Anupam Krishnamurthy

The leak in the pipeline

Mar 2014

Maya held a plastic pot on her head as she precariously walked on the pipe. The pipe spanned across a city drain, about 20 meters wide. The city’s sewage flowed underneath, eclipsed by thick clumps of water hyacinths. Herons waded in the noxious muck, hunting for the creatures that thrive on it. As she alighted from the pipe, there were no onlookers to cheer, whistle and reward her show of daredevilry. Instead, she had harvested a quantum of fresh water, which was sufficient to sustain her family for the next few hours.

The circular pipeline, with a diameter of 4 feet, carried water from a faraway river to benefit the residents of the city. Ironically, while villagers bordering the river had to walk a few kilometres to harness its life giving liquid, the residents of the city, a hundred kilometres away, could access it with a simple twist of their expensive Jaquar taps. The portion of the pipe that spanned across the gutter had a leaky valve in the middle. The PWD engineers turned a blind eye to the leak; the relative inaccessibility of the spot gave them a convenient excuse. They had mercifully done so for two years now, and enabled Maya, Balwant and their toddler to live off it.

The first few journeys across the pipeline were harrowing. Maya had to leave behind her new-born baby in her tent, at the mercy of the other inhabitants of the pavement: stray dogs, vagabonds and the occasional traffic policeman. She had to carefully balance the pot on her head with one hand while holding her ghagra up shin-high to avoid tripping over it while crossing. The passage of two years had consequently replaced fear with steely courage. Desperation begets bravery.

Maya was 18 years of age and nursing a new-born baby when she was forced out of her village in Rajasthan, to eke out a living. A few neighbouring families had narrated promising stories of prosperity in the cities of south India. Balwant, accompanied by Maya, had ambled to the railway station, caught the first train that was rumoured to head south, and got off after a couple of days at a railway station that seemed big enough to serve a city. Only by chance did it happen to be Bangalore; landing in Chennai, Hyderabad or Vishakhapatnam would have made no real difference. At least Bangalore’s weather is a shade kinder to the plight of a people who live in tattered tents that line its footpaths.

They managed to get on by selling knick-knacks on the pavement. A formidable variety of helmets, kick scooters, teddy bears and replicas of Venus De Milo made of plaster of Paris greeted passers-by. Their business attracted the attention of the local traffic policeman, who was their biggest source of expenditure. They also had to give him the occasional toy to keep him mollified. The law can be sadistically cruel to people who have been the victims of centuries of lawlessness.

One fine morning, Sharat Chandra happened to chance upon the leaky pipeline on his morning walk. He noticed the steady trickle of pure water drip down to be mixed with the sewage below. Chandra was a well-intentioned elderly gentleman who had recently retired from his occupation. He was now determined to put his newfound time and the little vitality that age had spared him for the cause of the common good. Later that day, he called at the local corporation office and requested to meet the engineer-in-charge. The engineer wasn’t at the office as he had gone to attend to some urgent repairs. The elderly man was met with some or the other excuse on repeated visits to the office, but he was determined. Finally, after hours of waiting, he stood before the engineer. Contrary to what he had expected, the engineer seemed to be a very cheerful and polite man. He gave Chandra a patient listening and was eager to get the leak fixed. He promised to visit the pipeline the following morning at ten ‘o’ clock to inspect the leak and tackle the problem. He explained that he was newly posted in the area and thanked Chandra for bringing the leak to the notice of his office.

The designated hour was at hand. Chandra leaned on his walking stick while staring into the seemingly endless sewage drain. Sure enough, at 10 AM, the engineer, surrounded by a couple of lackeys, strode out of his Ambassador car and shook hands with him. He quickly inspected the trickling pipe from a distance, gave instructions to the two men accompanying him and assured Chandra that the leak would be fixed in a couple of days. Chandra looked at the engineer as the latter strode towards his car with brisk steps and was driven away. The engineer seemed to be an assertive man, who took his job seriously. A quiet sense of satisfaction seemed to fill Chandra.

As he prepared to leave the scene, Chandra glanced at the pipeline and was shocked to find a woman balanced carefully upon it. With measured and confident steps she, proceeded to reach the spot of the leak and hang a pot at the location of the leak. Maya made her way back across the pipeline and saw the elderly man looking at her. Their eyes met for a couple of seconds after which Maya made her way back to her humble tent. Chandra stood at the scene, frozen, as vehicles whizzed by.