Early Tuesday, netizens bombarded social media with anguish-loaded photographs of seriously suffering African children or women walking miles over parched cracked earth to fetch water. Some callously copy-pasted cautions about depleting ground water sources, while others made us feel guilty for keeping taps running while brushing teeth. The occasion was World Water Day. As has become a ritual of our times, there is a Day for everything and everyone – father, mother, love, women, kiss, water, earth, the list goes on. And rather religiously do we observe these Days, if not out of genuine concern, at least so that we don’t become pariah.
Well. World Water Day. It dates back to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development where an international observance for water was recommended. The United Nations General Assembly responded by designating 22 March 1993 as the first World Water Day. Basically it is supposed to spread awareness about how precious water is and how we face sure catastrophe if we are not judicious in its use.
Let’s ignore for now the water crisis in African countries or sexy California and talk local. Latest reports reveal that with its billion plus population, India has the most number of people – close to 76 million living without access to safe water. The reality, I fear, is worse. Another report states that India is facing the worst crisis in a decade, with a severe shortage likely to spread out throughout the country.
Let us zoom in some more. Delhi. Data from a 2011 assessment of groundwater resources by the Ministry of Water Resources puts Delhi as one of the nine most critical states where groundwater has been pushed too low. And then again, every time someone wakes up on the wrong side of the bed in neighbouring Haryana, the city state of Delhi presses the panic button on water shortage. That the poor in Delhi live in a perpetual state of panic over water crisis is conveniently ignored. Sociologist Amita Baviskar observes – “In a water‐ scarce area like south Delhi where groundwater has been sucked dry, richer residents can buy tanker‐loads of water to top up their supplies for watering gardens and washing cars, while poor slum‐dwellers are forced to fight over a trickling tap”.
But! Come Holi, the festival of colours of India’s Hindi-belt, water crisis is all but forgotten in Delhi. What water crisis? This Holi, the Delhi Water Minister himself goaded people to “play Holi with full heart”. And lest people do not heed his call, the minister further encouraged - “they (people of Delhi) should not think twice before using water”. Of course Delhi doesn’t need much goading.
In the week preceding Holi, water becomes the most spendable commodity. WHOOSH … SPLAT. Duck. Dash. Dive. It’s the attack of the Water Balloon army. Kids ambush pedestrians, especially strangers, with water-filled balloons. Don’t blame the children though. Parents actually enjoy the spectacle of office goers, vendors or just anybody getting hit by the water balloons. I have even heard parents discuss animatedly how their wards cleverly managed to ambush a man dressed in well-ironed clothes.
Ecology pundits are predicting that the next war will be fought over WATER. Well, don’t know what 2050 will bring, but in Delhi you can get beaten up for protesting water wastage or put your life at risk by getting caught in the water conflict between the water balloon army and their victims. I almost fell victim to the latter situation.
Two days before Holi, on the day the world observes ‘World Water Day’, I was walking down the footpath on Shankar Road, Rajindar Nagar in West Delhi with my colleague after a light lunch. A few paces away from my office at New Rajindar Nagar, I sensed something whizz past my head and hit a signboard with an unnerving bang. Stunned, I turned around to catch a glimpse of a few kids grinning. Then they disappeared. Still dazed, I felt my colleague tugging on my arm pointing to something on the ground. Right next to my feet was a huge rock, weighing no less than 2 kgs. The next moment, a furious looking short and stout man materialized out of nowhere and picked up the rock. I realised he was the rock thrower and charged at him. But the man still looking quite incensed glared back at me and shouted – “I warned you not to throw water balloons at me.” When I explained that I was in no way involved, he looked over to where the kids had disappeared and grunted – “they have been throwing water balloons at me before I entered the bank and then when I exited the bank.” And then he stomped away with another warning, the rock still in his hand. About to stop him, I realised that the man looked distressed. A South Indian, going by his Hindi diction, the middle-aged man seemed weighed down by personal troubles.
The cigarette vendor on the footpath, whose mobile shop I frequent, then rushed to me and clasped my hands tightly in his. “Sir, you are very fortunate. God has saved you. That was a huge rock and the pagal (mad) man threw it with lot of force. It missed you by a whisker”, my cigarette -wala blurted out, his face deathly pale. He then narrated how the kids whom I saw had been harassing all people by making them targets of their water balloons. Hearing my man out, I went in search of the kids responsible for getting the man, who almost hit me with the rock, agitated. I accosted the kids (some in their teens) hiding behind the bank and chided them for irresponsible behaviour – told them that their fun should not trouble other people. I was tempted to give their parents an earful. But my colleague pulled me away.
Well, on afterthought I think that day I was twice lucky. This I realised a day later when I read how two Nigerian nationals were brutally assaulted by 12 men with cricket and baseball bats, again in West Delhi. What was their crime? Only that one of the Nigerian men had scolded a child for hurling water balloons at him. The festival of Holi was still three days away then.
I wondered if I would have met the same fate if the ‘guardians’ of the children I had scolded got hold of me. And they had not even hurled a water balloon at me. Might be I was lucky. Might be I was not a ‘black’. But the thought itself was so unnerving.
Social media might be a deterrent but all the online raves and rants cannot be of any good if we proactively do not check social malfunction. Farmers facing severe drought are committing suicides in many parts of India. It is nothing short of sheer indifference if we waste water and at that harass others in the name of celebrations. Yet while children cannot be expected to completely comprehend the woes of people in a drought-hit region or water-conflict, they can and should be taught the difference between fun and hooliganism. And when the elders defend children for wrong reasons, or in the case of the Nigerian nationals encourage rogue behaviour by assaulting those who discipline them, the society needs a serious re-think.