I’ve found plenty of things surprising while living here in Bangalore, many things even shocking. One thing that has not ceased to amaze me are the tireless work ethics present among the laborers of this city. Some of the occupations you see on a daily basis are tedious, back breaking, and dirty. Some are even down right demeaning. It’s not uncommon to see some whose daily work is to sweep dirt from the street and sidewalk, head low to the pavement, breathing in diesel and dust in the hot sun. I’ve never seen a man do this job, and have heard many of the women who do it are bound to these occupations by traditional caste.
There’s also the auto drivers, omnipresent throughout the city, able to navigate the maze of roads and alleys like the back of their hands. There was one late night in the city where I encountered a long row of autos that stretched nearly a quarter mile, each with its respective driver fast asleep in the backseat. Most had no blanket or pillow, just the clothes they drove in. I later found out that many of these drivers don’t have homes in the city, and like migrant workers, sleep in rented autos to stay where the business is. Driving is their living, and autos their temporary house. I suddenly feel less of an achievement bargaining these driver’s prices down. It’s clear they could use the 50 rupees we argue over more than I can.
Although the work ethics and occupations of these men and women are beyond admirable, none have stood out more than those of the Manuvaddars. Manuvaddar is the traditional name for the skilled laborers that dig and install open wells. My first encounter with this group came last week on a site visit to the rural town Chikkaballapur where a small crew of 6 men were digging 40 wells to recharge the groundwater underneath a large agricultural plot. As our driver sped across the dirt field, every 30 meters or so would be another perfectly circular hole with piles of earth around it. It reminded me of the book Holes, but instead of 5 feet by 5 feet, these were a precisely 3 feet wide, and up to 100 feet deep.
We pulled up to one of such holes and hopped out of our air conditioned van. We were met with very unforgiving 93 degree heat. With no shade in sight, just standing still made your shirt stick to your back. We had been led to this spot by this group's leader, Shankar. He was a short and stout man, with thick rough fingers and dark skin. Dressed in a dirty white shirt and short pants he met us with a big grin and introduced us to his crew. As we spoke to him about his life, his struggles, and his goals, one crew member was helped into a nearby hole and with a shortened shovel and metal pole began digging. The man worked with refined efficiency, stabbing the earth in circular motions before heaving the soil 10 feet up to the surface. Between short breaks the man dug nearly 3 feet of depth in a short 45 minute span.
I’ll remind you it was 93 and only only getting hotter. The going rate for a well of this variety at 15 ft deep, concrete lined and sealed, is only 70 US dollars. It takes a crew of 4 men 15 hours to complete. That’s just over a dollar an hour per person.
The purpose for our visit that day was to gain information about what these workers struggled with in terms of finding work and marketing themselves. Team Biome has made it our project to find these well diggers a more consistent and profitable method of finding jobs in the city. Not only is their work high quality and efficient, it may also be the key to achieving water security for the 12 million inhabitants of Bangalore. With each open well these men dig comes a pipeline of sorts, for water to flow deep into the soil beneath the city and recharge extremely stressed water tables. The concrete jungle that is Bangalore makes it nearly impossible for most water to find its way underground to aquifers beneath the city.
Seeing the smiles and spirit of these men that day, and skill and care they bring to their work, has created quite a sense of urgency and motivation to try and find a better profit model for their business. The key to saving Bangalore’s dire water needs may not be in the hands of large scale government mandates, or fancy rainwater harvesting systems for that matter. It may be in the thick calloused fingers of men like Shankar, who with enough jobs and respect, could reverse the effects of urbanization, and save this city from imminent disaster.