Coconut in open palm and outstretched hand, Poojari Anjaneyulu walks out across the fields of Muddalapuram. He waits for the coconut to spin, tilt and fall. It does. This, he assures us, is the spot marked ‘X.’  “Here you will find water. Sink a borewell at this exact spot and you’ll see,” he tells us in this village of Anantapur district.

Just a village away, Rayulu Dhomathimmana slouches across another field. The big forked twig he holds with both hands will guide him to water in Rayalappadoddi. “When the twig jerks upwards,” he explains, “that’s the location.” Rayulu modestly claims a “90 per cent success” rate for his method.

In a different mandal of Anantapur, Chandrashekhar Reddy grapples with the question that has baffled philosophers down the ages. Is there life after death? Reddy believes he knows the answer. “Water is life,” he says. And so has sunk four borewells in a graveyard. He has another 32 in his fields. And he has linked his spread out sources of water across his village of Jambuladhine with an 8-kilometre long pipeline.

Superstition, the occult, God, government, technology and coconuts, have all been pressed into service in Anantapur’s desperate search for water. Their combined strike rate has not been impressive. Poojari Anjaneyulu, though, claims otherwise.

The gentle, pleasant-mannered man says his method does not fail. He gained his skills from God. “The only time it can let us down is when people force me to do this at the wrong hour,” he says. (God charges 300 rupees a borewell point). And takes us across the fields, coconut swaying in his palm.

PHOTO • P. Sainath
PHOTO • P. Sainath

Poojari Anjaneyulu uses a coconut to divine where a borewell should be dug in farms in Anantapur's Muddalapuram

PHOTO • P. Sainath
PHOTO • P. Sainath

Rayulu Dhomathimmana is a water-diviner in Rayalappadoddi. He modestly claims a '90 per cent success' rate for his method

There will always be sceptics, though. Like one disgruntled peasant who tried this method in vain. “The only water we found was in the f@#%*ing* coconut,” he said gloomily.

Meanwhile, Rayulu’s twig has jerked upwards. He has certainly found water. On one side of him is a pond and on the other, a functioning borewell. Rayulu says he does not believe in God. The Law is another matter. “This display of skills won’t lead to my landing in court for fraud, will it?” he seeks our assurance. We give it to him. His success rate, after all, can’t be much worse than the government’s water surveyors.

The record of the groundwater department’s geologists, if they can be called that, is dismal. In a few cases, wantonly so. It makes more sense to charge tidy sums working privately outside your office as a water diviner. And if you come with the tag ‘expert,’ a steady clientele is assured. Most of the points located by the experts in six districts we went to have failed. Even with borewells going down to 400 feet. So Poojari and Rayulu are just two members of a growing army of water diviners.

All those in the divining trade have unconventional methods of their own. They exist across the state and some of their zanier techniques have been listed by a young reporter with The Hindu in Nalgonda, S. Ramu. One includes a requirement that the diviner belongs to the ‘O’ Positive blood group. Another seeks water below locations where snakes make their homes. Anantapur has its share of water eccentrics.

Beneath the surface frivolity, though, is a frightening struggle for survival in a district which has seen four successive crop failures. Reddy’s graveyard borewells, too, are yielding less than he had hoped for. In all, this Village Officer (VO) has spent over a million rupees in his search for water. His debts mount by the month. “Last week, I phoned on the government helpline,” he says. “I cannot carry on like this. We must have some water.”

PHOTO • P. Sainath
PHOTO • P. Sainath

Chandrashekhar Reddy has sunk four borewells in a graveyard. He has another 32 in his fields. And he has linked his spread out sources of water across his village of Jambuladhine with an 8-kilometre long pipeline

The helpline was set up by the Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy government of Andhra Pradesh to deal with those in distress, amid continuing farmers’ suicides and an intensifying agrarian crisis. In a state hit worse than most others by farm suicides, Anantapur district has seen the maximum number. Here, in the past seven years, there have been over 500 in the ‘official’ count. And many times that number in other independent estimates.

Reddy’s call on the helpline should serve as a clear warning signal. He is in a very vulnerable group, right in the danger zone. Dreaming of water, drowning in debt. The horticulture in which he has so heavily invested is in ruins. So are his many borewells.

The very rich are well placed to exploit this kind of crisis. Private water markets have swiftly emerged. Dominated by ‘water lords’ who make more money from selling water drawn with their borewells and pumps than from cultivation.

Desperate farmers can buy a “wetting” for their fields at a cost of 7,000 rupees or more an acre. This might mean paying a neighbour who has managed to corral access to whatever water there is. You can also buy that resource by the tanker load for a wetting.

In such a setting, commerce quickly overrides community. “Can you imagine what all this does to our cultivation costs per acre?” asks Reddy. Even the water diviners perform their wonders in tandem with the ubiquitous borewell drilling rigs prowling the highways. The one opens up avenues for the other. Drinking water too, is a huge problem. Hindupur town’s 1.5-lakh residents shell out an estimated 80 million rupees a year for drinking water. One local water lord has acquired large properties right around the Municipal Office.

PHOTO • P. Sainath

Borewell-drilling rigs move around areas with water scarcity

Superstition, the occult, God, government, technology and coconuts, have all been pressed into service in Anantapur’s desperate search for water.  Their combined strike rate has not been impressive

The rains, finally, appear to have begun. Four days of showers will see the sowing go ahead. Which means a possible return of hope and a let-up in the suicides. The problem, though, is far from over. A good crop would be hugely welcome, but will bring to surface other simmering problems.

“Oddly, a good crop might spur new suicides,” points out Malla Reddy, Director of the Ecology Centre of the Rural Development Trust, Anantapur. “A farmer might at best make Rs. 1 lakh on it. But he has got Rs. 5 lakhs to Rs. 6 lakhs worth of debts to clear after years of crop failure. The crisis delayed many marriages. Those will now have to be performed."

“Then there are the awful new input costs to be faced. How will the farmer meet all these commitments? The pressure from the creditors will be enormous over the next few months. And the debt moratorium won’t last forever.”

When it comes to farmers’ problems here, it never rains but it pours. Dreaming of water, drowning in debt.

P. Sainath is Founder Editor, People's Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' and 'The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom'.

Other stories by P. Sainath