal

There were approximately 40 Bhowkals in Bhuigaon village, out of which 7 have disappeared. They have silted, leveled and built upon. 5 of them are on the verge of disappearing and the rest are still being used for agriculture and the larger ones even provide fish.

Traditionally, the Bhowkals are owned and maintained by the community. The women of the community to be specific. Each Bhowkal provides water for about 20 acres and sometimes up to 40 families. Protecting the Bhowkals are trees that act as a fence and with roots that binds the soil. Silt tends to deposit during the monsoons and has to be removed during the dry months.

The water for the constructing of homes built by Sachin Marti’s old schoolmates on fertile farmland comes from these bhowkals. This coupled with the pressure of population sucks out more water from the wells than traditional farming used to do. This is causing salt water from the sea, just 1 to 1.5 kilometers away, to seep in. Over the years, the water is turning saline and is affecting the quality of the crop and drinking water. Moreover, tankers supplying water to the parched suburbs of Mumbai steal water from wells in these villages.

Bhuigaon’s wells are threatened from two sides, the pressure of the urban lifestyle and the sea.

But Bhuigaon could survive if the residents like Sachin Marti can develop a sustainable water management system. The region receives 2200mm of rain a year. If properly harnessed using the existing system of Bhowkals, Sachin Marti imagines that it would provide enough water for farming, provide drinking water to new homes that will come up and keep salinity of the ground water at bay. But that would mean designing a system that uses the local conditions best.

As of now, protecting the Bhowkals seems to be the best way to recharge the groundwater, and control flooding during monsoon. But who will lead the change? A student called Sachin who is yet to find a way to get the community to come together? Or the Government that has minimal or no role in maintaining these wells?

Bhuigaon is not alone. The fight to save village wells is also being fought on another battle field. Right now, the villages that have been notified for assimilation by the Virar-Vasai Municipal Corporation have launched an agitation called Jan Andolan led by the local MLA. They want to keep the city and the building laws that come with it, away. However, that’s a fight that’s usually won by the city because of various factors. Finally it’s up to the villages to decide how they will maintain a sustainable water source on their own. As for a youngster like Sachin Marti, will he be able to fulfill his ambition of becoming a farmer? Time will tell.

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