Anwar Ali, 28, is puffing on a bidi in the bylanes of Murgi Mohalla, off Mohammad Ali Road. The water carrier is on his three-hour afternoon break, from 1 pm to 4 pm.
“This break gives me the strength to keep going,” he says.
Strength is important for a man who starts his day at 4 am and spends the next 17 hours lugging about a large leather skin loaded with 30 litres of water.
It’s not easy starting the day that early every day, but Ali says he needs no morning alarm.
“My customers never fail to wake me up,” he says, “yelling down at me from their verandahs to get off my bed on the footpath and get them their water so that they can start their day.”
Ali and his two colleagues supply water to a total of about 90 households who do not get regular municipal supply and cannot afford to call on private tankers — down from 200 households 10 years ago.
Ali’s boss charges customers Rs. 20 per 30-litre bishti supplied. Ali gets a fixed salary of Rs. 7,000 a month. With no time for breakfast, Ali starts his day on an empty stomach. His first job is to fill up his boss’s large metal water cylinder, fixed to a handcart, with water from a public tap.
Ali and his colleagues then fill up their bishtis and get to work.
“I climb the equivalent of about 60 floors a day,” he says.
In addition to carrying, climbing and pouring, Ali must rush back to the water cylinder about 20 times a day to refill his bishti. He does this all day long, seven days a week.
“It is exhausting and frustrating at times,” he says. “But I have no choice. I don’t know how to do anything else.”
A Class five dropout from Uttar Pradesh, Ali came to Mumbai eight years ago, seeking a stable job that would help support his aging parents and two younger siblings. His uncle, then a water carrier, helped him get this job.
Ali started out at a salary of about Rs. 5,000 per month.
Of the Rs. 7,000 he now earns, he sends Rs. 4,000 to his family in UP. The rest of the money goes on food — pav and a glass of tea in the morning, which he gulps down hurriedly while filling his bishti, and a lunch and dinner of dal, roti and sabzi from a nearby restaurant.
With no roof, he pays no rent, but says he is not uncomfortable on the pavement. His only complaint, he says, is the backache caused by his profession.
“Sometimes, if the pain is too bad, the doctor tells me to rest for a few days. Rest means no money and that makes me sad,” says Ali.
But he is thankful, he adds, that the local doctors usually don’t charge him a fee. “This is the best part of my job. People in Mumbai are very helpful and giving, and make my survival quite easy,” he says.
Ali’s boss provides him with two uniforms and his clients pass used clothes on to him. Twice a month, Ali also treats himself to a movie or an outing to Juhu or Girgaum Chowpatty.
Once a year, Ali takes an unpaid one-month break and goes home to his family. “This is the happiest time of the year for me,” he says. “I don’t have to listen to people yell at me. I don’t have to carry water. I just relax, sleep and eat all day.”
Ask if he is lonely back in Mumbai and he laughs. “It’s not like I can marry,” he says, smirking. “Where would my wife sleep? On the pavement?”