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83-year-old Aabid Surti is fixing leaking taps in Mumbai households to save every drop of water he can

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“In a book by Dorothy Parker, I had read a line at the end of a sweet story. It said: the man who is not in the picture is the father, because he was busy taking photos. I have always felt that my father was like that—someone who did the little things he believed in and derived maximum pleasure and satisfaction from them. I was reading about your ‘tap’ initiative. It sounds like one of those little things my dad would have done. Strange that I have enjoyed reading Bahadur in my childhood and now, so many years down the line, enjoyed reading about your tap story, when I am a father myself. God bless you and, yes, I believe in angels after reading the paper today.”

Ten years ago, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan sent this message to Aabid Surti, 83, after reading an article on him in a mainstream daily. That was the first time Surti’s work for water conservation was being written about. Writer and painter Surti, who rose to fame for creating the memorable comic book hero Bahadur, first published in Indrajal Comics in 1976, has been single-handedly fixing leaking faucets in his neighbourhood for almost a decade now. He founded an NGO—Drop Dead Foundation—that he runs alone in order to set an example that if you have the will, you are enough to work for the society.

Some memories may have been lost to old age, says Surti, but one that has always haunted him was the memory of his mother’s march to the public tap early morning every day and queueing up for a bucket of water. And it is this haunting memory that drives the spirited water warrior in him even today. It all started once when Surti went to a friend’s house and was disturbed by the constant sound of water dripping from a tap nearby. “I asked my friend why he doesn’t get the tap fixed. He casually responded that no plumber would come to fix a minor issue like this,” he recalls. Over the next few months, while visiting friends, he realised that no one would pay attention to these minor leaks in water taps. “’It’s just a few drops’, they would say. But for me, it was huge. I have lived with scarcity of water and understood that saving drops could lead to bigger things” he says.

An idea was born. Surti called up a plumber and asked him to roam around these houses and fix the taps. “The plumber was astonished in the beginning, even apprehensive. But I guess he realised that I had a bigger motive and soon agreed to participate in my mission,” says Surti also recalling that the plumber had refused to take money. “He said if I am working for free, he can too.” But Surti insists on paying the plumber. “When I started, I paid Rs 100, now I give them Rs 500. Everything is so expensive,” he remarks. And yet, sometimes, the plumber works for free.

Over the years, Surti has been to hundreds of houses in the Mira Road area where he lives. He contacts the administration of a building on Monday, distribute pamphlets on the Drop Dead Foundation’s mission on Saturday and finally carry out the drive on Sunday. “It gives residents a good five days’ time to process it and makes our work easier,” he says as he continues to implement the same idea in different buildings on Mira Road, especially the ghettos. Within the first year of the Foundation’s launch, Surti had visited 1, 666 houses on Mira Road, fixed 414 leaking taps free of charge, and saved about 4.14 lakh litres of water.

Religion has the power to greatly influence a human being, believes Surti. Maybe that is the reason his current project for water conservation has a religious overtone, too. “People may not follow something that is right, but they will surely follow something that is religious,” quips Surti who was born into a Muslim family, but later turned to Buddhism in search of ‘inner peace’.

 

“I made two posters—one with Prophet Muhammad and one with Ganesha—with messages of water conservation inscribed on them. I asked my volunteers to get me all the messages on water mentioned in the religious scriptures so that we can plan a drive. In the first leg, we pasted the Muhammed posters at all the mosques and madrasas in nearby areas. I wanted to do the same during Ganesh Chaturthi but it was a little delayed,” he says. One poster costs him approximately Rs 40. But money is least of his concerns.

“I have never bothered about money. God is kind and I get financial aid whenever I need,” he says. In 2011, after running the show for almost four years with an award money of Rs one lakh that he had received for Hindi Sahitya Sanstha Award presented by the Uttar Pradesh government, he wanted to shut shop. “I had decided that I am not going to take it forward. I felt I had done my bit,” he recalls. But a Rs 10,000 from his salary to keep it going.”

A talk show appearance on TV is probably one of his most interesting memories. “In 2015, I got a call to appear on a TV show. I meet anyone willing to meet me because that spreads the word,” he says as he talks about his appearance on Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi hosted by Amitabh Bachchan. He had no clue, till almost before the shoot, that Bachchan would be the host. “I made an entry dancing with girls, like Michael Jackson,” he says with a glee. Bachchan gave him a cheque of Rs 15 lakhs on the show. “God’s kind. He helps you if you want him to,” he says. It’s the money from the show and donations from a few organisations that has kept his conservation initiatives going. He also organised a water conservation-themed short film competition, One Drop Cinema, for which he roped in Juhi Chawla, Amole Gupte and Subhash Kapoor on-board as judges. “I spent almost Rs two lakhs on that initiative, rewarding the winners. After that I tied-up with Euro Kids for a water-saving march with children,” he says as he smiles at the brilliance of the idea which was noticed by almost everyone in the lane they marched. “Kids, that too smaller kids, with placards look really cute,” he says.

Now, as he continues painting, and writing books for the National Book Trust, the octogenarian is eyeing fresh initiatives—the next being a flash mob at railway stations and malls in Mumbai. “We are figuring out the details. We’ll kickstart it during the World Dance Day,” he says.