I write this in my hometown Chennai, India, the day after a report in the newspapers declaring the city to be the most water vulnerable in the whole world. I’ve been here in my mother’s house for three weeks, in the midst of a near-unprecedented heat wave and a delay in the onset of relief-bringing monsoons, but have experienced little water scarcity. The water scarcity is real, though. My differing experience is, no doubt, both a matter of luck (there is enough groundwater below my mother’s house for us to access through a bore well) and class privilege.
K—, the maid who works in my mother’s house, does not have any privilege. Her family of four, who live in a one-room not far from my mother’s house, get metro water provided by the city once in two days for about an hour. They must store this water, which serves for everything from drinking to bathing, in buckets for use over the following two days until metro water briefly comes gurgling through their pipes again. If they run out in the meantime, they might be able to get more from a water truck that the city administration sends to their street now and then. That however would require someone to stand in line hot and dusty, possibly for an hour or more. Failing the truck, the next option is to buy water. K—has never bought water because it is an expensive proposition, not something she can afford.
In my mother’s home, we too have not yet had to buy water because of our good fortune, but I know people similar to us around the city who do so routinely. Currently, it costs anywhere from 4000 to 6000 rupees for a tanker of water, a princely sum for someone like K—, and not inconsiderable for my mother, though she can certainly afford it. For me, since I live in the United States, that would be $57 to $87 at today’s rates—a pittance for water that would last for days, probably more than a week depending on usage. Certainly an amount I would spend without a second thought for the comfort of having water flow through a faucet when I need it.
Nevertheless, something in me has made me change my water practices even in the few days I have been here. I have taken to flushing the toilet every three or four times when it is yellow as opposed to brown (“If it’s yellow, let it mellow…”). I have replaced showers with old-school bucket-and-mug bathing, something familiar to me from my Indian childhood. When I cook, I try to prepare dishes that don’t require quite as much as water. I watch how many dishes I make for washing, and how much I launder.
Small changes, amounting to a nominal kind of frugality, for a temporary period of time. Still, it’s enough to make you think more consciously about the meaning of frugality and its politics. When I curtail my use of water, quite possibly I am being frugal. But is K-, who in her home uses water way less than I do? I have a choice, she has none in the amount of water she uses. Is it possible still to call her frugal? Or does frugality necessarily entail choice, a conscious choosing to make do with what is enough rather than what one is able to afford?
Frugality is regularly recommended by those conscious of saving the planet amidst global warming (“switch off the light when you leave the room”); but my experience in Chennai suggests it is also meaningful in addressing global poverty. In this age of not only environmental crisis but widespread poverty on a global scale, to consume or not to consume is a political act. If I in Chennai am frugal in my consumption of water, perhaps K— who consumes so much less than I do without being frugal might actually be able to increase her consumption without worsening the environmental catastrophe besetting Chennai.
Is it necessary to draw the lesson out for this one lonely planet on which we all—in Los Angeles and Honolulu and Tokyo and Baghdad and Cape Town and Chennai—live?
A politics of frugality recognizes that the poor cannot be frugal; they don’t have enough to be. The poor are indigent, and because of their indigence they can and should consume more—their physical health and spiritual well-being depends on increased consumption. Telling them to be frugal is surely obscene. It is we the privileged who need to be frugal. Frugality might very well be the most radical of political acts in this age of the Anthropocene and global poverty.