Aabid Surti: Helping to Fix Mumbai's Water Supply

Feature | 8 May 2013

Author Aabid Surti champions water conservation by fixing leaks in Mumbai's poor households, one pipe at a time.

Bothered by leaking taps at the houses of friends and relatives, Aabid Surti began knocking on neighbors' doors, accompanied by a plumber, and asking if they have leaking pipes or taps that needed to be fixed. Surti is the founder of Drop Dead Foundation, a non-government organization (NGO) that fixes leaks every Sunday morning.

What inspired you to embark on such a big project as fixing Mumbai's leaks?

My childhood years were spent in a chawl (a large building divided into many separate tenements, offering cheap, basic accommodation to labourers) and on pavement. To get a bucket full of water from the common tap, my mother had to stand in the queue early in the morning and often she had to fight for her right. This childhood memory kept on haunting me whenever I saw a leaking tap, overflowing building tank, or bursting pipeline.

How bad is Mumbai's leak problem?

The leak problem in ghettos and lower middle class areas is worst. A plumber's visit costs a minimum of Rs.100, which poor families cannot afford. Construction companies are also partly responsible for using substandard plumbing.

Tell us about Drop Dead. How does it work?

One Sunday in 2007, I hired a plumber and set out to fix leaking pipes or taps at my neighbors' homes along Mira Road. I was bothered by a leaking tap at a friend's house that remained unfixed because it was too minor and too costly. This was the birth of Drop Dead.

"The response to Drop Dead has been unbelievable. It's picking up fast like jungle fire, not only in India but all over the globe."

Since then, we have developed a process which we follow like clockwork. On Mondays, the plumber, a volunteer, and I approach the building secretary for permission. If the secretary agrees, then we put up posters on the housing society's notice board on the ground floor or near the lift, with our tagline "Save Every Drop or Drop Dead." The words "Drop Dead" have a great impact on the tenants. On Saturdays, we send pamphlets that explain what Drop Dead is to every home, so when we arrive on Sunday morning, we get a warm welcome from the members of the housing society.

We cover a 6 story building in about 3 hours. We spend only 10 to 15 minutes travelling by car to reach a targetted building, but the rest of the time, we go house to house correcting leaky taps.

What are Drop Dead's accomplishments so far?

I've kept the record of our first year, February 2007 to February 2008 -- incidentally 2007 was the International Year of Water. During that period, we visited 1,666 houses on Mira Road, fixed 414 leaking taps free of charge, and saved about 4.14 lakh (414,000) liters of water.

The response to Drop Dead has been unbelievable. It's picking up fast like jungle fire, not only in India but all over the globe. A television channel from Berlin gave a 10 minutes slot to Drop Dead, airing it in European countries.

What about financing? How are you able to sustain Drop Dead's activities?

When you honestly set out to do good for others, the whole universe is there to back you. Not only that, God becomes your fund raiser. When my finances are about to dwindle, God pokes the right person and I receive a check without asking. This year, God poked Wipro which gave the Sparrow Award worth Rs.50, 000 to Drop Dead. Of course, contributions from anyone with no strings attached are always welcome.

How has your work in water with Drop Dead affected your creative work?

So far it has not interfered with my work in any way. But it has certainly inspired me to write a novel based on a fictitious river.

I'm giving my Sunday mornings for this cause. It's so simple, so easy for anyone to do it. And that is what I want to convey to all, especially to senior citizens: come out of the retirement cocoon, spend a couple of hours, just do it. If I can, you can.

What are your plans for Drop Dead?

I've already started motivating children. The Cosmopolitan School of Mira Road and its staff members are committed to conserve water. Its 1000+ students are my angels who are carrying forward the message to save water by undertaking campaigns and putting up Drop Dead posters in their buildings.

What are the most important insights or lessons that you can share from your experience in Drop Dead and your work in water?

By working to save every drop, the pure love you get from door to door is indescribable. People are waiting to see an angel and to them, you are one.

The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB's developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB's Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.


About the Champion

Septuagenarian writer and artist Aabid Surti is the founder of Drop Dead Foundation, an NGO that repairs minor plumbing problems such as leaks in the households of Mumbai, India for free.

Born 5 May 1935 in Gujarat, Aabid obtained a Diploma in Arts from the Sir J. J. Institute of Applied Art in 1954. He published his first story Tootela Farishta (Fallen Angels) in Gujarati in 1965. Since then, Aabid has written a number of short stories, novels, plays, children's books, comic books, and travelogues. In 1993, he won a National Award for his short-story collection Teesri Aankh.

In 2007, Aabid founded Drop Dead Foundation after a leaking faucet at a friend's house bothered him so much and caused an epiphany. Since then, Aabid's Drop Dead team (consisting of a plumber, a volunteer, and Aabid himself) makes the rounds every Sunday fixing plumbing leaks in the Mira Road suburb where he lives. Today, Drop Dead Foundation continues to provide free plumbing services to Mumbai households.