Aabid Surti is a man of many colours – a National Award winning author, artist, cartoonist and playwright. But if asked about his biggest achievement in life, Surti believes it is his non-governmental organisation — Drop Dead — which has fixed thousands of leaking taps and saved billions of litres of water from being wasted.
Surti started the Drop Dead Foundation in 2007 after a leaking tap at a friend’s house bothered him so much that it became his cause. “We are originally from Gujarat. During partition in 1947, everybody said that we have to leave for Pakistan since we are Muslims. Initially we decided to leave, but after reaching Bombay, my father decided that no matter what happened, we would stay back in India. My childhood was mostly spent in Bombay’s slums and on pavements. To get a bucket full of water from the common tap, my mother had to stand in long queues early in the morning and, quite often, she had to fight for her share. This childhood memory kept on haunting me whenever I saw a leaking tap, overflowing building tank or bursting pipeline,” recalls Surti.
Born on May 5, 1935, in Gujarat, Surti holds a Diploma in Arts from Sir JJ Institute of Applied Arts. He published his first story Tootela Farishta (Fallen Angels) in Gujarati in 1965. Since then, Surti has written numerous short stories, novels, plays, children’s books, comic books and travelogues. In 1993, he won a National Award for his short-story collection titled Teesri Aankh (Third Eye).
This coming Sunday will be no different for the 77 year old as he will go on fixing leaking taps and pipes for free, in the Mira Road suburb in Mumbai, India, where he lives. Drop Dead has just one employee, one volunteer and one single inspiration. With a man like him in their midst, it possibly needs no more. “Lot of water is saved. Hundreds of people are made aware of the need to save water. And for all the hard work, we sometimes are offered free lunch,” he says.
Once he went to a friend’s house and saw a leaking tap. When asked, his friend said that it is very difficult to get plumbers to do such a small job. After few months when he went back, the tap was still leaking. Surti went about the task himself.
“I read an article that if one drop of water is wasted every second, 1,000 litres go down the drain every month. An image of 1,000 bottles of water flashed before my eyes, I couldn’t ignore it. That’s how the journey started,” he says.
Surti started his crusade against wasting water in 2007. Every Monday, the plumber, a volunteer and Surti approach the secretary of a society for permission. If the secretary agrees, then they put up posters on the housing society’s notice board, on the ground floor or near the lift, with the tagline “Save Every Drop or Drop Dead”.
“Generally everybody agrees since everyone understands the problem. But they consider it too minor or too expensive to take any immediate measure. The words ‘Drop Dead’ have a great impact on the residents,” chuckles Surti. Playing with words comes naturally to him.
On Saturdays, they send out pamphlets that explain what Drop Dead is to every household. So when he arrives on Sunday morning, he generally gets a warm welcome from the members of the housing society. “We cover a sixstorey building in about three hours.
We spend only 10 to 15 minutes to reach a targeted building but the rest of the time, we go house to house correcting leaky taps,” says Surti, sitting in his Mumbai home. Initially, the project was funded by a prize money of 1,00,000 Indian Rupees or $ 1650 that he received from the Hindi Sahitya Sansthan Award from the Uttar Pradesh government in India. Later, another 50,000 Indian Rupees or $825, received in the form of the Gujarat Gaurav Award, also went into this kitty.
“Every Sunday, we spend around 600 Indian Rupees to fix taps. Mostly, it’s the washer which is faulty which we replace at our cost. It costs a mere 50 paisa if bought in wholesale. If there are any other major replacements, we generally ask the owner of the house to get us the spare parts and we do the repair job for free,” Surti informs WCRC Leaders Asia. The plumber’s charges and commuting fare are the real costs involved. To raise money and to take this initiative to other places, he prints T-shirts with Drop Dead logos and sets up stalls at exhibitions and fairs.
“I spend Rs 100 to get a T-shirt made. I ask the buyers to pay me anything above Rs 100. Some pay Rs 110 while some surprisingly even give Rs 1,000! 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, Allah pokes the right person and I receive a cheque without even asking for it. This year, Wipro gave the Sparrow Award worth 50,000 Indian Rupees to Drop Dead,” he cites an example.
Some well wishers have also helped the organisation. An owner of a press printed pamphlets for free. “I asked him not to act foolish by doing so. But he was adamant. He did not know how to help his world. And of course, contributions from anyone with no strings attached are always welcome.”
In the first year alone, till February 2008, Surti and his entourage visited 1,666 houses on Mira Road, fixed 414 leaking taps free of cost and saved about 414,000 litres of water.
The response to Drop Dead has been unbelievable. Word about it is spreading fast and far. A television channel from Berlin gave a 10-minutes slot to Drop Dead’s actions, airing it in many European countries.
“My popularity as an artist is our real strength. I want to remind people, that however busy or important one may be in life, it is equally important to pay attention to small things in our day-to-day lives which will ensure our tomorrow. Through our work, I have realised that it is not that people are ignorant about the world around them. But they need to be reminded of their responsibilities as a social being where saving a drop of water is equally important as saving a rupee. You may not be able to save the Ganges or the Yamuna from where you are but you can save a few drops here and there and those few drops count. I think Allah has given me that responsibility and I am happy doing it,” says an animated and visibly emotional Surti.
“I am sacrificing my Sunday mornings for this cause. It’s so simple, so easy for anyone to do. 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 too,” says the man who turns 80 next year.
On the immediate ‘to do’ list of Surti, the following are listed: hire an office space, more staff and a two-wheeler for the plumber to respond to emergency leaks. But the major challenge is to spread the movement to other parts of the country through local volunteers. “I am looking for people who are interested in this. I am ready to give them my logo and everything else. I don’t even want my name on their material. All I want them to do is help save water,” he says.
Surti has started turning his attention to sensitise children and that is already working. The Cosmopolitan School of Mira Road and its staff members are committed to conserve water. Its 1,000 plus students whom Surti considers his angels help him carry forward the message to save water by undertaking campaigns and putting up Drop Dead posters in their buildings.
“Media is a very important tool in spreading my message. People should read about the initiative and take things forward in their locality. Nobody needs to pay me a royalty for that, they just need to save water,” he signs off.