Making Barnesbeg Water Secure
When the Twinings and WaterAid India project to provide access to safe drinking water, and improved sanitation and hygiene started working to improve the water supply to Barnesbeg Tea Garden by strengthening its principal water source, their work hit an unexpected obstacle early on. Few masons were willing to work on the source, a spring in the Fourth Division, as it emerged on a steep slope and needed mountaineering skills to access. Many relieved sighs were heaved when 39-year-old construction and masonry worker Simon Rai of Daralong village Barnesbeg Tea Estate in Darjeeling, West Bengal, volunteered to try.
“When I heard about the project, I was intrigued,” Simon explains. “All these years, Barnesbeg has received water from this one source, and I’d never seen it!” Initially, when he first trekked to the deep gully from which the spring emerges, his heart sank. “I wondered what I had signed up for! There was no way to reach the spring,” he says. The ground was rocky and access was blocked by bamboo thickets. The only way to build a protective platform around the spring was on a bamboo scaffold, suspended over a sheer drop of over 200 feet. “The other problem I envisaged was of physically carrying all the construction material down to the site from the main road about a kilometre uphill,” he says.
Eventually, with the help of field partners, local NGO Darjeeling Prerna and local volunteers, the bamboo thickets were cut down to clear a path and all the construction material was brought to the site. “Then we built a bamboo scaffold around the spring, with nothing but a sheer drop below us,” Simon relates. “Sure death awaited if any of us had fallen.” With four other masonry workers, Simon worked for three months to build a retaining wall around the spring. During this time, they carried their food to the work site and spent their days suspended on the scaffold.
“It was tough but I realised how important this work was,” he says. “The entire tea garden is dependent on this spring which could have been destroyed by a single big landslide!” He is happy that the cemented platform they have built around the spring will protect it from any sort of natural disaster.
For his efforts, Simon was paid Rs 700 a day. But he says that more than the money, he is enjoying the satisfaction of having done his bit for a better tomorrow. In the glow of the afternoon sun, his sons, aged 17 and 15, help him build an extension of his house. His wife Sandhya will soon be home after a day of plucking tea leaves in Barnesbeg. “This is our home,” he says. “I feel that by ensuring that the spring lasts a long, long time, I’ve done my bit for my community…”