My interview with Kolkata-based Ajay Mittal was scheduled for a Monday afternoon. This was days after his city had been ravaged by Cyclone Amphan. The phone rang only twice to be answered by a very apologetic Mittal. He was in the middle of a replantation drive where his volunteer organisations – Active Citizens Together For Sustainability (ACTS) and Kolkata Clean Air were treating and replanting trees uprooted by the storm to help salvage some of the damage. He wanted to reschedule the call for the next day.
For most of us, something like this would be a one-time volunteer effort, but for Mittal, it is a typical day at work. When he is not addressing the damage left behind by a cyclone, he is questioning authorities on Twitter about their response to the ongoing pandemic, emphasising the need for safety measures and distributing personal protective equipment to the public. In a pandemic and cyclone-less world, people will find him campaigning for clean air, talking about climate-related issues, organising blood donation drives and saving water – or as Mittal sums it up – Donate Red, Spread Green and Save Blue.
Last year, along with his friend and fellow ACTS volunteer Vijay Agarwal, Mittal initiated the ‘Fix For Life’ mission, which aims to fix leaking taps on the streets of Kolkata. The duo’s water conservation drives have gained them national and international recognition, and they were also featured in the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources’ monthly magazine, Jal Charcha. Mittal is recognised as an environmental leader by the North American Association for Environmental Education – EE 30 under 30 (2019), and has been trained as a Climate Reality Leader in Brisbane, Australia, as part of the Climate Reality Project.
In this interview, the young environmentalist shares his thoughts about the water crisis and asserts that small steps can make all the difference when it comes to conserving the precious resource.
We are having this conversation about water scarcity in the middle of a pandemic; West Bengal is still reeling from the effects of Amphan as we witness more natural disasters across the country. As a climate activist and environmentalist, what do you make of the world around you?
We could look at it in two different ways. We have seen that the number of cyclones over the Bay of Bengal has increased in recent times. Several projections are telling us that, going forward, this will be a repeated occurrence. We also see that these cyclones are becoming more and more severe. Cyclone Amphan, for instance, greatly damaged the Sunderbans, which is considered to be a shield against such natural disasters. In short, they are more frequent, more severe and leave behind more damage. That’s one way of looking at it. But, it is also true that we have reached a level of acceptance about their presence, and we are now focusing on adaptation. Even government policies are being framed around adaptation, and we know that we will be spending more on disaster preparedness and relief and that we are working with limited natural resources.
I believe the root of the problem is in our inability to take necessary action when required. For example, with regards to water scarcity, we have had access to sustainable alternatives for a while now. It could have been a smoother transition, rather than looking for options and finding ways to adapt after the crisis has already hit us – which is what we seem to be doing across the board.
Have you always been inclined towards the environment and conservation? Please tell us a little bit about your journey.
It is something that has evolved gradually. Although my educational background is in Computer Science, I started volunteering with different organisations in the city while I was still in college. Initially, my interest was in working on health-related issues, and I volunteered with an organisation called HIVE India that provides emergency care for people at risk on the streets of Kolkata. I continue to be a part of this organisation as a Board Member now. Some of us in the network started Project Life Force after this to encourage voluntary blood donation among youngsters, which has grown to be one of the largest networks in the city working on blood donation.
When conversations around Delhi’s air pollution problem gained momentum, we realised that it was a equally dire situation in Kolkata too, but no one was talking about it. That’s when we started Kolkata Clean Air in 2017, and ACTS was an outcome of the clean air initiative, something that would allow us to work on all aspects of conservation and sustainability, including water conservation. Last year, I began my first professional engagement as an environmentalist with Earth Day Network, where I am the Director for Climate Change Programs in India and South Asia.
Please tell us about your Fix For Life initiative and how you came up with the idea?
The initial discussion started when we saw images of the 2019 drought in Chennai. In addition to that, the NITI Aayog report on India’s water crisis also made us realise that we needed to do something right away. Although we have never directly faced water shortage, we knew that there are problems of water contamination and groundwater depletion in Kolkata. Around that time, my friend Vijay Agarwal, on his way to his son’s school, noticed a broken tap on the side of the road near a traffic signal. He called me right away and we decided to look into the issue. We went around the locality and found that there was a serious issue of water wastage due to broken taps and pipelines. These water lines are provided by the municipality, and we found out that 30 per cent of the water they supply is wasted. (According to reports, Kolkata Municipal Corporation produces about 450 million gallons of water through its three treatment plants which is then distributed using more than 17,000 taps across the city.) We hired a plumber, gathered materials from a local hardware store and set out to fix these taps. There was so much pressure in these pipelines; the amount of water being wasted was considerably high. The community appreciated our efforts and we felt really good about it.
We started fixing taps in June 2019, and we continued to do so until the lockdown. We have fixed more than 1500 taps across the city and the nearby satellite city of Howrah. The plumber who joined us on the first drive, Ravi Shaw, also became a part of the initiative. He has also taught us how to fix taps, so we have managed to pick up some essential life skills as well.
How did the people in these communities react to Fix For Life? Did you also build awareness about water wastage through your work?
The areas we addressed were located in the by lanes around the city and were highly populated. So when we went around fixing taps, we also took the opportunity to interact with people about the issue and tell them that if we don’t save water now, there will soon come a time when the taps will go dry, and there will be nothing left to fix. They are aware of water-related issues and have observed over time how there have been changes in water pressure and quality. But they were really impressed by the fact that people who have nothing to do with government agencies were willing to spend time and fix the taps outside their area of residence, and were open to our suggestions to reduce wastage. We also came across people who tried to do their best to address the problem in their own way. One lady used a piece of potato every day to temporarily seal the tap! In a lot of places, they would seal the opening with plastic bottles or a piece of wood or cloth.
When they saw us working, they would tell us – this is what we should have done ourselves and you should not be coming all the way here just to fix a tap. A big challenge was identifying taps in localities we didn’t know, which took us a lot of time. We received help from the police department, especially in Howrah, where we partnered with every police station in the region. That is how we covered Howrah in a much shorter time than anticipated. Many people also got in touch with us and asked if we could fix the taps near their area of residence and that they would bear the costs.
Please tell us a little about your civil society group ACTS and your plans ahead with respect to water conservation?
As I mentioned earlier ACTS is an outcome of the Clean Air initiative and was only formed in 2019. We thought we could bring like-minded people together and work on conservation projects. We work on air pollution as part of the Kolkata Clean Air network, and water conservation through the Fix For Life initiative. We are also working on greening the city. Currently, we are focusing on replanting some of the trees that have been uprooted due to the Amphan cyclone. There are about seven people in the core ACTS team, and we have a good network of volunteers.
With respect to water, we have outlined three goals, which we have not started working on because of the lockdown. But our key areas of focus will be:
- Spreading awareness and implementing rainwater harvesting projects
- Reducing water wastage in community pipes
- Developing a sensor for overhead tanks wherein every time water in the tanks reaches full capacity it shuts off the motor, thus saving both electricity and water
Along with Earth Day Network and Y East, we have also participated in river clean up drives along the ghats of the Hooghly river. We removed a lot of trash from the riverside and disposed of it in a responsible manner. But this is merely scratching the surface. A lot of people still discard trash and pooja materials along the rivers. Communities that live in these regions do not have the right sanitation facilities, which is why they resort to open defecation. So we need to do more work at the behavioural level and provide infrastructural support.
Do you think the presence of paid alternatives, especially in larger cities hinders our understanding of the issue?
As resources get starved, the most vulnerable people in society are the first to be affected, and this is true across cities in the country. Even when water is available, we see it being diverted to some of the bigger complexes and communities, making it more accessible to a few people in the society. It is a reality that we get access to water at the cost of the poor; a reality that people must open their eyes to. I also came across a study which mentioned that Kolkata’s household water consumption is much higher than the actual requirement.
In communities where we did the tap-fixing drives, several households use the water from one tap. People have to wait for their turn to get water. Yes, there is wastage, but the root of the problem here is access to the resource. When basic resources, sanitation and healthcare are bigger issues, conservation becomes an abstract concept. We can talk to them about it, but we need to address the other problems first.
In large apartment complexes, it is the opposite. Since there is no thought going into the availability of water, we don’t pay attention to its usage and water waste. In Kolkata, water is tax-free, maybe we need to reconsider this. I feel that the attitude will change only when people have to pay a price for the resource. Every municipality needs support and funds to perform its duties. Why not tax the resource and use the money to provide better water access to those who need it? We also need to establish strong measures to improve the quality of water and prevent water wastage. Bottom line is that free resources are not valued, which is why we need to add a price tag to them.
From being part of policy-level discussions to working on the ground and finding quick-fix solutions, you have seen both ends of the spectrum. According to you, what does India need to address its water crisis?
80 per cent of our water is used for agriculture, and we see a significant amount of water getting wasted in this sector. At Earth Day Network, we have taken up an initiative called Farmers For Earth where we focus on climate-resilient methods of farming, including implementing water conservation practices. We meet farming communities and talk to them about the schemes that are available to them through various Government of India initiatives. For example, there is the ‘Per Drop More Crop’ scheme that aids in implementing micro-irrigation methods and encourages the use of drip irrigation techniques to efficiently use water in agriculture. There is also the PM-KUSUM (Pradhan-Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyaan) scheme which enables farmers to install and use solar pumps for irrigation. But farmers must be made aware of these options, and that is what we are trying to do. We also created manuals which enlighten them about these schemes, helping them to easily make the switch to sustainable choices.
The other aspect that we need to look at is the kind of crops that are being grown. A lot of our farmers are dependent on paddy cultivation, which is a water-intensive crop. So we need to think of means to incentivise crop diversification and aid farmers in growing other crops that require less water. I believe the state of Haryana has done some work in this regard. Agricultural changes must be supported with the right kind of policies and with adequate consumer demand. If farmers are growing diverse crops, we must be willing to incorporate them into our food habits and create a market for them.
Agriculture is the biggest source of livelihood in our country, and farmers are the most vulnerable when it comes to water scarcity. Also, please keep in mind that this is a food security issue for the whole nation. Communities must reach out and help farmers in any way they can. Talking to farmers, to be honest, has been one of the most rewarding experiences for me.
What steps can we take in our daily lives to help water conservation?
Every drop you waste is a drop you snatch from someone else. Sounds harsh, but that is the reality. We need to think about water waste if we have to come up with ways to save water. Also, we need to understand how we can influence water conservation as a consumer. For example, garment manufacturing requires a lot of water, so we can look at how often we buy clothes. We can also include diverse crops in our meals. To be honest, this is not something I have been able to change that easily from my end, but I am working on it. Small changes in our lifestyle can influence our water consumption. Let’s do what we can to bring change. A lot of us doing things imperfectly will have a more significant impact than a few of us doing it perfectly.
Do you have a message for people who would like to adopt and implement your Fix For Life model?
We definitely need more people involved in such activities. All you have to do is look around you – your office, your community, your apartment complex, and you will see that it is a problem everywhere. It is funny, but you know what works for me? I tell people that if you have leaking taps in your house or your place of business, you will never be able to hold your financial wealth. Draining water is the same as draining your wealth. Honestly, it works, and it convinces people to take a look at their taps. Maybe they can try this.