In Indore, Farmers and Their Tube-Wells to the Rescue of Water-Starved City Slums

While some charge the slum-dwellers for the water, others believe it is only a matter of luck that they have access and provide the service for free.

Indore: Ram Nagar is a small slum settlement on the outskirts of Indore, about eight km from the heart of the city. Piped water supply is minimal, government-operated borewells remain unreliable and municipal water tankers are few and far between.

For most of their water supply, particularly in the summer months when almost all borewells dry up, residents in parts of the settlement rely on a benevolent farmer – Sanjeev Yadav.

When the residents of the slum colony have no access to water in the summer – which is now longer and warmer due to climate change – Yadav opens up his gates, beyond which is a 10-horse-power tube-well meant to irrigate his 10 acres of land.

“We cannot survive without his help. He is our saviour,” says Sonia, a resident of the Ram Nagar slum settlement who fills her daily supply of water from Yadav’s farm in the summer months.

“From next month, every morning and evening all of us will be found near his tube-well,” she said when we visited the area in late February. Almost all the approximately 200 residents of Ram Nagar carry their water drums and cans and line-up near Yadav’s tube-well to fill water. “Sometimes there are fights too. But nothing that is not manageable,” says Yadav.

Sanjeev Yadav and his wife Manisha at their farm.

Ram Nagar is an urban slum, while Yadav’s land located right opposite the slum, on what is still rural agricultural land. “Around 10 years ago, this basti (slum) was also a field owned by my relative,” he says pointing towards the lane which has around 30 houses. As his gaze goes towards the city growing around his field, he says, with a nervous laugh, “Sheher madumakhi ke chhate ki tarah badhta hai (The city grows like a beehive).”

He doesn’t charge the slum dwellers any money for the water that they fill from his premises using his tube-well – something that doesn’t please his wife.

“Even when some of these people offer him money, he refuses. Not just me, everyone in the family is opposed to this. We are spending for electricity, maintenance out of our own pockets,” says Manisha.

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Yadav smiles. “Main aisa nahi sochta ki mera nuksan ho raha hai. Ye to sirf naseeb ki bat hai unke pas pani nahi hai aur mere pas hai. Bhagwan ne diya hai. To main de deta hun. Mera pani thodi hai. Bhagwan ka hai (I don’t think that I am suffering a loss. It is a matter of fate that they don’t have water and I do. It’s been given to me by God. So, I give it to them. It’s not my water. It is God’s water),” he says.

Sanjeev Yadav’s farm.

About 2 km from Ram Nagar is Rakhi Nagar. They are similar in a lot of ways. Large parts of this slum colony too don’t have access to piped water or bore wells. Supply of municipal water tankers is also sporadic. And a farmer steps in to provide water from his tube-well where the government remains absent.

Rohit Kashyap owns 12 bigha, or slightly less than four acres, of land on which he grows wheat. He has two tube-wells on his farm. One of them is used for the sole purpose of providing water to the residents of a couple of lanes in Rakhi Nagar, the slum located right next to his land.

Unlike Yadav’s in Ram Nagar, however, this is not entirely an operation of benevolence. Kashyap charges Rs 300 a month for his and his tube-well’s services.

“He comes every month on his cycle, screaming for his money,” says Rekha Maurya, a resident of the Rakhi Nagar colony and a beneficiary of Kashyap’s water scheme, as she laughs. “You will see why I am laughing when you meet him. He is a strange man. Actually, he is a funny man,” she adds as others around her too began to laugh.

Rekha Maurya in Rakhi Nagar.

Kashyap is tall, muscular and a man of a few odd mannerisms, with a sense of humour. “Agar meri jagah Gandhiji hote wo bhi paisa lete. Rs 300 ki jagah Rs 200 lete. Par lete. Nahi to ye zyada din nahi chal sakta (Even if Mahatma Gandhi was here instead of me, he would also have been charging money. He may have charged Rs 200 instead of Rs 300. But he would have taken money. Otherwise this is not sustainable),” he tells me.

The arrangement between him and the slum dwellers appears to work for the benefit of both. The residents are happy to part with Rs 300 a month in lieu of assured supply of water even in the summer months, when all other sources run dry. Kashyap is able to cover the costs of electricity and repair, and feels that he is part of the solution.

Uska timepass bhi ho jata hai nahi to garmi mein akela pada rehta (It is also a way for him to pass his time, otherwise he would be lying all alone in the heat),” says Rekha.

A makeshift system

It all began a few years ago ­– five, according to Rekha – when the then very few residents of this part of Rakhi Nagar did not have electricity connections in their homes while Kashyap did.

The residents began to draw electricity from his connection. “We had to go through his field to attach the wires. He said we should pay him for this,” says Rekha.

The slum dwellers agreed to pay, and a precedent was set. “Then I only suggested to them that they can take water from the tube-well and pay me a certain amount every month. I think it started at Rs 100 a month,” Kashyap says.

Rohit Kashyap on his farm.

While in Ram Bagar, residents line-up near Yadav’s tube-well, in Rakhi Nagar a pipeline has been laid from Kashyap’s field to the lane in which most of the paying residents live.

“Around 50 households came together to collect some money, we bought pipes and laid the pipeline,” says Sadashree Verma, another resident of Rakhi Nagar.

Now there is a steel water pipe which goes from Kashyap’s tube-well in his farm to the two lanes. From there, individual households have attached plastic pipes which take the water to their homes where they fill their drums when Kashyap switches on the tube-well once in the morning and once in the evening.

In their 2018 paper, Sumit Vij, Vishal Narain, Timothy Karpouzoglou and Patik Mishra have described co-operation among communities living in peripheral Gurgaon faced with water scarcity. Their description bears some similarity to the kind of co-operation found in Indore.

Describing how members of a community faced with water scarcity organised themselves to collectivise the use of tube-wells, they write, “This represents a form of institutional innovation or a collective adaptation response to growing water scarcity.”

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Kashyap and Yadav are not the only farmers in Indore who are coming to the aid of slum colonies in water-starved Indore, where the water supply falls short of demand by about 30% and most of the deficit is borne by the underprivileged living in slums.

They are heavily reliant on borewells and water tankers – both private and government owned – for their water needs. In the summer, water scarcity is severe as on the one hand demand for water increases and on the other, supply declines as most borewells dry up.

Rahul Banerjee, an Indore-based civil engineer who has worked extensively on Indore’s urban water supply and authored studies on the topic, says that there are several farmers on the edges of Indore city who are providing this service to their urban counterparts, who in this instance are less fortunate.

“During my work in the field, I have found several such cases in various parts of Indore. Usually, the farmers charge something like Rs 200 per month for this,” Banerjee said.

A resident of Rakhi Nagar has installed a water pump to draw water from the pipeline coming from Kashyap’s farm.

Gokul Sharma is another farmer on the periphery of Indore who is providing water to slum colonies adjacent to his plot of agricultural land. “For several years I have been doing this. The people around my farm have no other way to access water. I don’t charge them money because these are poor people who are genuinely in need,” Sharma says.

“There is a massive shortage of water in this area and the government is not able to provide water. We are blessed because we are farmers and have a tube-well.” Like Yadav, he switches on his tube-well twice a day for the slum residents to fill their drums and cans with water.

Special effort during lockdown

But these arrangements between the farmers and slum dwellers have run into some problems in recent weeks due to the lockdown in place since March 25, aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. Indore is among the worst hit cities in India, with 1,176 patients as of April 26, and has strict curfew restrictions in place.

“In the first few days of the lockdown, the tube-well was not functioning. We went to check at the farm, and no one was there,” Sadashree, who relies on Kashyap’s tube-well for water, told us over the phone.

Kashyap’s helper on the field was in-charge of switching on the tube-well. “Lockdown aaya aur wo gaya. (The lockdown came, and he left),” Kashyap said over the phone.

Rohit Kashyap’s farm and his tube-well in the distance.

Kashyap lives about five km from the farm and would travel to the farm to harvest his wheat crop and to switch the tube-well on for the Rakhi Nagar residents reliant on him for the water.

“Now the harvest is done. All the wheat is in the store. But I still come every day just to switch the tube well on. I dodge the police, use by-lanes because they don’t allow us to travel,” Kashyap said.

Ab paisa liya hai to theek se suvidha bhi to deni hogi. Gandhiji bhi aisa hi karte (After all, I charge money and have to ensure that the proper service is provided. That’s what Gandhiji would have done).”

Yadav too travels around 10 km to his farm just for the purpose of switching the tube-well on for the slum residents. “I go twice a day anyhow and I also make sure that everybody maintains some distance between each other when they stand in line. One has to adapt with the times,” he said.

‘The city grows like a beehive’

Soon there will be more adapting to do. None of these farmers will be able to provide this essential service to slum residents in Indore for too much longer. Their land will soon be taken over by the city.

Private real estate agents have bought the lands of Kashyap and Yadav to construct housing colonies. The transfer will be completed in the next six months. “I did not want to sell. But everyone around me did and I was left with no choice,” said Yadav. “Maine aap ko kaha tha, sheher madumakhi ke chhate ki tarah bhadta hai (I told you, the city grows like a beehive).”

The pipeline coming from Rohit Kashyap’s farm with plastic pipes going to individual homes.

Sharma’s land has been acquired for the Indore Development Authority’s extravagant ‘super corridor’ project for which the IDA has roped in PricewaterhouseCoopers as consultants. The project is being marketed as a financial-technological hub and will include malls, multiplexes, convention centres and high-rise apartment buildings. It is being constructed by acquiring rural land on the outskirts of Indore.

“For now, the work has stopped due to the coronavirus. But the land will be taken as soon as the lockdown is lifted,” Sharma said.

Apart from the upheaval this will cause in his life, he is also worried about the slum residents around his farm who rely on him for water. “Pata nahi kaise pani milega inhe. Par bade bade udyogpati ayenge yahan pe. Unke paas to humse zyada saadhan hai. Wo zaroor intezaam karenge in logon ke liye (I don’t know how these people will get water. But the big industrialists who are coming here have more resources than I do. They will definitely make some arrangement for these people),” he said.

All photos by Kabir Agarwal.

Kabir Agarwal is a WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellow. Reporting for this story was supported by WaterAid India’s ‘WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellowship Programme.’