Aabid Surti hates the sound of leaky taps. So much so that he sets out every Sunday to fix them in his neighbourhood — for free. A one-man NGO, the 80-year-old Surti founded the Drop Dead foundation to offer locals in Mira Road, a Mumbai suburb, free plumbing services. The man fixes on an average 400 taps a year after visiting close to a thousand homes.
The value of water was instilled in him when Surti was a child on a pavement in Mumbai, watching his mother queue up for it at 5 am everyday. “Water supply lasted about half an hour in the area and hordes of women used to gather to fill their buckets. So, fights were very common, and that would often mean that there was no guarantee of getting water despite the struggle,” he says.
The idea of water going waste in homes haunted him so much that in 2007, he decided to take things into his own hands with assistance from a local plumber. “I read somewhere that if one drop of water goes waste every second, then a 1,000 litres are lost over a month. The numbers hit me hard.” So every Monday, Surti has a word with a building secretary and puts up posters about the campaign. They say those wanting plumbing repairs can avail of Drop Dead’s services for free. On Sunday, Surti along with the plumber carries out the necessary fixing.
But the idea took some time to work. “I used to wonder why one would turn down a free service. Then it struck me that we weren’t approaching it right. Women who opened the doors were first greeted by the plumber himself and then by me, and become apprehensive about getting the job done. So we got on board a pretty woman volunteer who would flash a broad smile. It worked!”
A national award-winning author, painter and the man behind the much-loved Indrajal Comics’ superhero Bahadur, Surti was born into a regal family in Gujarat and swapped a palatial haveli for a pavement in Mumbai due to a twist of fate. “My mother used to carry me and stand in the balcony of the haveli; we used to watch carts carrying sacks of coins to the bank. But things changed,” he says, recalling life’s turn. And not one to give up, Surti spent his time doodling, painting and writing, eventually bagging several awards for his work. It was one such award that funded the first step of his initiative.
“When I received the Sahitya Sanstha Award and a prize money of Rs 1 lakh, I used that for my foundation. Thereafter something or the other came up and my project funded itself. If your intentions are good, God becomes your fundraiser,” says Surti, who recently received Rs 11 lakh from actor Amitabh Bachchan during an appearance on the latter’s TV show.
“Just when my resources were drying up, I received the sum from Mr Bachchan. I can now work on my ad films that they play in movie halls. I am also working on a pictorial book for children explaining the importance of water conservation.”
Over the years, people have replicated Surti’s model nationwide — including actor Gulshan Grover. “People write to me asking how they can help. I just tell them to do the same thing in their neighbourhoods. I tell them I’ll supply them the pamphlet design, all they have to do is replace my name and contact number with theirs. I don’t even want my foundation’s name there. It’s entirely their baby because at the end of the day, it’s all about saving water.”