Panjanteertee is at the end of a hard to find country road in a remote area of Tiruporuur Block, Kanchipuram District, Tamilnadu. No buses stop there. It is a 100% Parayar Caste Hamlet and the land around it is very heavy with clay: terrible soil for agriculture. Uninhabited until about 30 years ago when the CPI political party worked successfully to have the village relocated from land they were said to be “squatting” on ( i.e. had no legal right to under laws administered by local Upper Caste dominated government, police, and judges.)
The Tamil poor have a word for the most poor and destitute among them. ADED-THADU(say it fast!). This is Panjanteertee. 100 households, many extended families living in old ruined government-built one room sheds economically reliant on seasonal labor often with disabled, aged and children dependent on the wages of one unskilled worker. For a livelihood they do all the work including trenching and dyke building, sowing, fertilizing, weeding, transplanting, harvesting and milling needed to grow the staple rice eaten by the middle class in Chennai 50 Kilometers to the north.
Panjanteertee has had water problems forever. In winter an adjacent dry riverbed will often overflow and flood the entire village for a week, requiring many households to abandon their homes to dirty water and invading snakes and rats. In 2004-5 we helped construct a community center in Panjanteertee where the flood stricken could wait out the rising waters high and dry and safe. Access to drinking and household water has also been a problem for the families in Panjanteertee. An NGO appeared in the late 1990s and hired a contractor to drill a borewell which gave water for a while but the contractor cheated both the village and the GO by installing a thin and inferior well casing which soon collapsed and led to the well being infiltrated by heavy clay sediments. We tried to repair this well in 2005 but were unsuccessful. Later on, the local upper caste dominated village panchayat government drilled a new borewell powered by an electric pump in another location but this tapped into an aquifer with heavy dissolved sediments i.e. salty water which was undrinkable and in any case the well equipment was never maintained and is also now in ruins. An older borewell with an electric pump and 1000 liter storage tank had given good water for many years and was highly prized but frequent day long power outages resulted in the village women often having to carry heavy 10 liter water jugs more than kilometer to the nearest village that would allow them to access their own sometimes precarious water source. Unfortunately the infrastructure around this borewell was permitted by the local government to completely deteriorate to the point where it was completely non-functional standing in ruins to the entrance to the village for the past several years. Lastly, Panjanteertee is at the terminus of a small leaky underground water pipeline from a nearby village that has a State Government constructed large cement water tank on a tower – say with about a 20,000 liters or more capacity. However the water that the pipeline delivers only functions for an hour a day and the water was a bit salty and often the water would not be available every day for reasons that would could never be explained or fixed. After consulting with the villagers of Panjanteertee, we agreed to see if we could rehabilitate and rebuild the borewell system that had given good tasting drinking water in the past but was now in ruins.
First we ourselves inspected the well head and found that we could still see water in the bore. Next we hired a well driller and had them inspect the well and then proceed to clean the well and test it for viability and general water quality. They brought in a heavy truck with a large capacity air compressor and forced compressed air into the well to a depth of about 50 meters with a plastic hose. This results in a big geyser of water and air shooting tens of meters into the air and gets bystanders and the well workers all wet.! Which is good since its 41C and humid and in the sun. The water is tested for taste and clarity and also to verify that the well bore will rapidly refill with water. Happily, Panjanteertee’s old bore well looked promising as a life-giving resource which we were to bring back to life. We hired as our general contractor a local young indoor and outdoor pipefitter and plumber named Krishnan, with whom we have already had some successful water-related contracts and no bad outcomes. Luckily the well already had a meter box from the Tamilnadu Electricity Board. This meant we wouldn’t have had to wangle and dangle in front of this notoriously slow and agency for months to get legal electricity to the submersible electric borewell which we were able to immediately install. The power box for the well electrical meter was a terminally rusted cabinet of ruined waste metal standing on a masonry pedestal. Instead of reusing this we put the meter in the adjacent Community Center (Thank you A-S-B Kiel, Germany) which we had built and now manage as a tuition center and a women’s vocational program center. We decided to dig a 50 meter trench to 1/2 meter depth and then run wires through plastic conduit to connect the meter box and electricity source with the borewell motor. This way the power to the well would be fairly well protected from natural and human threats. Next we turned our attention to the storage tank. With rural electricity so intermittent and irregular in voltage, water storage capacity is essential. These are standard circular black plastic tanks between 250 to 2000 liters capacity and usually sit on a 1 1/2 meter high masonry foundation and skirt. Taps are fitted right through the sides and the water is supplied through the top with an overflow pipe. They last about 5 years in the sun and are sometimes damaged by monkeys ripping out the pipes seeking water to play in. We discarded the existing tank and the taps, which were cracked and frozen and bought a new 1000 liter tank outfitted with three plastic taps and a shut off valve if any should fail (they will!). Then the tank pedestal was strengthened, masonry cracks were filled and a pedestal wall was partially reconstructed as was the apron around the tank and pedestal. Pipes were were then laid between the electric submersible pump output and the tan.
The water flowed! It tasted good! There was lots of it! And if the tank was filled during the few hours when power was available, decent drinking water would be available to the poor people of Panjanteertee. And the project comes with a reasonable guarantee that SAVE-INTL and its partner TVO would promptly sponsor any repairs when the water system inevitably suffers some breakdown in one of its component parts. We want to thank Peter Coughlan and Pacific Rim Voices for providing financial support for this project. Total costs for everything needed to bring this well back to life including well cleaning, all contracted labor and plumbing and electrical equipments was 37,000 Rupees or about $830 at current exchange rates. SAVE-INTL self-funds its management of the project and its ongoing maintenance. We estimate that maintenance, power and repairs will be about $10.00 a month in the long run and the facility should not require replacement for about five years. Total cost for the rehabilitation of this well over five years is therefore about $1430 or $23.00 a month. New bore wells cost about $3000 to drill with no guarantee of decent water being produced and that doesn’t include the cost of the well’s supporting infrastructure.
The old pedestal for the ruined power box still stands and we hope to erect on it a bust of Dr. Ambedkar, one of the heroes of India’s fight for independence and the chairman of the committee that wrote the Indian Constitution. Receiving his Higher Education at Columbia University in the United States, Dr. Ambedkar was one of the first Dalits to receive a higher education and is the iconic hero of the Dalit’s ongoing struggle for liberation from the oppression of the Caste System.
In the next few few days we plan to add more photos documenting the Panjanteertee well project and also photos of the people of Panjanteertee and their lives and village.