“Universal” is a tricky word. It has an enormous appeal, an unquestioned romance of taking every one along. Universal human rights, universal access to basic services, housing for all. It is the barometer of inclusion done right. The dark side of the romance is that it’s one of the hardest things to actually achieve. Often the “universal” is a vanishing horizon and, like all horizons, the mirage is what makes you lose sight of the very real trade-off’s and constraints in your way.
This week the Delhi Jal Board announced a new horizon towards the idea of universal access to a basic urban service and human need: water. The “Jal Adhikar Connection” (a Right to Water Connection) promises to let households within slums in Delhi apply for legal, metered water connections “irrespective of the status of their residence.” This move – following the Government of Delhi’s already given pledge to extend water and sanitation services to unauthorized colonies – implies that legal, public and metered water could (like electricity) actually cover the city as it exists rather than as it is imagined in plans and laws.
Yesterday, in a corner of Delhi-NCR known as Keshopur, a 22-year old sewage worker breathed his last, a final tortured breath inhaled inside a part of the vast network of sewage pipelines that map the city in their own cartography of waste. The pipeline was owned by the Delhi Jal Board, so its function was not simply to transport sewage, but to transform it into potable water through a portion of the pipeline that resembles a septic tank – a portion known as the ‘digester’.
That Vinay Sirohi, 22-year old contract worker with the Delhi Jal Board, who got married last year and had taken up part-time employment to help him get through college, lost his life in a part of the sewage pipeline called the ‘digester’ imparts something so grotesquely apposite to this tragedy that one almost doesn’t want to think about it. One often doesn’t, of course. One has the option of of flipping the page of the newspaper, of resting one’s eyes on more life-affirming images – English Premier League, Bollywood, Modi-Cameron Cameron-araderie…even Kejriwal’s homely navy-blue sweater and baggy trousers are a pleasant distraction. Anything that tells us that life as it was meant to be – humans wearing a clean sweater and trousers with a sofa to sit on after their stomachs and minds are fed and sated – is better than the thought of a body inside a pipe under the city. When I tried to save the image that you see above, the caption read djb_body_759. I don’t want to think about what that caption means. Does it mean the 759th body found inside the DJB’s sewage network? Does it mean the 759th body to have been recovered by the police this year, 2015? Does it mean the 759th body to have died in sewage pipelines across the country, or ever?