A bucket with dirty, dark water

Dark and Dirty Times Ahead?

A poster of the recent Hindi movie, Hindi MediumIn the recent sleeper hit, Hindi Medium, Irrfan Khan and his family (that is, their characters), who live in Delhi’s swish Vasant Vihar, find themselves having to move to the other end of the residential spectrum – to a slum. It’s like this. Irrfan and his wife, more his social-climbing wife, wish to have their young daughter admitted into an English medium school, but come up against a wall, a caveat. There is a seat (or two) available in one school, but it’s from the Right to Education (RTE) quota meant for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). And so the desirous parents, again more the dogged mom, needing to prove they are EWS, shift base to slummy dwellings, and subsequently endure all the woes people here face on a daily basis: squalid conditions, dengue mosquitoes and less or no water.

During the time that Hindi Medium had its hit run, this Irfan and his family (that is, my parents and I) underwent a similar ordeal. No, we didn’t move from the relatively upscale locality and building we stay in, but the slums, or rather, slum-like situations came home.

Twice in the past couple of months, and each time for at least three-four days, our building, along with other buildings in the neighbourhood, received sewage-infused water. It was black and stinky, and with each passing day, became blacker and stinkier. The first day and instance, I wasn’t able to figure what the odour was – I thought it was a new, strong variety of cleaning liquid my mom had decided to try – and merrily showered and went to work. I know: ew. The next day, to my sheer disgust and horror, when the smell had turned to stink, I realised what it was. For a day, I had not just let that water run all over my body, but also partly ingested it during my brushing routine. I know: ew, ew. By the end of the third day, unsurprisingly, I fell sick. I was down with the runs, thanks to the contaminated water entering my system and causing dirtier effects within. A day later, my mom went the same way, and the day after that, my dad. Similar scenes unfolded in the other apartments in the building.

As we recuperated, we wondered how it had happened. There had been some repair work that had happened nearby some days ago. We speculated if both the water and sewage pipes had got damaged as a result and the one water mixed with the other. While we waited for the Metro Water officials to examine and get back, we began imagining other scenarios. We went from ‘Was this the EWS folk, the have-nots, envying us haves and infesting the water to give us a taste of what they go through on a regular basis’, to ‘Was this our nation’s neighbours engaging in bio warfare’.

A map showing the water deficits in the southern states of IndiaTurns out, it wasn’t so vile or evil. It was worse. Due to the water shortage that the city / state is presently (perennially?) in the throes of, the Metro Water folk had no option but to supply the fetid water. After we complained and… raised a stink, the scene got better: they started sending muddied water. And this happened, as I already mentioned, twice over.

Learning our lessons from the first time, we didn’t use the sewage-water the second time around. We employed deos and perfumes to keep ourselves from smelling and air-fresheners to keep our environs from smelling, and called for tanker water to keep our health from flailing. As we needed to ration that water, we couldn’t really venture out, at least not too far from home, and because we had used the spurious water the first day, we promptly fell sick again.

Without making light of slum-dwellers and other less-fortunate folk’s lives, those two times, we felt we were living their lives, or something close to it. It felt like residing next to a gutter, going without bathing or being clean for days, having only a can of good water to survive the whole day… I shivered at these thoughts as much as I had when using that foul water.

We have presently solved the problem, like most others in the vicinity, by digging a second borewell. Why a second? Oh, the first went dry due to both non-usage and unavailability of ground water. They had to dig deeper for the second well. Which had my mom thinking equally deep: ‘With so many of us digging second borewells, could it affect the foundations of the buildings? Could it also have geological ramifications, such as earthquakes?’ I told my mom to stop her extreme line of worrying, because the last thing this city needs is Flood of 2015, Cyclone of 2016 and Quake of 2017.

Plus, I had broodings of my own. When the water supply turned from black to brown, I went: ‘So, it’s going to be either tatti or mitti now on…’ (Going forward, it’s going to be either turdy or muddy water…)

The water may not have been clear, but the reasons are. The usual suspects of furious, inconsiderate development, unceasing population growth and increasing urbanization. The area where I stay has over the past decade gone from being peacefully residential to painfully commercial, with the two-storey independent houses regularly giving way to multi-storey stores and eateries. With more people now living and working in the same square kilometres, there’s bound to be further strain on the already-stretched resources.

Sure, we need development, and I don’t want to sound despairingly exasperated like The Hindu’s own J Mathrubootham (who blames everyone from Trump to his work-from-home son for the woeful state of all things), but if you raze trees to construct buildings, how about planting some trees again in the open areas once those buildings have come up? A stretch of the Metro Rail runs, not far from where I stay, through a two-kilometre long road that has ‘avenue’ in its name, but are there any trees on this road to make up this avenue? Go ahead and cut the trees for your digging and tunnelling and constructing, but once the work is done, how about lining up that avenue with some green – instead of spiffy signboards, spanking-new bus-stops and squeaky-clean pavements?

In my morning walks and jogs through the extended area where I live, I see more boards on building gates with the message ‘Adopt Rain-water Harvesting’ than the declaration ‘This building implements rain-water harvesting’. Any surprise the city lost a year’s supply of rainwater during the 2015 flood?

A poster for Mad Max: Fury RoadData is the new oil, information-age gurus enthusiastically proclaim. The way things are going, water will be the next ‘It’ commodity, and the disturbing future portended by movies like Mad Max: Fury Road will not be dystopia but at our doorstep. Why, a future redux of The Hunger Games could well be The Thirsty Games or, as I have witnessed, The Dirty Games. In more ways than one.

So, here’s a thought. Given how huge a hit Bigg Boss Tamil has proved to be, the next season should be held in an apartment complex. (Because resorts anyway have become the mainstay of escaping and escapist politicians.) Give the contestants all the same things they get on the current sets. Only, provide them little, no or foul water. The dynamics and dramatics that ensue will be dirtier and stinkier than that water. In no time, most will happily nominate themselves for elimination. The resolute few will quench their thirst with their apparently ever-ready… tears. Oh, savage.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD