In March 2020, as public health organisations and governments across the world issued advisories to wash hands regularly to limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus, residents of Mumbai’s informal settlements wondered how to follow such instructions in the absence of regular, affordable and adequate access to water.
“We get only two cans of water. Shall we use it to bathe? Or wash hands? Or feet? Or clothes? Or cook?” Abrar Salmani - whom I call Abrar bhai, or brother Abrar - asked in a video message filmed as he stood outside his hut, his face covered with a handkerchief in lieu of a facemask.
More video messages poured in from residents of settlements across the city without legal access to water. They asked simple, yet pressing questions, reflecting challenges made worse by the pandemic: "How should we go to the toilet? How should we keep clean? What should we eat?"
The visuals haunted me for days.
Mumbai, the financial capital of India, has the capacity to supply over 200 litres of water to every resident, every day. Despite this, over 2 million residents are denied legal water access. This forces them into an undignified life, the lack of regular hygiene making them vulnerable to disease. They spend a significant part of their time and income trying to source the most basic need of life: water. Restricted mobility rules, introduced to curb the pandemic, made informal water distribution systems collapse and left millions of residents who depend on daily wages without income.
The Covid-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on the urgent need to improve public access to hygiene in order to protect public health. People began to realise the importance of universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene, since none of us are safe until all of us are safe. I made Izzat ka Pani (Hindi for “Water with dignity”) together with documentary filmmaker Jayant Parashar to understand what motivates Abrar bhai and the many other unsung water heroes of Mumbai who spend their lives pursuing their basic human rights to water, health and dignity. In this pursuit, they also contribute to public health and safety. The film’s title is derived from a quote from Abrar bhai: “Before I die, I want to drink not stolen water, but water with dignity.”
Izzat Ka Pani: The story of a Mumbai resident's long wait for piped water
The film offers a glimpse into the lives of Mumbai’s urban poor and the political and systemic injustice they face when trying to access water and sanitation, as well as the on-going efforts of citizen collectives to reform this system.
On 28 April 2020, the municipal water authority installed five stand-post water connections that serve about five households each, including the Abrar bhai household. He shared photos that show a hole being dug in the ground to lay a steel pipe branching into five outlets. History was being made in these seemingly unremarkable images.
At last, Abrar bhai enjoys the taste of water with dignity.