A Well of One’s Own: Caste, Water, and Freedom

On a cool October morning in 2019, I visited Babu on his small plot of farmland, now a lush patchwork of vegetables—okra, coriander, chilies, green beans—that his wife sells at weekly markets in nearby towns. Babu is a middle-aged man from the Bagri caste, a Dalit (low caste or formerly “untouchable”) community whose members have marginal landholdings and largely engage in wage labor, within agriculture and beyond. Between drags from his beedi (cigarette), he recounted how his household came to cultivate vegetables. It all began with the tubewell.

In the Malwa region of central India, where I conducted research, tubewells (colloquially called “hole”) dot the agrarian landscape. Combining drilling technology and submersible electric pumps, tubewells draw water from deep underground aquifers. Although a mundane and unmonumental technology, privately constructed tubewells have been a key protagonist of India’s Green Revolution story, aided by loans and cheap electricity.[1] Compared to traditional dug wells (cylindrical holes dug manually and at significant cost), tubewells are relatively inexpensive and quick to construct. Previously, access to irrigation was limited to wealthy dominant caste landowners who possessed dug wells. Now, a majority of households—across caste and class—owned tubewells, extracting water for both domestic and agricultural use.

Locating groundwater in this dryland region is hardly straightforward or cheap. But Babu extolled the freedom that water from his tubewell had brought him and his family. He explained, “At least with the hole [drilled well], we can be independent. We don’t have to go to someone else’s field to work, at least my wife can work in our own field. At least when we want to rest, we can.”

Conducting fieldwork in rural Malwa, a region in central India, made me cognizant of the dramatic transformations brought on by tubewells. Prior to this, cultivation was restricted to the monsoon season. Irrigation offered new crops, expanded temporalities of cultivation, and novel possibilities for accumulation. For Dalit farmers, however, the meaning and impact of the tubewell exceeded a simple economic calculus. It signified, as Babu put it, a certain “environmental freedom”—to work, to rest, to dignity.[2]

Scholarly and activist literature on the “tubewell revolution” has rightly outlined its deleterious socio-ecological impacts—heralding the destruction of local ponds and tanks, propelling unsustainable extraction of groundwater, deepening the privatization of natural resources, and fuelling rural indebtedness.[3] Lamenting the ensuing loss of reverence for water, a noted agrarian scholar writes, “Water from wells and open sources is treated with reverence and considered to be akin to water from the sacred Ganges River. But water pumped out of tube wells receives no such sacred status and is treated like an inexhaustible commodity.”[4]

Such commentary, however, elides the pernicious ways in which relationships with water are soaked in caste supremacy across South Asia. While environmentalists laud traditional water management systems and spiritual connections to water in Hinduism, they fail to account for Dalit experiences of water, experiences marked by religiously- and socially-sanctioned inequality and humiliation, and evidenced in the segregation of public wells and the demarcation of river banks along caste lines. In 1927, anti-caste leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar launched the Mahad Satyagraha to demand equal access to a public water tank that had previously been reserved for upper castes.[5] This struggle was not simply about water rights or even access to the commons for oppressed caste groups. It was an unequivocal assertion of their full humanity.[6]

The genesis of the tubewell in the village of Pipliya highlights this. The first tubewells were constructed in the 1980s at the behest of a Catholic priest from the Syro-Malabar Church for four of the poorest Balai (another oppressed caste) households in the village—all of whom owned some land. He believed that the wells, which are still in use today, would reduce the families’ dependence on dominant caste Rajput landlords. The endurance of feudal labor relations meant that Dalit men and women continued to work as bandva mazdoor (bonded labor) and mahinadar (attached farm servants) to pay off debts and earn meager cash incomes. These wells were intended to emancipate them from these oppressive labor arrangements by enhancing their self-sufficiency through expanded cultivation.

This is not to argue that the tubewell had a singularly transformative effect—certainly, its arrival in rural Malwa was accompanied by expanding non-farm employment opportunities, shifting caste relations, and changing cropping patterns. Nor is it to deny that caste inequalities extend to the realm of the hydrogeological. While dominant castes tend to own land in the fertile valleys, Dalits—if they are landowners at all—generally hold plots in the rocky, arid hills encircling the village where water is more limited.[7]

Nonetheless, Babu’s words reveal that this technology transformed the ecology of agrarian labor, enabling his family to subsist off their own land. In his view, water provides (partial) autonomy from casteist labor regimes within which Dalit workers are subjected to harsh conditions, low wages, debt bondage, and sexual violence.

Kantibai, an elderly Bagri woman, reiterated this. While narrating her life history, she noted that it was only following the drilling of a well that her family had begun to grow vegetables for sale and winter wheat for their own consumption.

“What did you grow before the tubewell?” I asked.

Kantibai grimaced. “Don’t ask about the time before the tubewell!”

Kantibai stands in her field surrounded by long stalks of cauliflower leaves grown with water from her tubewell.
Kantibai cuts cauliflower—grown with water from a tubewell—in her field. Photo by author.
[*Image description: A woman stands waist-deep in a field of cauliflower leaves, holding up a bunch on a single stalk.]

Before the tubewell—or hole ke pehle—was a definitive marker of time, a rupture heralding the transformation of labor relations in the village. Prior to this, Kantibai’s husband was a bonded laborer, later saving enough to purchase a pickup truck and set up a small transport business. While drilling a well did not shield Kantibai, her two sons, and her daughter from a life of hard labor in the fields (theirs and others), it offered them a degree of food security, a weekly cash income from vegetable sales, and control over their work beyond the gaze of dominant caste employers. It gave them the freedom to choose when, where, and to whom to sell their labor. While the tubewell rarely produced great material prosperity, it did deliver dignity and autonomy, however fraught and tenuous.

As Mukul Sharma writes, “Water as an important cultural symbol also provides redemptive possibilities whereby Dalits go beyond the oppressive social fabric and develop their own positive association with a natural resource.”[8] Although the tubewell hardly portends a sustainable ecological ethic or anti-capitalist politics, the constellation of meanings and practices that imbue its everyday use in rural India exceeds dominant environmental narratives of debt and depletion. Viewed through the lens of caste and labor, as articulated by Dalit smallholders, a well of one’s own contains not only dreams of abundant water and flourishing crops but also the possibility of equality and freedom within a deeply hierarchical agrarian environment.

[1] See Anthony Acciavatti, “Re-imagining the Indian Underground: A Biography of the Tubewell” Places of Nature in Ecologies of Urbanism, ed. Anne Rademacher and K. Sivaramakrishnan (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017); Kapil Subramanian, “Revisiting the Green Revolution Irrigation and Food Production in Twentieth-Century India,” PhD diss., King’s College London (2015).

[2] Malini Ranganathan, “Caste, racialization, and the Making of Environmental Unfreedoms in Urban India,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 45, no. 2 (2021): 1-21.

[3] Marcus Taylor, “Liquid Debts: Credit, Groundwater and the Social Ecology of Agrarian Distress in Andhra Pradesh, India, ” Third World Quarterly 34, no. 4 (2013): 691-709.

[4] A.R. Vasavi, “The Tiger and the Tube Well: Malevolence in Rural India,” Critical Asian Studies 52, no. 3 (2020): 437.

[5] On the significance of water within the broader anti-caste movement, listen to the podcast by Swati Kamble, “Water and Caste Part One: History of the Mahad Satyagraha,” The Subverse (March 27, 2023).

[6] Thomas Crowley, “Unfixing Space: Toward Anti-Caste Philosophies of Nature,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers (2022).

[7] Himanshu Kulkarni and P.S. Vijay Shankar, “Groundwater Resources in India: An Arena for Diverse Competition,” Local Environment 19, no. 9 (2014): 990-1011.

[8] Mukul Sharma, Caste and Nature: Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics (New Delhi: OUP, 2017), 174.

*Cover image: A tubewell connected to a pipe in Malwa. Photo by Lakhan Malvi.

[*Cover image description: a long tube of various parts above the ground, with the part on the right side of the picture going straight into a concrete-looking base. In the back, a stack of branches; in the front, a large clay vase. The ground is scattered with dry leaves all around.

Edited by Morgan P. Vickers, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.