This is the third story in a series of articles launched by Astral Pipes and Nature inFocus to create awareness about the ongoing water crisis and to encourage necessary action to address it.
Every Sunday morning, in the company of a female volunteer and a plumber, Aabid Surti makes a pre-planned visit to one of the housing colonies in Mumbai's Mira Road. He climbs to the top floor of the apartment building and works his way down, knocking on every door, asking whether there is a leaking tap that needs fixing. He offers this service for free every Sunday, and he has been doing this for the last 15 years.
Another go-getter millennial out to save the world? One would think so, but no. At 84 years, Surti belongs to the often forgotten Silent Generation. A national-award winning author, artist and environmentalist, Surti is the common-man-exemplar who showed the world how to walk the walk when it comes to saving water.
In this interview, Surti talks about why and how he started the Drop Dead Foundation (DDF) and what the common man can and should do to help save water.
Before we talk about the Drop Dead Foundation, what do you make of India’s water crisis?
We set fire to the world long ago, and today, we are emptying our wells in an attempt to save ourselves. We are in our worst moment in history, not only in India but all over the world. There is no tomorrow, whatever needs to be done, needs to be done now.
Things are even worse in India; the entire country is burning. Internal displacement has already begun, and India's villages are going empty. We don’t hear about this in the news, but if you keep travelling around the country like I do, you will know. And where do all these people go? To cities or near water bodies where they have access to water. In Bombay, we don’t feel the pinch, but think of where all this water is coming from? From the rivers which run through these very villages, where the villagers no longer have access to them; instead, the government has gifted all of it to cities and industries.
Nobody thinks of the bigger picture anymore. Agar, is waqt bhi kua nahi khodha aapne, toh issi kue mein aap giroge. (If we don’t act now, it will be too late.)
What was the inspiration to start something like Drop Dead Foundation?
All this is connected to my childhood, due to my upbringing, which was on the footpath. On the pavement, fights used to break out for one bucket of water. There was one tap, and water would be available for half an hour every day; people would queue up at 4 in the morning for a single bucket of water. These fights and scruffles I witnessed as a child stayed with me even when other memories of my childhood evaded me. They kept nagging me, pinching me deep inside.
Whenever I visited my friends’, it didn’t matter where we were seated, my ears would prick up the moment I heard a tap going ‘tapak tapak’ somewhere in the house – kitchen, bathroom or elsewhere. The sound would instantly trigger memories from my childhood, and it would feel like someone was hammering in my ear. I would alert my friends, and they would appease me by saying 'It’ll be ok'. But then, even when I would visit after six months, the tap would still be leaking. One day I got frustrated and pointed out to my friend that it has been six months. The reaction was: ‘Aabi bhai, jal ke boondein jaa rahe hai, koi Ganga thode hi beh rahi hai! (It’s only a few drops of water, it’s not like the Ganga is flowing out of the tap!)’ Most of my friends would react in the same manner, and I wouldn't know what reply to give them. And, the immediate follow-up comment would be that plumbers don’t come for such petty jobs.
This gave me the idea to hire a plumber for a couple of hours and go around to my friends’ houses and get their leaking taps fixed for free. I did this for another week. I didn’t have any big concept in my head when doing so, but after doing it, it felt so good. The pain that I had in me started to go away. That is when I decided that I want to do this regularly, and it became the foundation for the initiative.
How do people react when you show up at their doorstep?
Before we go from house to house, first, we target a building, and then we get permission from the secretary of the housing society – you can't just go into random apartments right! 99.99% of the time we get permission, after all, we are providing a free service.
Once we are granted permission, we stick our posters on the notice boards in the ground floor, near the lift, near the gate, wherever there is visibility. So, from Monday to Friday, our posters which say 'Save every drop or DROP DEAD' are constantly seen and read by everyone who lives there. Then on Saturday, we make sure to drop our pamphlets at the doorstep of every house with the help of the watchmen, informing them about who and what we are. This provides clarity: they realise that we are a foundation who does social work, that our sole aim is to save water, and that we don't have anything to market or any political agenda. So, when we go on Sunday, 99% of the time we get a very warm welcome.
How else does Drop Dead Foundation create public awareness?
I get so many invitations from all over India, all over the globe, for talks on water. I mostly avoid foreign trips as they take at least a week of my time. But when I do give motivational talks, I make sure that there is an audience of at least 500 people. It was during one of these talks that I asked myself the question: Out of the 500 people, how many have I managed to motivate? The answer was 3-4 people or a maximum of 5 people: the ones who come running to me the moment I get off the stage to ask, 'Sir, we want to start this in our area. Can we use your posters and pamphlets?'
You have been doing this for almost 15 years now. How do you cope financially? How difficult is it?
The first time I did it, it cost me around ₹100-200. On calculating, I found out that I'll have to set apart around ₹5000 if I were to do this every Sunday of the month. And, right when I was thinking about how to generate the funds for this was when I received a cheque worth ₹1 lakh. It was the prize money for the lifetime achievement award I received for my Hindi literature from the Uttar Pradesh Sahitya Sanskar (UPSS).
Now, this is the way I think: Why did the people of UPSS gift me this award now and not 10 years ago or 20 years ago? At this age, they thought of me. Why? The answer I got from within was that this money came to me because I had thought of the society and its betterment. The money wasn't for the award, it was just a cleverly made-up excuse by the universe, to lend me the money I needed for DDF, along with the message, don't think about the money, you go ahead with your cause. So, what I am trying to say is that if you do something with full honesty and transparency, and you want to help others, God becomes your fundraiser.
People are following your example all over the country. How pleased are you about it?
DDF is copyright-free, anybody anywhere can start it in their neighbourhood, they don't need my permission to do so. For example, around 5-6 years after I started DDF, in TOI – Bombay Times, there was a headline that caught my eye. It read something along the lines of 'If somebody knocks at your door and you see a Hindi film villain standing outside, don't get scared, he has come with a plumber to fix your leaking tap’. It turned out that Gulshan Grover, Bollywood’s ‘Bad Man’, was fixing leaky taps too.
People are picking it up everywhere, all over the globe – it has become a global movement. Matlab main jo beej lagaya na, woh toh tulsi ka tha, chota sa, aur aaj woh bargad ban gaya. (The seed I planted was that of tulsi, a tiny one, and now it has grown into something as big as a banyan).
I receive calls and messages from all over India, saying, ‘We want to start this in our area, can we use your posters and pamphlets?’ Do it. Make whatever changes you would like: replace my address and telephone number with yours, take out my name even and put yours, this your baby, not some franchise like McDonald's. Change DDF to whatever you want to call it. Just make sure you do the work that it stands for.
What next for the organisation? What is the end goal of Drop Dead Foundation?
Folks from the BBC had come to interview me, and one of the questions they asked me was: ‘Sir, you are the biggest brand in the NGO space. Why not have a 100 plumbers, 100 volunteers and cover 100 buildings every week?’ My answer was simple. If I did that, then I won't be able to tell anyone: 'If I can, you can'. If I have the backing of Ambani and Adani and I tell them this, they will be like 'Bhaiya, tumhare paas Ambani hai, Adani hai, Modi hai, toh tum kar sakte ho. Hum kaise karen? (You have Ambani, Adani and Modi on your side, you can do all this. But how can we?)'
This is why I say I give once a week, and I just give two hours on Sundays. I can confidently say, ‘You can do this too’. Whenever I visit houses for DDF work, particularly of senior citizens, I tell them: 'If you can't do it for water, do it for the birds that are dying in Mira Road, leave a bowl of water for them outside your home. Or at least plant a tree and go, so that your grandchildren can say that it was planted by my grandfather.'
What advice do you have for our readers? How and why should they contribute to solving the water crisis?
My grandmother used to walk a mile to get one pot of water for the family. Today, if I open the tap, there is Ganga sitting in my home ready to give me water. It is the bane of our society. We do not realise how precious water is.
For all the niceties that we have been afforded, what have we given in return? Whether Muslim, Hindu or Christian, nationalist or anti-nationalist, it is our responsibility to contribute, to give back before we leave. Fixing my neighbours’ leaking taps is the least I can do.