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Auroville Adventure


September '03

All's well that ends well?

- by Alan

My first experience of well-digging in Auroville happened 15 years ago when the inhabitants of our community, Samriddhi, hired a group of diggers to make a shallow well. Their technique was simple. They had a giant augur with four protruding bars and each man pushed or, rather, flung himself, at his bar. If everybody pushed in the same direction at the same time, the augur would corkscrew into the ground. It was a slow, hard business which tended to attract slow, hard men. Every night they drank heavily. Every morning they began work a little later and the bore drifted a little further off vertical. After two weeks and at a depth of thirty metres they struck rock and announced they had reached their limit. So had we.

Cartoon: Alan
Last month that shallow well ran dry. Clearly our new well would have to be much deeper; perhaps we would need to be more careful about where we dug it. New territory, in other words. Who would help us chart it? Fortunately, Auroville has never been short of experts. Over the next few days we were informed that a) you can drill anywhere and find water and b) that it is very important to find the best spot; that a) the best drilling method is the compressive method and b) that the compressive method is extraordinarily risky; that a) the government-owned drilling rig is the most professional and b) that private rigs are often the best bet; that a) we need only drill to the second aquifer and b) that we should go as deep as possible.
This being Auroville, we ended up surrendering to a higher power: in this case Harvest, the Auroville well and water service. Gilles, the executive, began by announcing that he would dowse the optimum spot for a new well. He unfolded a map of the area, took out a small pendulum and dangled it over the page. Apparently there were two promising places for a deep well. We strode onto the land to investigate. The first spot turned out to be on village land: useless. The second place, Gilles mentioned casually, was somewhere in the middle of the community. 'That's interesting', I thought, 'so is our house.' As Gilles penduled his way through the undergrowth, that house exerted a strange attraction. He approached it, retreated, approached it again, stopped. So did my heart. 'He's found water beneath our kitchen', I panicked, 'we'll have to drill straight down through the cooker'. But then he relented. Slightly. The ideal site turned out to be four metres away.
Harvest booked the Pondicherry Agriculture Department drilling rig, then Sivasubramaniam, a charming hydrogeologist, arrived to make an electrical survey as a means of checking out the accuracy of Gilles' pendulum. It did. Everything was going swimmingly. However, on the day that Gilles was setting off on holiday he mentioned that the Pondicherry drilling rig was no longer available. He had booked us instead with a private rig, "Quality Enterprises", an organization which had never drilled in Auroville before. I swallowed hard. Wished him a happy holiday.
The next evening, a huge truck with a long snout-like boom nosed its way through the forest and parked behind our house. Around midnight a lorry ground its way through the darkness. It stopped. Silence. Then two huge crashes as the sides of the lorry were collapsed. Over the next two hours 63 large pipes and numerous tools were flung onto the ground, accompanied by shouts and imprecations. Next morning we awoke to find a large tent pitched beside our papaya tree and fifteen men sleeping all over our garden on primitive bed-frames and mats.
In other words, drilling a well is an immersion experience. For two weeks or more you share your physical and psychological space with a band of men who eat, sleep and work around you. During this time the familiar landscape changes: plants are amputated or crushed by heavy tools or drivers suffering from night-blindness, one part of your garden becomes a work camp while another part is slowly invaded by grey, viscous sludge dredged up from the bowels of the earth. If you're unlucky and it rains, your precious little corner of the planet soon resembles the Somme.
The work itself goes on 24 hours a day, the drillers working in shifts. Every three metres a sample is taken from the bore hole and placed on a plastic sheet. You scan it anxiously for indications of water-bearing strata. You become a connoisseur of drilling sounds - a dull rumble means clay, soft grinding is sandstone, frantic hammer strokes means the drill-bit is battering at limestone. Your day, your night, are defined by the work. You are woken by urgent clangs on pipes, you drift off to the rumble of the drill. Sudden silence is balm for the neighbours, bad news for you: something has broken down. Your mind empties of everything that has made you who you are - Sri Aurobindo, Shake-speare, Monty Python - as your life narrows down to keeping the men provided with tea, sugar and milk, making sure the portable lights they use every night are charged up during the day, and wondering when that interminable layer of Ottai clay will finally yield to water-bearing sandstone. Above all, there is the constant struggle to provide water.
Water, you say, water? But surely...? Well, yes, if you're drilling a well you're probably not exactly rolling in the stuff. However, in the counter-intuitive universe you've just entered you soon discover that water is essential for finding water. Our moment of enlightenment came on the first day of drilling when the site foreman casually mentioned that he needed 40,000 litres just for the next 24 hours. That's an awful lot. And, of course, it was a Sunday and, of course, it was high summer, when power cuts peak, tanks are dry and most Aurovilians hoard their remaining drops like gold.
We should have been warned. On the other hand, it's probably best not to know everything that can go wrong. The drillers, they knew. During their two weeks with us they only twice made a puja: within twelve hours of each invocation there was a well-threatening crisis. Once it was 'mud-loss', the other time siltation. Each time we skirted disaster. Later, we learned there are many, many ways to mess up a well - one neighbour had his new well collapse because the bore hole was only partly cased, another has a large drilling bit nestling at the bottom: it broke off during the drilling and couldn't be retrieved. Then there are the stories of those who drill and drill and never strike water. We were lucky. We found it - 9,000 litres an hour of the beautiful stuff - although we had to go far deeper than we'd originally planned. Down, down, down 180 metres. I still can't grasp how an eight inch hole can disappear down two full football pitches... (Since you ask, it's a mere 4,000 miles further to the centre of the earth.)
So we were lucky? Partly. But it has to be said that, in the country that helped define the term 'credibility gap', 'Quality Enterprises' really lived up to their name. Unlike our rough-and-ready crew of hand-diggers, this team was professional to the core. Everybody knew his job, everybody worked as a team. Day or night the team leader would be perched on the rig, his hand on the juddering drilling lever, while his assistants would be keeping the circulation channel clean, taking samples or preparing to hoist the next pipe into position.
Hopefully, this well will serve Samriddhi for many years to come. Ultimately, however, puncturing Mother Earth, drilling deep holes in her to suck out water doesn't feel exactly like the way of the future. Is this why, weeks later, I still feel a lingering unease, an obscure sense of having participated in a slightly shameful act?

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