: NALGONDA, MEDAK & NIZAMABAD (Andhra Pradesh): Musampally has more borewells than people. This village in Nalgonda district has barely 2000 acres under cultivation. But it boasts over 6,000 borewells - two to every human being. Over 85 per cent of these wells have failed. The rest are in decline. The desperate search for water has bankrupted a once prosperous village.

Borewells loom large in the latest round of farmers' suicides in Andhra Pradesh. All those who took their lives had run up huge debts. A hefty chunk of this money (borrowed at interest rates of 36 per cent and above) was spent on borewells. Just 12 households that have suffered suicides recently had invested in 52 of them. All but four or five failed. They had spent close to Rs. 8 lakhs on these. And that is not counting the cost of pump sets.

Musampally has spent over Rs. 6.52 crores on its 6000 wells. If less than a third of that had been invested in completing a minor - and long-pending - irrigation project, the village would have been better served. "I have tried my best to persuade them," says Narasimha Reddy, the dynamic ex-MLA of the area. "But the borewell craze is deadly." Mr. Reddy had several water harvesting and canal-link projects sanctioned during his tenure. But borewell mania has since run berserk. In the 2004 election campaign, says Mr. Reddy, "TDP and Congress candidates sank 400 wells free as part of their campaign." The `free' wells have added to the village's costs.

The unchecked exploitation of ground water has caused havoc in Andhra Pradesh. In the beginning, this simply meant that whoever could afford a borewell got the water. It also meant the privatisation of ground water. The richer you are, the more bores you sink. The more water you collar. Until it runs out.

The reigning champ in Musampally is Byrra Reddy. The village now calls him "Borewell Reddy." He has sunk 55 wells in 20 acres of citrus. "Of these," he says, "49 have failed. It has been crushing."

When 49 fail, why sink a 50th? "You can lecture us about wasting money on borewells," says Jitendra Reddy. "But we have invested our lives in this crop. So we just have to find that water. What alternatives have we been given?" From successive governments so far, none. They have in fact encouraged a shift to often water-guzzling crops. And pushed for further privatisation of water. The obsession with borewells is an optimism driven by despair. One more crop failure will send others into the suicide abyss.

"We have no skills for anything but agriculture," says Ramakrishna Peddaiah. His family sank 30 wells. Ten of them in a single month, which saw his father B. Peddaiah lose his sanity. "All ten failed and it drove him out of his mind," says Ramakrishna of his father, who sits by his side, uncomprehending.

What would you do to get water if you had some money, we ask the people of Musampally. The answer is unanimous. "We'd sink more borewells." That's from people who have each sunk 20-30 failed ones. Musampally is not alone. Millions of bores have been sunk across Andhra Pradesh for some years now. No one knows how many. The water table lies devastated. Yet in this season, the highway crawls with mobile drilling rigs off to sink more wells.

The borewell industry seems to be booming. Shops dealing in them crowd almost every town in Telangana. There are 12 within close proximity in Kama Reddy in Nizamabad. "It costs about 35 rupees a foot for the first 200 feet," says one employee at the Siva Ganesh store. "Then it's ten rupees extra for every additional foot." Since the wells require protection in sandy soils, they need a casing. This runs to between 40 and 60 feet and costs Rs.95 a foot. With casing, labour and transportation costs a well of 250 feet costs around Rs.15,000. You need another Rs.20,000 to even think of a pump set.

And bores here run to depths of 300-400 feet these days. Of course, Anantapur outdoes Telangana districts in matters of depth. Bores crossing 800 feet have long ago ruined the water table there.

Lingaiah in Biknor mandal of Nizamabad district sank the only successful bore in his village. "It ruined my life," he says. His upper caste neighbours harassed him till he sold them his four acres at below the market price. The well is with the victors.

The laws meant to regulate the spread of the wells have failed. "To monitor it at the field level," says a senior IAS officer, "you must at least have working panchayats." Since those were badly undermined in this past decade, the option does not exist just now. Collective action is almost forgotten. Each farmer thinks in terms of more borewells on his land and little else.

"The process was wild and unregulated," says Prof. K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies. "From the start no questions were asked about who owns this water? Who does the aquifer belong to? What are the implications of siphoning it off this way? The earlier tank systems were quite iniquitous but there was some element of sharing. Small farmers were very dependent on this. The large number of small water bodies in and around the village was a great support to them." With the coming of the borewells, these sources rapidly dried up. In thousands of villages, the local tanks have not filled up in years. The crisis of surface irrigation wounded the small farmer badly. Now even the big farmers who overmined the aquifer are hurting. "If there is one perfect example of the anarchy of the market," says Prof. Nagaraj, "this is it."

In Musampally, Dharma Reddy shows me his ultimate symbol of the village's decline. The locked doors of "Manjeera Wines." The local `brandy shop.' It used to do "business worth Rs. 10, 000 a day," he says, wistfully. "Now look at it." Over here, liquor won't be flowing like water for a while. And neither will water. (Courtesy: The Hindu)