India needs a Patricia de Lille

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s often misquoted poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, came to my mind the other day when I received a WhatsApp from a friend who has recently moved from Gurugram to Cape Town, informing me about Day Zero and how Cape Town expected to be out of the water. With nothing but a vast coastline enveloping it, water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink — often misquoted as “not a drop to drink” — for once sounded apt to me.

However, the good news was that it was an empty threat, a panic created by the then mayor Particia de Lille. Day Zero came and went and Cape Town lived to tell the tale. All that has happened is that some stringent rules on use of water have come into place. Irrigation restrictions have been introduced. Fifty litres per person per day is the daily quota for residents on paper (stiff tariffs are in place if you go above certain limits). No watering gardens, washing cars, filling swimming pools; even flushing the toilets is no longer the norm. Exceed a certain quota and what you pay for water is prohibitive. Thousands of families in Cape Town have invested in massive storage tanks for the gardens in order to collect and harvest rainwater and those who can’t afford it put buckets out for every drizzle.

My friend who now lives there sent me a short note on all the restrictions they have imposed and she didn’t seem to think it terribly burdensome. She said they just had to stop to think before using water, exercise restraint and it had already borne results by checking indiscriminate use. Not a bad thing to her mind and one “urgently” needed in India, to quote her.

The more I thought and heard about it, the more convinced I felt that we too need a Patricia de Lille to create some kind of “panic” on water use here in India. Let me elaborate.

If you live long enough in any of the upscale condominiums that house a large proportion of Gurugram’s professional and highly educated lot, you can’t help but notice one thing. Their (and I include myself here) complete disregard for water as a resource. People are simply unaware that this is a precious resource, one that can and will actually run out at some stage. Water is considered free, one’s birthright and used with gay abandon.

I used to wake up to mornings where large gleaming SUVs were being washed thoroughly by drivers with long, thick hoses. I remember watching little rivulets of water forming along with mud and dust and running down the lanes as water from daily washing of cars rushed in the direction of the drains. Swimming pools were always filled — this holds true for almost all of the upscale condominiums in Gurugram — and there was never any check on the showering before and after a dip in the pool. Public grounds and private lawns were watered usually on a daily basis. When a friend’s son told other children that they must switch off the tap while they brush their teeth to prevent wastage, others — including adults — looked at him as if he’d lost his mind! Many commented that he was quite “extraordinary” to think or care about such matters at his age. Litres of water is wasted through the new RO systems where water drips through the day. This can be checked by connecting the dripping water directly to the washing machine or collecting it in a bucket for use but few bother. In cities like Chandigarh, random checks are done and a friend has had her water connection cut off when the authorities noticed a leakage at their house and saw water being wasted. This needs to be replicated across cities.

Water is one of the resources in which India’s inequalities appear starker than ever. The affluent communities and pockets consume far more than is their due and think little of it. I speak of a tiny microcosm but many Gurugrams exist in India — affluent pockets in almost all the cities of this country. Water use and wastage borders on the criminal. Unlike electricity and air conditioning bills, the water bill never pinches and is never the subject of talk. I have never heard anyone mention how much they paid for water in a particular month or season even as they rue about what they spent to keep their six air conditioners running during the summer season! Various expert warnings and regular columns on the subject by fellow columnist, Centre for Science and Environment’s Sunita Narain, give us a wider and a far more data-driven picture but they have all fallen on deaf ears so far.

Coming back to Cape Town, questions on whether Day Zero should have been advertised and dramatised the way it was — it has wider ramifications — remain but what everyone acknowledges is that it has altered the average Cape Town resident’s relationship with water. And that can only be a good thing. To my mind, India too needs a Patricia de Lille or an Ian Neilson (deputy mayor) or maybe both.

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