The water hierarchy


Water availability follows a certain social and economic hierarchy in India. And you just wouldn’t want to be at the bottom of this particular pyramid, says E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan. She counsels prudent use of water if we want it to last.

In these hot, blistering months in India, when the mercury often crosses 40 degrees, water is the only manna. Water is a precious commodity and a very necessary one, to stave off dehydration and heat strokes. Yet, do we all have access to clean drinking water as and when we want it? And herein lies the Indian conundrum.

In our beloved country, as in most things, water too goes through a socio-economic pecking order, especially in the urban cities. The privileged wealthy take a glass or a bottle of chilled water as their right. For them, availability of water is never in doubt. They have to only decide how they want it: Chilled or room temperature. Still or sparkling. Evian or Bisleri/Himalaya/Aquafina? This mélange of choices is the only inconvenience they have to face. Oh yes, too much of choice can be an irritant too!

For the next in the economic strata, the choices are simpler. Water stored in plastic bottles (Pet or Lock n’ Lock) or in glass bottles (either emptied juice or squash or liquor bottles, or the now popular tall, red and green bottles). The water, which is available 24 hours, is either RO (Reverse Osmosis-ed) or filtered through devices like the Aquaguard, or plain boiled.

It gets more simple as we climb down the pecking order. For this strata, municipal water is available at certain hours in the early morning from a single tap at home, and so water has to be quickly filled up in various plastic pots and drums – for both drinking and washing. This routine at dawn is a regular feature in lower middle-class urban households. It’s normally the responsibility of the lady of the house to fill water every day at that unearthly hour.

Our next strata lacks even this one tap at home. They can access water only through the municipal tap/hand pump. Typically in India, there will be one functional tap or pump for a few hundred families. Inevitably, water from the pump or tap flows temperamentally, left to the vagaries of the Gods-that-be at the municipality, leading to long queues of colourful plastic pots and buckets in front of it. Once the water gushes, there is much jostling and cussing and fist fights. Desperate women (oh yes, this is again a woman’s domain) will do anything to get that pot or two of water home.

And the last set of people are the forgotten people of India. Those who are migrants/labourers from other parts of the country and live in makeshift, absolutely rudimentary dwellings along our urban roads. They have no access to sanitation, water, or any modicum of living conditions fit for humans. Here, one will often come across young children pushing dirty plastic containers of water on temporary trolleys to their shanties. Forget quality of water, their only focus is to get that one container of water to their hut, so that some basic cooking and washing can take place. While the adults look for daily wages, the children are taxed with these tasks, their childhood already lost in a smog of tiring physical work and absence of education, or anything uplifting.

In the rural areas, the traditional ponds and tanks have either dried up or have been filled and built over in a fit of short-sighted developmental goals. This has led to severe water crises, leading to the desperate migration to cities. Our rural areas should never have to face water woes, but they sadly do.

The urban truth
I have eleven taps at home, I counted them, including the bathrooms. That’s a lot of taps for a household and it puts us squarely in the privileged set. Now, this thought doesn’t make me happy. I see water gushing out of these taps at all hours and I feel dread, because I know that I am not putting that amount of water back into the ground. So where will the future generation get and access water from? Yes, there is rainwater harvesting in my building, which is some consolation. But we need to do a lot more than this if we want to conserve water for the future.

Even more reprehensible are households with large bathtubs. If you really want to soak in a large expanse of water, visit the sea or go to the swimming pool. Bathtubs in private homes are so unnecessary and must be in my opinion severely restricted.

More important, we need to educate our children about how precious water is and how fast we are depleting it. Are we going to depend on expensive desalination plants to manufacture potable water for our use in the future? It’s a horrifying thought.

Eschew the bottle, seize the pot!
On top of my kitchen counter is a small surahi or clay pot, with a pretty hen beak spout, in which I store boiled water. It is my precious surahi which I once lugged all the way from a Goan fair. I have seen that when I store boiled and reasonably cooled water into it, the water is a few degrees cooler after a few hours. I bought it as an alternative to plastic bottles, and also to give a choice of cool water to my son, in the hope that he will eschew the cold fridge water. It has worked to some extent. I see him reaching for the surahi often. It’s also more convenient to pour out from a surahi!

My suggestion? When travelling, carry a bottle of water with you. Even if it’s a plastic bottle, ensure it’s reusable. It may seem easy and more convenient to reach out for a packaged bottle of water. And in India, it comes in various packages, doesn’t it? In Chennai, I have seen water being sold in small 250 ml plastic pouches. Or little plastic containers of water where you poke a sharp, sturdy straw through the lid and sip. This is very wasteful, given the amount of plastic such receptacles generate. Carry water in your own container as much as possible.

Also, offer drinking water to your house help. A bottle or two of boiled water you give them every day will at least take care of their own needs. Remember, they get water for a very limited time every day or they may have to stand for hours in a municipal queue to get a few pots of water. That bottle or two of boiled water will help them at least in the hot, summer months.

Even as we enjoy our access to water, let’s also access our humanity. Humanity breeds humanity. Let’s be very careful how we use water. Use water sparingly and responsibly, especially drinking water. Don’t upturn that half-empty glass of water into the drain. At least pour it into your pet’s water container or into your plants. Small steps do count. More than you think.


E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan

E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan is Assistant Editor, One India One People.