Biplab and His Bhungroo Pipe—An Earthquake Results in Innovation

In Western India bordering Pakistan, there was once an earthquake that devastated the elevated water storage tanks, thereby affecting the water supply.

Into this land came a man with a can-do philosophy named Biplab Ketan Paul. That was 17 years ago.

Fortunately, for poor farmers in the Gujarat State, this man had an attitude. It was this: “Yes, there will be failures, but we will learn from them, and try again.”

Biplab’s mantra became that of the farmers, and now the innovation he discovered is helping a hundred thousand people and is recognized by the Indian government for its contribution.

Biplab, who is fine just being called “Bip,” wasn’t an agricultural guy. He didn’t at first speak Gujarati, the language of the region. He came from Eastern India, near Bangladesh.

Biplab is an economist who specialized in water resources. However, he quickly recognized that the earthquake, the water emergency and the lives of the poor farmers were entwined.

In a nutshell, Biplab came across a little girl standing four foot deep in a hole located in a dry pond bed. She was gathering up dark salty water that had seeped to the surface, providing her family with drinking water.

The proverbial light bulb lit up.

There was water available within four feet depth below the dry pond bed, and that water was dark and salty. Thus there was a difference in water density between rainwater and the water below the pond bed.

So one needed only to allow the low-density surface level rainwater to reach salty subsoil water following the monsoon periods and store it for the dry season. Then, it could be lifted out and used for irrigation through pumping.

Hence, the little girl example gave rise to an amazing but old-as-the-hills invention of varying sizes, the Bhungroo.

The goal of the organization is to increase India’s annual agriculture income by $1.5 billion annually.

The Bhungroo is a colloquial word which means hollow tube. This is used by women in rural India to blow air on open ovens throughout poor regions of India such that the oven fire stays lit.

But it was also perfect as an apparatus to inject water underground and even lift water from the ground.

“After the monsoons, everywhere is waterlogged,” said Biplab. “If we could store this excess rainwater underground then we can save standing monsoon crops, and we can pump it out in the dry season for irrigation; thus two problems can be solved.”

Thus began a process of trial and error and multiple failures before success with Gujarat women primarily involved in the Bhungroo process of retrieving water as needed.

“It was only natural that the process in the field using the Bhungroo would fall to women,” said Biplab, since it was primarily a woman’s tool.

Two innovative processes in the expanded region of India and Bangladesh are most often singled out by governments as making hugely significant contributions to lives.

One is the growth of pumpkins on sandbars, and the other is the Bhungroo process of retrieving water when as needed from storage below ground.

Biplab works with Naireeta Services, a social enterprise headed by founder Trupti Jain who cites as her primary focus gender inclusiveness. This fits perfectly with the Bhungroo project since the participants are almost all women.

The goal of the organization is to increase India’s annual agriculture income by $1.5 billion annually. In the next five years, the organization will equip 1,000 women to become agriculture and irrigation consultants to small farmers.

The plan is to install 10,000 Bhungroo units which will enable 50,000 families to triple their income.

“It’s not about making money,” said Biplab. “We reinvest all profits back into the program. We go by Mahatma Gandhi principle of serving the last person in the queue in the best possible way.”

To that end, the program has open-sourced the Bhungroo technology. It is being utilized currently in 10 regions of India, as well as in Vietnam, Ghana and Bangladesh reaching 100,000 farmers.

The cost of the system depends on a farmer’s ability to pay—whether it is being provided to a rich or a poor farmer.

“For the rich, we sometimes charge 100 percent more than for a poor farmer,” said Biplab. “But for a poor farmer, we take a loss.”

Biplab said he had been working since 1994 to ensure safe drinking water in India. However, the problem is not just with water, but with irrigation.

“I found that to solve the drinking water problem we had to work on irrigation, and that is what this project is about,” said Biplab.

 

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water