Mohammad Asif Siddiqui | Apr 22, 2022 | 5 min read
The system, built before the Mughal era, ran smoothly till a decade ago, until a panchayat tampered with its functioning.
Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh: In many Indian cities, the dangers of global warming and fears over the resultant water scarcity have led to efforts towards reviving ancient water systems. However, Madhya Pradesh stands out for quite the opposite — destroying a five-century-old, fully-functional water system in Burhanpur district.
At the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav in January this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for improving India’s water systems so the nation could save itself from the scarcity of drinking water. In fact, several sources provide abundant water in India, but due to the collapse of their supply systems, the dependence on groundwater, which is also depleting, has increased.
During the Farooqui reign (1500-1600 AD) in Madhya Pradesh’s Bahadarpur town — 8km from Burhanpur — water for drinking and irrigation was collected and transported to villages through underground canals, whereas rainwater for the same purposes was stored in a nearby pond. The advanced build of the canals allowed their flow to continue uninterrupted for more than 450 years.
However, 10 years ago, the village panchayat tampered with the canal in an attempt to clean it without consulting experts. As a result, the latch in the canal for oxygen supply collapsed, and since then, the flow of water has stopped. With this, a major source of water that was functional for centuries died. The area now gets its water from tubewells.
The Shaker Pond
According to archaeologist Kamaruddin Falak, the last emperor of the Farooqui dynasty, Bahadur Shah Farooqui, founded Bahadarpur. Due to lack of drinking water here, a pond — the Shaker Talaab — was constructed 6km from the town, and underground tunnels made of mud bricks were built to bring water from this pond to its residents.
The water was purified while it travelled to Bahadarpur. For this, chimney-like kunds were constructed, because of which the water received oxygen and was purified when it came in contact with it. This water was stored in more than two dozen wells built in the town. These wells and stepwells exist to this day.
Local resident Azhar Ahmed called the water structure built before the Mughal period “fascinating”. But it was closed down 10 years ago due to the short-sightedness of the panchayat, Azhar said. No efforts were made to revive it, while residents continued to depend on tubewells for water supply.
“Till 10 years ago, water in this town was free, but now, we have to pay Rs 200 a month," Ahmed said. "The ancient water structure can still be revived under supervision of archaeologists.”
The Sayyid households here had the major wells and stepwells that brought in the flowing water from the Shaker Pond. Even today, these families manage two wells and stepwells.
According to Sayyad Mumtaz Ali, there's a well in his house that “we have kept as a heritage. Although it is dry, we keep it covered. They say that someday, water will flow into the well again”.
Water table down 400 metres
Bahadarpur in Burhanpur district has a population of 9,645, according to the 2011 Census. As few as 1,943 families reside here. Till 10 years ago, residents of the town were dependent on the water system of the Shaker Pond, which even irrigated 767 hectares.
Over the years, because of groundwater exploitation, the water level in Burhanpur district — already in Madhya Pradesh’s semi-critical zone — plunged 400 meters. Today, 70.57% water in Burhanpur district is obtained from groundwater sources.
A two-day workshop organised last month in the area under the government initiative, Jal Shakti Abhiyan, found that Burhanpur district is at the lowest level in underground recharge.
“We have constituted a committee to conserve all ancient water structures in Burhanpur district. The committee will repair such structures in collaboration with the local people,” Praveen Singh, district collector, told the media after the workshop on water conservation.
Former state cabinet minister Archana Chitnis, who was present at this workshop, said that the prime minister, too, had called for repairing old water structures.
Moreover, Maharashtra recently set an example of proactive citizenship in a similar matter. Villagers in Loni village on the state’s border with Bahadarpur recently constructed a pond, because of which tubewells got recharged.
India leads in groundwater use
Indians are at the forefront in the use of groundwater in the world, though we lag behind in saving rainwater.
A joint study by IIT-Kharagpur and Canada's Athabasca University revealed that Indians use 230 cubic km of groundwater every year, which is a quarter of the world's groundwater use. At the same time, India is able to save only 8% of its annual rainfall, which is the lowest in the world.
Apart from India, China and the US are the highest exploiters of groundwater sources — but India alone matches the combined amount that these two countries consume.
Furthermore, according to the Central Ground Water Board, the groundwater level in India fell by 61% between 2007 and 2017.
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