There is no denying that each drop of water must be conserved. In this light, the ongoing campaign on FM radio in the Capital on water conservation deserves appreciation. Using multiple celebrity voices, the Paani Bachao, Life Banao campaign has been pitched around plugging leakages and saving wastages. Targeted primarily at urban listeners, bulk of the messages relate to saving basin wastage, plumbing leaking cistern and restricting car washing.

From actors Pankaj Kapoor to Ranbir Kapoor to Preity Zinta to radio jockey Khanak, each one offers the listeners handy tips on efficient use of available water. Aired through the day, the frequency modulation medium has been effectively used to spread crucial messages on reducing wasteful consumption of water. The next phase of the campaign aims to fan across residential colonies in a bid to get residents into the act of saving water.

The channel is upbeat about its campaign but unsuspecting listeners have been caught in a bind on two accounts. Many wonder if the campaign designers have erroneously assumed water being equitably distributed across the city. No surprise, the channel has been getting calls from several listeners who argue that they could only be frugal with water usage provided the supply is regular and of desired quality. The city’s daily shortfall of 200 million gallons speaks for itself.

On another extreme are those colonies where the water supply is reasonably regular, but the residents are hardly convinced if the current crisis could be of their making. “We only consume what we get,” seems an apt response. By focusing on reducing water demand alone, the radio campaign has missed on the supply-side syndrome. Reports indicate that if the Delhi Jal Board could plug 90 per cent of its leaking pipes, each resident should get his/her daily quota of 200 litres.

Acts of personal consumption can surely be an addition provided individual water saved gets reallocated to those who are not covered by city supplies. Ironically, neither has the distribution system any provision for routing water back into the supply chain nor is there any incentive for the resident welfare associations to cut down on their water demand. No wonder, therefore, that whatever little is saved gets sucked within the inefficient system itself.

While there is no denying the fact that water must not be wasted, any campaign taking consumers on a guilt trip by engaging them in what-you-can-do-to-save-water is grossly misdirected. Be it water crisis or climate change, ordinary citizens have been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption for organised system’s change.

By diverting attention from organised social resistance for systemic change, such campaigns do a disservice by not addressing the root cause of the problem. Simply put, domestic water consumption is about seven per cent of the total water used across sectors. Will making such a system efficient transform the dismal state of water? It has now been widely recognised that people are dying not for lack of water but because their share of water is being stolen.

A diligent housewife can surely use vegetable washings for watering her potted plants but can hardly stop more than 50 per cent of supplied water from being wasted away from her reverse osmosis filter in the kitchen. Similarly, water can be saved by keeping the washbasin tap shut during the daily ordeal of shaving but how can one control the use of filtered water that gets used for flushing the toilet. Isn’t it being penny-wise and pound-foolish?

It is clear that while individuals can be mobilised to transform their consumptive habits but the onus for big picture change rests with those who wield power within the system. Since neither is the individual creating the crisis nor can she/he solve it, their collective energies can be galvanised to help shake-up the system from its slumber. If properly channelised, the whole individualist what-you-can-do-to-save-the-earth may not necessarily be a myth.

While the channel is seized of such challenges, it is somewhat caged within capitalism’s definition of listeners as consumers and not citizens. As a result, the focus is on targeting consumptive patterns and not systemic change.

(The writer is with Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation)

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