Saving a city millions of gallons of water – one tap at a time

By Jennifer Kishan in Kolkata

There is light drizzle as Vijay Aggarwal and Ajay Mittal manoeuvre their two-wheelers through the labyrinthine alleyways of Kolkata’s Tiljala road slum. Early Sunday morning, the neighbourhood is teeming with activity – women sit on their haunches washing clothes and utensils; half-soaped children scurry in and out of their baths; towel-clad men wait to brush their teeth. Every 50 metres a community pipe gushes out water – plastic bottles, jerry cans and metal buckets are lined up to fill.

The duo along with their plumber, Ravi Shaw, who rides pillion, make their way to the first huddle of people and get to work. All it takes is a blow and twist of a wrench – the nozzle pops loose. Shaw fishes out an orange and white tap from his bag and fits it. While Aggarwal hurriedly plasters a Save Water Save Life sticker on to a lamppost, Mittal tells the people to close the tap once they are done and points out the helpline number on the sticker.

As the three gather their tools, Aggarwal says: “It literally took two minutes to install a tap on this pipe – in return we have just saved the city gallons of water.”

It was a casual moment that spurred Aggarwal into action. “In July last year, I was dropping my son off to school when at a traffic signal, I watched water gush out of a tap-less roadside pipe,” says Aggarwal, who runs a travel and tourism agency.

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Irked by what he saw, Aggarwal, 40, returned with his friend Mittal, 29. They bought taps at the local hardware store, hired a plumber and fixed 12 pipes on the street. The Fix for Life campaign to conserve water in Kolkata was born.

In a country where safe drinking water is a development goal, Kolkata relies on its treatment plants to meet 95% of its needs. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) produces 450m gallons of filtered water every day at its three main treatment plants.

Apart from domestic and commercial complexes, KMC also provides potable water to the streets and slums for a few hours every day through an estimated 17,000 roadside pipes. For the 5 million people who reside in the city and 6 million who commute daily from the suburbs for work, this freely available safe drinking water is a life force.

However, a recent KMC survey conducted in six of its 144 wards estimates that 30% of the water simply runs down the drain. The survey found about 10% of the wastage was due to these roadside pipes that do not have taps.

Plumber Ravi Shaw at work on one of the open water pipes
Plumber Ravi Shaw at work on one of the open water pipes. Photograph: Jenny Kishan

“We had installed taps earlier but they are regularly stolen or broken,” says Mainak Mukherjee, the director general of KMC’s water supply department. “A large part of our budget is dedicated to providing clean drinking water. Kolkata is also one of the few cities in India where water is tax-free.” But without taps most of these efforts go to waste.

Since July, every weekend members of Aggarwal’s civic society group, Active Citizens Together for Sustainability (ACTS), conduct “water drives” to fix taps. “In these last eight months we have conducted over 70 drives in several pockets of the city,” says Mittal. “On our most productive day we fix about 30 to 35 taps.” The target is to have fixed 1,500 by Sunday, which is World Water Day.

But finding these pipes is a challenge. “There is no official data on the exact location of these pipes. This costs us precious time,” says Mittal. Here, other concerned citizens, community clubs and even police stations have reached out over social media to help accelerate their efforts. “People send us photos of pipes in their neighbourhood and we plan our drives along that route,” says Aggarwal, showing a WhatsApp text on his smartphone with photos of open pipes. “We will fix these this weekend. Our helpline is flooded with such messages.”

ACTS has been helped by citizens such as Ashfaq Alam, a shopkeeper in the Tijala slum, who earlier used his own money to install taps on the pipe that is being fixed. “It did get stolen but we installed it again. Sometimes you have to take matters in your own hands,” he says. A few years ago, the Lutheran World Service India Trust also ran a similar campaign in Kolkata to tap the pipes in surrounding streets.

Some are unimpressed by the efforts. “Don’t bother,” says Bindu Das as the team fixes the pipe on his street. “The children in the neighbourhood will break it in a few days.” The solution to this is to use plastic taps. Mittal says: They last but they don’t have much resale value. We also go back and replace stolen or leaking taps if you reach out on our helpline.”

Mukherjee concedes that this colossal wastage is mainly due to a lack of civic awareness. As Mittal points out, citizen-led initiatives can only complement the government. “There are just a few of us and it takes a lot of time to bring up our tally count. If only the government could do this in all the wards in the city, we could solve this problem in a week.”

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