For most part of the year, ‘bowlis’, as natural groundwater springs are known locally, remain the lone source of water in Jammu and Kashmir’s hilly and remote villages where the government has not yet brought in tap water connectivity. But between June and August, the monsoons render this water unpotable due to seepage and outflow of water from adjoining nallahs, paddy fields, drains, and footpaths.
Bowlis, which in its various forms is known by different names like ‘Chashme’, ‘Domb’, ‘Chhappar’, ‘Talaiyaan’, are unique and traditional to Udhampur, developed out of natural springs during the Dogra rule. In many areas, these have fallen into disuse since the advent of piped water connections, but for others, they remain the only source of clean water. Except when it rains.
“In these three months, our people consume unclean water and get gastrointestinal and other serious water-borne infections,” said Pritam Chand (70), from Mohalla Salaiyan in Udhampur’s Ghordi Khas (West) panchayat.
There are three to four bowlis, dombs (a domb is a kuccha bowli i.e a spring without any concrete fortifications) and chappars (a small, temporary water source) in Mohalla Salaiyan that meet the drinking and bathing needs of around 200 people. In the larger Ghordi Khas (West) panchayat area, which has a population of over 3,500 people, there are dozens of such natural water sources. And almost all of them have been affected this monsoon season.
Chand said that the villagers get together and clean them whenever there is a break in the rain. “But when it rains incessantly for three to four days or say a week, we’ve to drink the unclean water,” he said. This is the case for all 60 households in the Mohalla Salaiyan locality, be it family members or milch and draft animals.
“When we sow paddy, our animals need extra water because they work in the fields. But since our bowlis remain polluted in the rainy season, either our people have to fetch clean water for the animals and humans from other villages, or just drink the polluted water,” said 67-year-old Darshano Devi, wife of Belli Ram in Mohalla Salaiyan.
Most people in the village, like Darshano Devi and Pritam Chand, have never been to a school and don’t understand whom to approach to get their bowlis cleaned or get piped water supply in their village. “All we can do to get our grievances addressed is to approach our panchayat representatives and we have left no stone unturned so far to highlight these issues with our successive panchayat heads,” said Darshano Devi.
The current Sarpanch of Ghordi (West), Geeta Devi, who is a resident of Langa village, claimed she had never been approached by anyone regarding the matter since she took over the post in 2020. “But I’ll visit the village soon to assess the condition of groundwater sources and do whatever possible," she assured.
Most of the Mohalla Salaiyan residents 101Reporters spoke to are disappointed with their panchayat leaders, especially their ex-Sarpanch, who is now holding the powerful post of Block Development Council (BDC) chairman.
The BDC chairman, Block Ghordi, Arti Sharma, accepted that people are facing water problems during the monsoons but also claimed that she had never been told about the plight of bowlis in Mohalla Salaiyan; no person or deputation ever visited her, she said.
“The specific people who have been blaming me for the deplorable condition of their bowlis have never attended even a single panchayat meeting so far. I’ve time and again requested them in vain to tell the panchayat about their grievances. They’re doing all this at the behest of a particular political party,” Sharma said.
She, however, assured that irrespective of “people’s bias” towards her, she will continue to work for the betterment of her people.
Not just Mohalla Salaiyan’s problem
At the neighbouring Mural village (also in Ghordi West panchayat), there is just one domb that caters to all the water needs of the residents. As such the people of this hamlet are forced to bathe in and drink from the same polluted groundwater source.
Rajni Devi (21) from Mural claimed that her family members have taken ill so many times from consuming the water during the rainy season. When asked if she or her family members ever petitioned tehsil or district-level officers to get the water in their area tested or the bowlis repaired, she said, “We’re poor people. We don’t even know who should be approached for all this.”
The story repeats across the various villages of Ghordi Block like Larh, Bindla, Mani, Jandrore, Sulghar, Barmeen, Ambalairh, Satyalta etc. Activist Abhishek Sharma, who’s also a member of a team that is attempting to rejuvenate the groundwater springs in Udhampur town, said, “It’s not just Ghordi Block, bowlis in the entire Udhampur district, in general, get affected by seepage in the monsoon season.”This is the reason, he said, they started the Bowli Bachao Abhiyan (Save Bowli Mission). “We wanted to identify, rejuvenate, and then protect all the bowlis so that people can get
“But the Rural Development Department has failed in preserving and protecting our heritage,” he blamed.
Assistant Commissioner of Development Udhampur, Mushtaq Choudhary, who is also the concerned Rural Development Department (RDD) officer put the onus on the panchayat leaders for not doing their job “sincerely”.
He said, “Ever since powers have been devolved to the panchayats, they’re empowered enough to do these minor works on their own, utilising the grants released under the 14th Finance Commission. Our job is to construct the bowlis, but it’s the panchayat’s job to renovate them. What are they doing? Why look at the Rural Development Department always?”
(The author is a Jammu-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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