The man saving Mumbai water one tap at a time

Aabid SurtiImage copyright
Anushree Fadnavis

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Mr Surti said he was always troubled by leaking taps

On a Sunday morning, an 80-year-old man arrives at the topmost floor of an apartment complex in Mumbai’s Mira Road district.

Over the next four hours, Aabid Surti, national-award winning author of 80 books, cartoonist and artist, rings the doorbells of all 56 apartments in the complex, asking a simple question of the residents: “Do you have a leaking tap in your home?”

Mr Surti is accompanied by a plumber and a volunteer.

“Sorry to disturb you,” he apologises to those who say no.

The plumber gets to work, plugging leaks in the homes of those who answer in the affirmative.

“I was always troubled by leaking taps,” Mr Surti tells the BBC.

Unsung Indians

This is the fifth article in a BBC series Unsung Indians, profiling people who are working to improve the lives of others.

More from the series:

The doctor who delivers girls for free

Cancer survivor bringing joy to destitute children

A messiah for India’s abandoned sick

The woman whose daughter’s death led her to save others

“Whenever I would visit a friend or a relative’s home, I could always hear any drop or leak, and I would ask them to repair it.”

Mr Surti says he grew up on the pavements of Mumbai where, as a child, he saw his mother queuing up at 4am for a bucket of water.

“I saw people fight for each drop. This childhood memory keeps haunting me whenever I see a dripping tap.”

Image copyright
Anushree Fadnavis

Image caption

The plumber gets down to work, plugging leaks, in people’s homes

In 2007, he came across a newspaper report which said that if one drop fell per second from a leaking tap, each month 1,000 litres went down the drain.

“I couldn’t get that image out of my head, of someone pouring down 1,000 bottles of water into the gutter.”

So he formed the Drop Dead Foundation, a one-man non-governmental organisation, with the tagline “save every drop, or drop dead”.

He hired a plumber and started going around fixing leaking faucets in people’s homes free of cost.

Image copyright
Aabid Surti

Image caption

Mr Surti recently appeared on Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s television show

Soon he hit the first hurdle.

“The door was generally answered by the women of the house and we were two men. They would get suspicious and shut the door in our faces.

“So we recruited a female volunteer to help us,” he says.

His friends and family too were disapproving.

“It’s just a few drops, it’s not the holy river Ganges flowing down the drain,” they chided him.

“Why not just write and paint? Why chase a few drops?” they asked.

Image copyright
Anushree Fadnavis

Image caption

Many residents compliment him, telling him “you’re doing a great job”

They were also worried about money – how would he pay the plumber and the volunteer?

“When you honestly set out to do good work, the entire universe is there to back you. Not only that, God becomes your fund raiser,” he says.

Just days after he decided to set up the foundation, he received news that he had won a Hindi literature award which came with the prize money of 100,000 rupees ($1,458; £1,045).

“My costs are low. I pay the plumber and the volunteer 500 rupees each. And I spent some money on getting publicity material, so the money lasted a couple of years,” he says.

“And whenever my finances are about to dwindle, God pokes the right person and I receive a cheque without having to ask.”

Now, he says, the plumber and the volunteer refuse to take any money from him.

Image copyright
Anushree Fadnavis

Image caption

Mr Surti is accompanied by a plumber and a volunteer

Over the years, he says, his efforts have helped save 10 million litres of water – and also won him fans and followers.

Recently, he was invited by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan on his television show and the actor donated 1.1m rupees to his foundation.

At Mira Road, a woman recognises him from the TV show. “I saw you on Mr Bachchan’s programme,” she tells him, excitedly.

“See, I made Amitabh Bachchan popular,” he jokes.

Many of the residents compliment him, telling him “you’re doing a great job” and “keep up the good work”.

Image copyright
Anushree Fadnavis

Image caption

Mr Surti is encouraging more people to do their bit to change lives around them

Mr Surti tells them how important it is to conserve water and the message seems to be getting through.

“For the past few years, Mumbai has received inadequate rains and there’s a water shortage,” says Gaurav Pandey who invites Mr Surti into his house to fix a tap that has been leaking for the past “four-five days”.

“We generally ignore small leaks, because we’re not aware. In future I’ll get it fixed immediately. I’m so glad Mr Surti knocked on my door,” he adds.

Mr Surti says “whenever there’s a water shortage, we blame the government, but it’s not just the government’s job, it’s also our job to conserve water”.

He is encouraging more people to do their bit to change lives around them.

“I work six days a week, writing, painting and drawing. On the seventh day, I spend a few hours, trying to create awareness, and motivate people in my neighbourhood,” he says.

“You don’t need grand plans. Because every drop counts.”

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