“Does it take much to prevent such incidents?” the Supreme Court asked in November 2009 while considering the lethal risks posed by abandoned open borewells that had already taken several young lives. Doing some plain-speaking, it directed State governments to ensure that all abandoned borewells and tubewells were capped. Providing practical tips to cover them with wire mesh or lids, the court also wanted functioning wells fenced off. On the basis of this order, the Union government in February 2010 issued guidelines for the maintenance of borewells. All that was evidently in vain, judging from the number of accidents since then, including many in which children died after remaining traumatically trapped in the innards of the earth for days. The latest such heart-rending tragedy occurred in a Haryana village: the body of little Mahi, who fell into a 70-foot-deep borewell on June 20 while playing with her friends on her fourth birthday, was pulled out after some 80 hours of rescue efforts.
Borewells and tubewells are widely used for irrigation in Punjab and Haryana, mostly in rural areas, because of the falling water table. Where these were once narrow holes, they are now typically 18 to 24 inches in diameter. Rural India has become growingly dependent on groundwater. Almost all the government programmes seek to supply water to villages through tubewells. Poor recharge due to geological reasons and environmental degradation (where creeping urbanisation is a key cause) make many of them defunct. The typical short-cut solution is to dig more borewells. Most of them, illegal and unlicensed, are left uncapped once they fall into disuse. On a larger plane, excessive reliance on groundwater for drinking, irrigation and industrial uses in India represents a massive failure of state policy. A review sponsored by the Central Ministry of Water Resources four years ago estimated that 85 per cent of rural, 50 per cent of urban drinking and industrial needs, and 55 per cent of irrigation needs, were met out of groundwater. This points to a virtual withdrawal of the state from the water sector, despite the formation of the Central Ground Water Authority with a mandate to, among other things, interact with State governments and regulate extraction of sub-soil water. Incidents of borewell deaths will stop only when the government takes its goals seriously — of safety as well as better groundwater management — and starts taking measures in mission mode to ensure consistent water supply wherever needed. The best way to start is to team up with local bodies, starting with village panchayats.