Gaya, Bihar – For nearly 30 years, Ramrati Devi had called her husband Laungi Bhuiya “mad” and tried everything, even denying him food, to get him to focus more on supporting their children and less on what seemed like an impossible dream.
The other villagers in Kothilwa, a parched and poor hamlet in a remote corner of India’s eastern state of Bihar, dismissed Bhuiya when he said he would bring water to them one day.
Kothilwa is about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Gaya, the closest major city, and is home to nearly 750 people – most of them Dalits – who live in mud huts.
Dalits, formerly referred to as the “untouchables”, fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have historically faced social marginalisation and discrimination.
A narrow unpaved road off a highway is the only way to reach Kothilwa, a village tucked into a barren landscape, rocks dotting its red earth, on which nothing except maize and some hardy pulses that need little water grew.
Bhuiya, who owns a small piece of land, always reckoned that if he could dig a canal to redirect the streams running up in the hills to his village – which only had a couple of wells for drinking water that were not enough for irrigation – he and others would be able to grow vegetables and wheat and support themselves.
Therefore, oblivious to his wife’s reprimands and the villagers’ taunts, Bhuiya, now 70, would head up into the nearby Bangetha Hills to dig.
He says he kept at it for nearly three decades, with rudimentary tools and a dogged determination.
“I was always angry with him for not caring about the children. There was never any money, never enough food,” his wife Devi told Al Jazeera.
Soon, Bhuiya came to be known in the village as the “madman” possessed by a dream of bringing water to the village. His son Brahmdeo said the family even took him to the village healers to exorcise him. Three of his four sons had migrated to other cities to find work.
But a determined Bhuiya kept digging. He knew water from the monsoon rains filled the many streams in the Bangetha Hills and that they could be diverted to the village.
For years, Bhuiya headed out for the hills to dig every day – a feat reminiscent of the epic efforts of Dashrath Manjhi, another Dalit from Gaya, decades ago.
After 22 years of cutting through Gaya’s Gehlour Hills using only a hammer and chisel, Manjhi in 1982 shortened the distance between his village and the nearest town from 55 to 15 kilometres (from 34 to 9 miles).
Manjhi’s feat earned him the sobriquet “Mountain Man”. The government released a postage stamp featuring him and Bollywood produced a biopic about him in 2016.
“I had heard about him and I thought if he can do it, why can’t I?” Bhuiya told Al Jazeera. “They all thought I was mad.”
‘We used to think he is possessed’
Last month, local journalist Jai Prakash had gone to the village to cover a story about the villagers building their own road to the village when Bhuiya came up to him and asked if he could show him a canal he had dug.
“He had dug a minor canal for irrigation. He said it took him nearly 30 years, so we went on my motorcycle to see it,” Prakash told Al Jazeera.
“In the monsoons, the water had come to the little dam the water department had constructed last year… Laungi Dam.”
As soon as Prakash’s story was published in a local Hindi newspaper on September 3, Kothilwa became a hotspot as journalists, political leaders, social workers and activists began flocking to the village to meet Bhuiya.
Bhuiya was able to dig a canal 3km (1.86 miles) long but hadn’t been able to bring it all the way uphill to Kothilwa, and was forced to stop digging a kilometre away from the village.
As news of his efforts spread, Bihar state’s Water Minister Sanjay Jha came to know about it and ordered the extension of the canal till Bhuiya’s village.
The day Al Jazeera visited Kothilwa, a man from a neighbouring village had walked into Bhuiya’s courtyard and was making a speech about the failures of the government.
A placard with an enlarged image of a cheque for 100,000 rupees ($1,365) presented to him by Mankind Pharma, an Indian pharmaceutical company, hung outside the door of his house.
On the same day, Bihar’s former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi visited the village and promised Bhuiya he would be recognised by the Indian president. Villagers present asked Manjhi for a hospital and a road to be built and named after Bhuiya.
That evening, Bhuyia, resplendent in a white kurta and dhoti with flowers in his hand, went to an auto showroom in Gaya where a tractor decorated gaily with balloons stood waiting for him.
It was a gift from Anand Mahindra, chairman of the auto giant Mahindra Group, who had heard through a local journalist’s tweets that Bhuiya was now dreaming of owning a tractor after having dug the irrigation canal.
“We used to think he is possessed,” his son Brahmdeo said. “Things have changed now. We have some money we got because of his work.”
Bramhdeo says he now wants a fan, and maybe some clothes and good food too.
Meanwhile, Bhuiya’s wife Ramrati Devi watched as her husband, now being hailed as the “Water Man” and “River Man”, had been whisked away by a crowd of cheering villagers.
They had a good reason to be happy. This year, the village of Kothilwa was able to grow wheat.