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Reviving 19th Century Drinking Fountains Could Help Mumbai's Poor

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

India's commercial capital, Mumbai, has some amazing architecture - gothic towers, art deco buildings. But there's another part of Mumbai's cultural heritage you probably won't find in any guidebook - colonial-era drinking fountains. Most are in disrepair, and there's an effort underway to change that. NPR's India producer Sushmita Pathak has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Commuters on bicycles weave through the crowd in this narrow lane near Mumbai's docks. Laborers push wooden carts loaded with burlap sacks into warehouses. And then at a fork in the lane, you see a grand structure. The traffic seems to pause around it.

RAHUL CHEMBURKAR: It's like, you know, a cultural oasis, I'd call it.

PATHAK: What he calls an oasis is a drinking fountain, locally known as pyau, says architect Rahul Chemburkar. He gives us a tour, starting with this one which towers nearly 30 feet, like a really tall gazebo.

CHEMBURKAR: It has a lot of ornate elements like, you know, pillars, above which you have a canopy, above which you have this peacock motif. And peacock in Indian culture, again, is celebration of water.

PATHAK: In the 19th century, wealthy Indians built pyaus as a gift to the community and also as memorials for loved ones. But as Mumbai's population boomed, water became scarce, and a few decades ago, these decorative spouts ran dry. Chemburkar has been working with city officials to revive 30 of these fountains. It's a blessing for people like Mohammad Yaqoob. He lugs huge sacks on his back every day. When he gets tired...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER POURING)

PATHAK: ...He stops at the fountain for a sip and to rest on its steps.

MOHAMMAD YAQOOB: (Speaking Hindi).

PATHAK: "This free water is great," he says. "But it's rare." Chemburkar has so far restored only four of the 30 historic fountains. A mile away, another is in shambles.

People have thrown trash on it. People have, you know, stuck stickers. There's red stains of people spitting tobacco. You must be feeling really bad when you see this.

CHEMBURKAR: I feel agonized, but I see opportunity, also.

PATHAK: Opportunity to revive some of Mumbai's history. But cultural preservation may not be the only motivation for restoring these fountains. They can help address huge inequality in Mumbai's water supply, says researcher and activist Purva Dewoolkar.

PURVA DEWOOLKAR: Where some people have swimming pools in their homes and, on the other hand, there is no water to drink.

PATHAK: The pandemic has only exacerbated that. Dewoolkar's research shows that the city's poorest are paying more for water now, even as their incomes have gone down. So she sees these fountains - or pyaus - as an important public benefit.

DEWOOLKAR: Invest in new pyaus. Start pyaus again, where I'm not just talking about heritage pyaus.

PATHAK: She says even less ornate, modern fountains should be maintained by the city. In recent years, it has installed dozens of water ATMs - metal coolers that dispense water at railway stations. But they are not free.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

PATHAK: The last colonial-era fountain on our tour with architecture Chemburkar is in one of Mumbai's oldest botanical gardens.

CHEMBURKAR: You see this one?

PATHAK: Oh, wow.

It is square shaped, with beautiful floral motives and an arch carved over the spout.

So this is also not in use, but this is the next one that's going to be renovated.

CHEMBURKAR: Yeah.

PATHAK: Maybe by the end of this year, if we come back, we can actually...

CHEMBURKAR: Yes, yes, yes. You can have - actually drink water. So I'm going to make it a point that I come here to have that historic water (laughter).

PATHAK: Now, that's something you can't find in plastic bottles.

For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "SPILLED SAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.