The medieval nehers in water-scarce Aurangabad are a lifeline for residents, but are being ruined by civic corruption and private interests.
Aurangabad: Sameer is eight and for as long as he can remember, his family has lived on the high bank of the Kham River, opposite a section of the old city walls. Sameer has no last name to give, and his one-room house has no real address and no municipal water connection. It never did.
Just below the house, though, in the hardened earth of the riverbank there is a round hole. When he pulls out the plastic bag stuffed in its mouth, clear water pours out – like a drinking fountain, but one that also allows Sameer’s family to bathe, to cook and to wash their clothes. By early April this year, the Kham was dry, its bed covered in grasses, trash and rubble. But the hole in the river-wall still flowed with sweet, cool water, as it has for almost 400 years.
The round mouth in the river-bank spares Sameer’s family, and others nearby, the struggles of over a quarter of Aurangabad’s population who receive no municipal water. Even those who do have their supply severely limited as each summer begins.
By the standards of an Indian city, Aurangabad has enviable water resources:
Fifty kilometers to the south, the Godavari is dammed to form the Jayakwadi reservoir, the largest in the Marathwada region. Rising over the city to the north are the flat-topped hills and water-tables of the Deccan traps.
But come the dry season every year, mismanagement and powerful interests leave the city parched – and leave residents, the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), and even the tanker-mafia dependent on a system created by a 17th–century sultan; a system nevertheless being crushed by the neglect and ignorance of its modern government.
To reach Sameer’s jhuggi at the riverside, water flows down ceramic pipelines, pooling in hidden cisterns and rising and falling through pressure-locks. The channels grow until they are hidden aqueducts, high enough and wide enough for a person to stand upright. They run back for kilometres, out of the city into the hills, where they are charged by natural springs in the basalt. Together they are called the Neher-e-Ambari, after Malik Ambar, a sultan who rose from being a slave to command one of India’s great medieval towns.
Aurangabad and the Marathwada region are enduring a difficult summer. Temperatures in March were already the highest ever recorded in that month and nearly every week some locality leads a protest to the Town Hall demanding water.
In Himayat Bagh, a city park and government nursery, children just done with final exams climb onto an old masonry vent half-hidden in the shrubbery. At noon, when the sun comes straight down, you can see down to the clear water at the bottom, running over a sandy bed and polished stones.
Finding footholds in the missing bricks, you can descend 20 feet, stepping into knee-deep running water. The aqueduct, or neher, stretches into darkness in both directions – up to the hills and down to the city. Little spots and pools of light play on the lime-washed walls wherever the original builders set vents or other manholes. You could stay down here a long time, but you would be scolded by the residents of Jamil Nagar. What you’re wading through is what they will drink downstream.
Seven hundred years ago, this area was chosen by an impetuous sultan in Delhi, Mohammad bin Tughlaq, for a new capital. Tughlaq ordered the entire population of Delhi to migrate to Daulatabad, outside modern Aurangabad. One old man refused, the story goes, and the mad sultan had him tied by the foot to a cart and dragged the whole way. Only the man’s foot made it. Two years later, Daulatabad ran out of water and Tughlaq marched the whole city back.
Three hundred years later, another ruler chose to build a new city here. Malik Ambar was born in the horn of Africa, enslaved and sold in Baghdad, and was brought at last to this part of the Deccan where the ruling Ahmednagar Sultanate was crumbling before Mughal expansion.
Ambar put this political chaos to his gain. The Gazetteer of Aurangabad, from 1884, records that he “availed himself of the services of Mahratta chiefs, whose power, it may be said, he was the first to develop, and it was under his banner that Shahji, the father of Sivaji, laid the foundation of Mahratta greatness.” Ambar became a commander of Maratha cavalry, and eventually Regent of the state.
Like Tughlaq, he was a keen technologist, but unlike Tughlaq, Ambar saw how the hydrology of the nearby Traps could irrigate his new city. His engineers cut deep channels on a careful gradient, walled them with brick and lime and sealed them against dust and evaporation, setting access-points at regular lengths.
Ambar’s first aqueduct, originating at the Harsul Lake, extended four kilometres to a public pool at Gaimukh. From there, 12-inch earthen pipelines carried the water onward to dozens of smaller cisterns around the city. Many pipes were routed up and over brick towers, which relieved air locks and built up pressure so the water could rise to the upper floors of nobles’ houses, or cascade from elevated fountains. Eventually, a subterranean infrastructure of between 14 and 17 nehers carried cool, potable water to the fortunate residents of Khadki.
Today, four centuries on, a ‘living’ neher still drives water up the 22-foot column of the Panchakki fountain in Begumpura. A curtain of water spills from the top and cools the air. But most of the neher system has not fared as well. As the city population has gone from two lakh to nearly fifteen, Aurangabad’s modern rulers have steered closer to the path of Tughlaq than of Ambar.
Lacking protection from the city or the Archaeological Society of India or even basic signposting of where they are laid, most of the Neher-e-Ambari have been flattened by builders laying foundations for the city’s modern sprawl. Some intrusions have been more egregious than others. In 1988, the collector’s office drained the Hathi Hauz – a stone tank apparently used in the 17th century to bathe elephants – and built a cement office-block inside it.
At the Sriman Balasaheb Thakre Botanical Garden, Priyanand and Attdeep Agale point out a track laid down for a toy railway. The Agale brothers are businessmen who have spent much of their lives campaigning for Aurangabad’s interconnected ecological heritage of lakes, parks and nehers. They started when they were children and rescued a tree on a median from being cut down. Today they run the Eco-Needs Foundation, of which Priyanand is president. One of their more recent campaigns was centred on the Botanical Garden, its lakes and the nehers running below it.
At the far end of the park, the toy-train track runs in a shallow circular trench, around a medieval tower. There is no actual train: the facility is still waiting to be inaugurated and looks like it might wait a long time. Priyanand points out collapsed masonry visible in one wall of the trench. This is the neher channel that ran to the air tower – severed by the excavation of the trench.
There is still one intact neher elsewhere in the garden and it has a pumpset over it with a hose attached. Municipal gardeners drew from it to water the plants.
The perversity of Aurangabad’s treatment of its nehers is not that it is oblivious to their existence. Instead, even as the city allows their piecemeal destruction, it exploits the few nehers that are still functional, supplying water as they were built to do in the 17th century.
The main source of water for the city is the Jayakwadi reservoir. Despite the demands on the Godavari, the levels in the reservoir are generally healthy – the problem is the pipeline to the city, which is obsolete and heavily prone to leakage and theft.
“There’s enough water in Jayakwadi to provide Aurangabad with water 24-hours a day,” said Sunil Kachave, a senior correspondent with Dainik Pudhari. “But the system is incapable – it’s still running on a scheme from 1980.”
In 2010, the AMC proposed a parallel pipeline, the Samantar Jalvahini, but made little progress in building it. The project was restarted in 2014 as a public-private partnership with the Essel Group, but ran into more delays – and in August 2016 that contract was terminated too. The dispute between the AMC and Essel Group is in the Supreme Court and no work on the Samantar Jalvahini is underway.
Meanwhile, the AMC denies water-connections to 118 localities (mostly ghuntevari vasahat or unauthorised colonies) where three lakh residents live. In addition, there is the Satara-Devlai municipal council, merged with the AMC in 2016, which is also not served. Where residents do have connections and pay municipal fees, the legal supply has dwindled to once every three or four days. The strain will increase as the summer progresses.
This failure to deliver water to Aurangabad isn’t accidental, Kachave said. Wherever residents are deprived, they depend on the water-tanker business, which sells ground-water at huge private profit, charging between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 for a tankerful, operating around the clock. Their influence on corporators helps to keep the municipal system in a shambles. Some ward politicians own tankers themselves, using them to distribute free water before elections.
“If I have an old tempo lying in front of my house, even I can covert it, get a driver and go into business,” said Kachave. “Tanker people will take water wherever it’s available – from private borewells, from nalas and even from the nehers.”
So it has come about that in parts of Aurangabad, the surviving medieval system is broken into by residents, local bodies, tanker-operators and the AMC itself. In middle-class colonies like Ektanagar, where manholes enclosed by walls pop up along the lanes, pumpsets are installed by each one and households take turns filling their Sintex tanks with the clean neher water. Behind the colony, in a bare field where cows graze on rubbish, a pump in a locked pump-house runs day and night, drawing water from the neher for the inmates of the Harsul Central Jail.
In a empty plot across the NH8 highway, an enclosed manhole into the neher is painted with a sign: ‘Plot Vikri Chalu’. The words – plot auction begun – foreshadow the fate of the aqueduct once the builders arrive.
Across Aurangabad’s northern neighbourhoods lie scattered and shattered clues to this hidden heritage: derelict towers jammed against new homes and pools of shining water glimpsed between the weeds and debris in vacant plots. Two, three or five living nehers – accounts differ – still survive, with no help from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) or the state Department of Archaeology. Sources in the ASI say the organisation once notified its intention to declare the Neher-e- Panchakki as a protected monument. It received 400 objections and nothing has happened since.
The alignment of the nehers has not been visibly marked or even mapped since a 1931 survey by the government of nizam of Hyderabad. “One of the functions of the municipal authority is to sanction plans and layouts for construction in the city,” said Attdeep, who is also a lawyer. “While sanctioning those plans, the authorities don’t have any record of the path where the neher system is flowing.” Construction and tanker interests make sure it stays that way.
The recent past does not inspire much hope for action, but examples in other cities might. In Bidar in north Karnataka, a similar medieval system of wells and aqueducts is being restored with support from the Department of Tourism and the Karnataka state government. In 2015, as a feature in The Hindu reported, the Naubad karez in Bidar flowed for the first time in centuries.
Other inspiration is closer by. At the village of Patoda, just outside city limits, the panchayat has created a water system based on similar principles to Ambar’s – rational design, common use and an understanding that local resources are more valuable than supply from afar. Patoda’s residents pay a progressive tax, based on the quality of their homes, to run a hydraulic architecture that harvests, purifies and distributes local water fairly. The village centre vends drinking-water day and night, using a ‘water ATM’.
Bhaskar Pere-Patil, a roguish former sarpanch who led the village reforms, says tankers are forbidden from even entering Paroda. Pere-Patil has gone as far as to advocate for halting the government water-supply to surrounding sugarcane fields. The water they get is polluted, he says.
“It’s the city’s waste water,” he said. “For eight or ten years I’ve been fighting with the municipal corporation to stop it. Why do we need dirty water? The water in the ground, that falls from above, that’s what we need to store.”
He laughs at the struggles of the big city. “Thirty thousand acres of sugarcane grow on waste water from Aurangabad,” he said. “And they say they don’t have enough.”
In the last year, the AMC has reportedly demolished eight historic structures in the city, including segments of the functional Neher-e-Ambari and the Neher-e-Panchakki. There have since been signs of remorse and regrouping from the AMC’s heritage committee.
For now – as the Meteorological Department predicts heatwaves in the region – their combination of rich legacy and life-giving utility has brought no protection to the city’s living nehers. They will need to be fought for, as Priyanand made clear. “When we inherit property and don’t get it,” he said, “how we fight for it in court. We need to fight like that, to receive our legacy of water.”