The Pune-based startup substantially increases yield of failed and low-yielding borewells in a sustainable and cost-effective manner, contributing to better agricultural output and rise in farm incomes
It is often said that future wars will be fought over water – not oil – as access to the most precious resource dries up for certain communities and countries. Even within a country as vast and diverse as India, water has the potential to ignite conflict and create unrest and instability.
For more than six decades now, indiscriminate extraction of groundwater has led to a crisis of unfathomable magnitude – affecting both rural and urban India. A study published last year in the journal Science Advances found that if overuse of groundwater continues, it will cause winter harvests in some regions of the country fall up to two-thirds by 2025. The findings of the Central Ground Water Board report released last year reveal that one-sixth of India’s 6965 groundwater sources (block/ taluks/ mandals/ watersheds/ firkas) may dry up due to over-exploitation. Water scarcity not only affects agriculture and food security, but also the economy, public health, and social stability.
A combination of factors – erratic rains and long spells of drought brought about by climate change, cultivation of water-guzzling crops like paddy and sugarcane, and highly subsidised electricity – encouraged inefficient usage and excessive withdrawal of groundwater. As the rate of extraction far outstrips the slow replenishment of underground aquifers, millions of dry borewells point to the desperation of the smallholder farmers while calling for urgent action – one that must result in improved recharge and management of groundwater.
Having worked as a consultant on groundwater issues pertaining to supply-boosting and management, Rahul Bakare, a mechanical engineer, sensed an opportunity in this widespread crisis. Teaming up with Vinit Phadnis, a hydrogeologist, he founded Urdhvam Environmental Technologies Pvt ltd (UETPL) in 2017, where he is the CEO and a board member. The Pune-based startup’s patent-pending innovation, BoreCharger, recharges failed and low-yielding borewells in a manner that’s cost-effective and requires little intervention. “We perform angioplasty on the borewell,” says Rahul, referring to the minimally invasive heart procedure that improves blood flow in a clogged artery or vein.
At first, we send a camera down the borewell to undertake a thorough hydrogeological investigation to ascertain the depth of the casing (an impervious, protective pipe that prevents a borehole from clogging and caving in), the vertical thickness of the aquifer rocks, the direction of the flow of water into the borewell, and signs of caving in. The next step is lowering the BoreCharger robotic tool to perforate the inside of the casing wall at an appropriate hydrogeological depth where there are only fractured rocks, and no soil or sand can enter the borewell. These slits allow water from the unconfined aquifers outside of the casing to flow into the borewell. As a result, the deeper confined aquifers, where water would take years to reach, are recharged,” he says.
Depending on the local hydrogeological conditions, this process can, arguably, inject up to 80 lakh litres of rainwater into the borewell every year. This recharge of water entering a borewell can spread laterally along a radius of up to 300 feet, aiding in aquifer storage and recovery.
“We also use this occasion of artificial injection to educate our customers about the reality of groundwater. They typically believe that there is a sea or lake or stream of sweet water down below and that they can draw as much as they want to,” says Vinit, the co-founder, COO and board member of UETPL.
Urdhvam, which claims to have a success rate of 90%, charges anywhere between Rs 15000 and Rs 25,000 per borewell – a far cheaper option than a pit-type recharge that costs in the range of Rs 80,000-5,00,000, requires extensive construction work, maintenance and lasts till there is surface water, ie, the few months of monsoon.
The startup has given a new lease of life to 1600-plus borewells in eight states including Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Telangana, Odisha, and Karnataka; abroad, its services have been availed of in Sub-Saharan West Africa.
Urdhvam’s B2C model targets farmers, houseowners, and housing societies. On the B2B level, Farmer Producer Organisations, agro-processing units, CSRs, NGOs, rural banks, educational institutions, hotels, and resorts are some of its clients. The company also works with gram panchayats, zilla parishads, municipal corporations and regional planning and development authorities.
“The socio-economic impact of our work is closely tied to the prosperity of farmers. The yield of the borewell increases, along with the increase in pumping time and improvement in water quality, and longevity of supply. All of these culminate in better agricultural output and rise in farm incomes,” says Rahul.
The startup’s other major service includes groundwater scanning that involves a scientific and economical method to locate the exact site for digging an open well or borewell. Urdhvam saves the farmer from wasting money on a diviner who claims to have special powers of detecting underground water.
“In Maharashtra’s drought-prone Marathwada, where we work extensively, a client had dug 6 borewells in his 10-acre land but couldn’t extract a drop of water. By the time he approached us, he had spent Rs 1.5 lakh. This is a measure of a farmer’s despair in these regions,” says Vinit.
However, the startup has decentralised this service to increase revenue as well as generate employment at the local level by training youths on data collection. Using IoT, this data is transmitted to Urdhvam’s geologist sitting in a remote location. The on-ground service provider conveys the geologist’s advisory to the customer and shares the revenue with Urdhvam.
Another service in the works is a groundwater monitoring sensor called Sentinel that will give users a vivid picture of the water table and abstraction patterns, enabling them to judiciously plan irrigation activities. “If deployed strategically, these sensors can establish a culture of groundwater governance, critical for maintaining drinking water security,” says Rahul.
Urdhvam’s outreach activities emphasise the necessity of creating awareness among stakeholders. A basic online training is imparted free of cost in Marathi, Hindi, and English to demystify the science of groundwater. An advanced offline course with practical on-ground exposure is held in Pune for potential franchisees. The startup is also developing a physical groundwater simulator for children and young adults that can demonstrate and explain around 20 hydrogeological phenomena.
Role of Social Alpha
“We have been closely following Urdhvam’s work for more than a year, especially its success with smallholder farmers in Odisha under CInI’s livelihood initiatives,” says Ipsita Uppal, Portfolio Manager, Social Alpha. CInI, a nodal agency of Tata Trusts, is Social Alpha’s partner on the ground. “Now, Urdhvam will try to replicate its solutions in other areas where CInI is working, expanding its footprint in newer geographies and developing a customer base among smallholder farmers,” she says, adding that its solution is affordable and easy, producing immediate results around harvest time when the farmer desperately needs water.
Inspired by its achievements and potential for impact, Social Alpha came forward to raise seed funding for Urdhvam and get 3i Partners and Villgro onboard. Additionally, it will help the startup develop its new product called Sentinel, a monitoring sensor that can improve groundwater governance. Social Alpha’s network of FPOs, program partners, and government agencies will play a catalytic role in Urdhvam’s scale-up operations. “We will guide them in building a strong sales team that will directly reach out to smallholder farmers across the country where water stress is palpable. The entrepreneurs are eager to develop their business acumen and willing to learn from the feedback on the ground to build a better dealer network and gain farmers’ trust,” she says.