Sitaram Shelar, convenor of Pani Haq Samiti, on how choosing to work as a social worker 25 years ago brought him face-to-face with Mumbai city's water-casteism
Sitaram Shelar started Mumbai Paani in 2007, which eventually became Pani Haq Samiti. Pic/Sameer Markande
Born in the Koyna backwater area in Mahabaleshwar, Sitaram Shelar always shared a special bond with water. As a young boy, his entire universe, set in a small village
Saloshi, was surrounded by nothing but water. In 1979, when he moved to Mumbai to pursue better quality education, this bond grew by leaps and bounds. So, it was not a surprise to his family and friends that he became a water activist, fighting for the fundamental right to water for all.
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Recalling his 25-year-long fight for water, Shelar, 45, says, "When I was studying BCom at Ismail Yusuf College in Jogeshwari, a few of my friends got together to start Prerna Library in 1994. Here, we started reading about the people, their issues and began analysing them. This was my first exposure to the people's problems in the country." He, however, could no longer pursue his interest in volunteering for such people after graduation. "So I took a job at a CA firm and worked there for about a year. Finally in 1998, I quit and joined the NGO Yuva in Mumbai. This organisation worked towards helping the youth understand the Constitution and their basic rights and responsibilities," recalls Shelar.
But his parents strongly objected to this decision. "They didn't want me to leave my job and become a social worker. So I left my family, and started living with a group of friends in a dingy room in Jogeshwari. Here, I faced a water crisis for the first time in my life," he says, adding, "Since I lived in an illegal community then, I would go to the nearby State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) camp and fill buckets of water. Many a time, they would kick our vessels and deny entry. This made me think how there is no such restriction in my village. Anyone could come by the river and fill litres of water. In Mumbai, however, things were different. Something needed to be done about it."
Almost a decade later when he was still working with Yuva, Shelar got the opportunity to work for a consultation programme organised by the World Bank in the city's K/East ward. "The pilot project was on water privatisation in the ward. After I started getting deeply involved in the problems people faced in Mumbai, I, along with others, started Mumbai Paani in 2007, which eventually became Pani Haq Samiti in 2010," the 45-year-old water warrior shares.
Here's how Mumbaikars are preserving and conserving water:
Pani Haq Samiti fights to secure the universal right to water. Its focus has been creating public opinion, opposition to privatisation of water supply and equal distribution of water to citizens. "Our first fight was to get the BMC to form a leak detection and prevention cell. We all know that a large percentage of Mumbai's supply is lost in leakages. After fighting for years, in 2010, the cell finally came into being," say Shelar, who then worked towards equal distribution of water.
"Despite the high court's order to the BMC to provide water for all, many people were deprived of it. In 2017, we filed 1,084 applications, each including details of five families, to the BMC, in which homes from across 17 wards asked for a formal water connection. Till date, only one family's request has been approved. But our fight for the remaining families will not end. Our aim is to make Mumbai thirst-free," says Shelar, who recently got two NoCs from the Bombay Port Trust and the Aarey CEO to provide water connections to 25,000 and 1,000 families, respectively.
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