Ratlam is perhaps the only city endowed with as many step-wells or bawdis, almost one step-well at each step in the town of little over 200,000 inhabitants. According to municipal records, some 52 bawdis exist in various stages of neglect. Even the police station and the government hospital have bawdis in their premises. However, indications are that many more may have subsequently been filled-up to pave way for municipal or private usage.

Located on the Delhi-Mumbai railway route, Ratlam has been an important junction which is better known for its range of salt confectioneries. Situated in the north-west part of Madhya Pradesh, better known as malwa , Ratlam was once one of the first commercial towns in central India known for its extensive trade in opium, tobacco and salt.

But the irony is that most of the step-wells in the town -- though heritage structures -- have been taken for granted as waste dumps, earning the municipality flak from the media and the public at large. A preliminary survey revealed that while the Sai Bawdi in Shastri Nagar and the Do Mukhi Bawdi on the main street have been turned into garbage bins by the surrounding habitation, the Kashi Viswanath Bawdi, a few yards away, has retained its glory under a samiti headed by a local priest.

Why have bawdis come to endow this town? The town must have had a rich history at the centre of its legacy. It is evident that the bawdis have existed much before the town of Ratlam was founded by Captain Borthwick in 1829, with broadened roads and well-built houses. The town was not only the capital of the princely state of Ratlam, it was an important town on the trade between western and central princely states.

Given the fact that the town is located in a region that receives an average 90 cm rainfall during two months of the year, it might have forced the inhabitants to build the bawdis. Due its proximity to Rajasthan, the traditional knowledge of water storage and conservation may have percolated from the adjoining dry districts. The need for step-wells may have been necessitated due to the large presence of outside traders in the city as well.

Needless to say, the bawdis were in use well after Independence for household water consumption as well as for critical irrigation needs. These were in use till drinking water was sourced first from Gunavad pond and later from a large storage structure called Dolawad. Some 40-45 lakh gallons of water get supplied for daily domestic consumption in the city.

Assured supply of potable water made the inhabitants to neglect their heritage. In the summer months, however, erratic supply brings in the water tankers from rural areas for meeting household needs in the city. Interestingly, it has been assessed that should the existing bawdis be renovated, some 40-45 per cent of daily domestic needs could be met from them. Shockingly, the municipality has no more than Rs. three to four lakhs per year for maintaining these step-wells.

While a majority of the bawdis may be under various stages of decline, the structures do hold promise in terms of restoring the traditional wisdom of water conservation in an era marked with supply uncertainties and climate change. While there is a general consensus to restore the step-wells, the common perception is that it should be done by the municipal authorities.

But there is a ray of hope. Surrounded by households along its periphery, the Bhoyra Bawdi would have long been dead had the local samiti under the leadership of Subhash Sharma not taken it upon itself to protect it. The samiti organises annual religious congregation on the bawdi to seek neighbourhood support in keeping it in a usable condition. Neither is waste dumped nor drains diverted into the traditional water structure as a consequence.

Mr. Sharma is convinced that unless traditional water harvesting structures are made part of urban planning and development, such rich heritage cannot survive on individual efforts alone. Without doubt, bawdis are the best insurance against any water emergency — man-made or natural.

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is with the Ecological Foundation)

A majority of Ratlam’s heritage structures — step-wells or bawdis — have now become dump yards even though if renovated, they can meet 40 to 45 per cent of the city’s water requirements