Till the last drop…!
Mumbai-based 84-year-old water conservationist, Aabid Surti, also a national award-winning author and cartoonist, has saved gallons of waterby going door-to-door to fix water leakage problem. He tells Karan Bhardwaj how his micro-level effort is making national waves.
TBI: You started Drop Dead Foundation. What inspired you to initiative this?
AS: I have grown up on pavements. During my childhood, I saw people fighting over a bucket of water. My grandmother would walk for two kms to fetch one haandi (vessel) of water. Those unpleasant memories stayed with me. Over time, I became so sensitive that even an extra drip of water spilling on ground would hurt me. When I used to visit my friends, I noticed how callous they were towards water. They would not fix a leaking tap for as long as six months. ‘Ekboond se kyajaatahai…’ they would mostly shun me saying. As per estimates, one drop of water nonstop would lead to wastage of almost 1,000 litres in a month. So, I finally decided to take matter in my own hands, and started fixing taps and leakages from my own residential complex. I take a plumber and one volunteer with me and go out for this task every Sundays.
TBI: Delhi government is emulating your formula with a pilot project to deal with water leakage problem. Do you think this method could be adopted at a larger scale?
AS: I am glad that initiatives taken at a small level are fetching attention across the country. I was invited by the Delhi government last month where they flagged off this pilot project. They are sending volunteers to the doors of the people to sensitise them about water leakage, and they will also fix water leakages on a complimentary basis. My whole purpose of taking this endeavour is to show people that big results could only be achieved when all of us take responsibility of our habitats. Many senior citizens are sitting idle at their homes. I always encourage them to participate in saving environment. They can plant trees, promote cleanliness and ensure there’s no water wastage in their areas.
TBI: Your posters on water conservation at religious sites and rituals have drawn attention. How did you think of using religion to promote your message?
AS: I have been invited to deliver ‘talks’ to various platforms. Over time, I realised that only a handful of people from the audience would take some action on water conservation. There was a need to reach out to a larger audience. I chanced upon a book where I discovered how yogis and rishis would use religion to disseminate their message. Like they preached to have a plant of Tulsi at home… which is good for nature as well as health. So, I also decided to make positive use of religion. I did my first experiment in my area which is a Muslim ghetto at Mira Road, Mumbai. I drew a poster where Muhammad is appealing followers to save water. I used a real quote that read, ‘Do not waste water even if you were at a running stream.’ This poster was placed at around 40 mosques where Muslims practiseVaju (act of cleaning before going for Namaz). Would you believe Maulanas told me that they were able to save 80 per cent of water wastage? I did another experiment at Ganesh Mahotsavas. Posters with Ganesha asking ‘Where would you submerge me if there is no water?’ had a great impact on people. Even local administration asked me to provide those posters to create further awareness. I now want to connect with churches and other religious sites.
TBI: With several Indian cities citing water scarcity, how do you analyse present water crisis?
AS: We are in a major soup. There is no tomorrow without water. Aagabhilagihai… kalkuankhodne se kuchnahihoga… Water scarcity might lead to major tensions in the world. There could be unrest or riots due to mass migration of people towards areas which have water bodies. The Indian government should declare war on water conservation.
TBI: Do you think the government is doing enough?
AS: No, the government doesn’t look sincere. If they wish, they can take effective measures overnight. But the administration is in deep slumber. They are struck with greed and corruption. Multiple governments discussed rivers inter-link project… but only on paper. This could be a boon to farming besides conserving river water. What is happening to the government’s flagship programme to save rivers? Save Ganga? They do cosmetic clean-up now and then… and expect a turnaround in the situation. For several years, thousands of crores have gone down the drains to save Ganga but there is no result as yet. In Mumbai, where rainwater harvesting is mandatory for all new buildings, people are flouting laws in broad daylight. But there’s no end to corruption. What are municipal corporations doing?
Yes, the Prime Minister is taking initiatives but one man cannot end all of this. There has to be collective effort at all levels.
TBI: The Film Division has shot a special documentary on your work on water conservation. Can you tell us about that?
AS: I received a call from the Film Division of the government some time back. They informed that they wanted to make a short film on my work. The documentary was shot last month and is in post production phase right now. I think it is going to be of 15 minutes. They have captured my visits to the people’s houses, and how I convince them to save water. The film will be broadcast in India as well as abroad.
TBI: Your videos are going viral online. Are you content with the attention?
AS: I never cared for money. I have run this campaign on my own money for several years. Now, God has become my fundraiser. I didn’t have funds when I first decided to initiate this. All of sudden, I received a cheque of Rs 1 lakh from Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthan for my contribution to literature. That kept me going. Then Maharashtra government offered me Rs 50,000 cash prize with Lifetime Achievement Award. I was stunned when a group in London organised a crowd funding campaign for me. Now acclaimed personalities like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Anand Mahindra post my work online. I read that even actor Gulshan Grover roamed on the streets of Mumbai with a team of plumbers to fix water leakage problem. This gives me a lot of satisfaction.
TBI: Then why don’t you consider growing beyond one-man team?
AS: I don’t wish to start a big NGO with hundreds of people. I just have to show people that if I can do this, they too can. This is my answer to people who say, ‘Mere akele se kyahoga’. When you attempt good, only good and positive people join you. And it gives you everything that one would crave for. However, I would like big corporate houses to come forward and take poster campaigns ahead. If needed, I am ready to work for them for free. This way, we can reach out to the whole of India.
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