Women spearhead campaign to ensure access to clean water in Delhi slums

Data indicates that about 94 million people across the country face greater risk of being infected by Coronavirus because of lack of access to clean water

Women spearhead campaign to ensure access to clean water in Delhi slums

Swapna Majumdar

When Jasmin Devi could no longer bear seeing her family go days without a bath and washed clothes just so that the limited quantity of water collected could be preserved for drinking and cooking, she decided to take matters in her own hands. For long she had overlooked the impact of the long hours spent in standing in serpentine queues to collect clean drinking water. Not only had it led to wastage of time but it had taken a toll on her health.

Compromising on personal hygiene to save water had increased the frequency of sickness among her children who often missed school due to illness. However, realising that nothing would change in Vivekananda camp, a low income slum in South Delhi’s upscale Chanakyapuri, unless a collective demand was made to resolve the water shortage, Devi began enlisting the support of other women in the camp.

Little did they know that their relentless struggle last year to ensure an additional water tanker was sanctioned would turn out to be a life saving effort some months later when Coronavirus struck.

Nearly 600 million people face high water stress in India. At a time when access to water and sanitation is critical to protect people from Covid-19 or any other health risk, data indicates that about 94 million of them face greater risk of being infected by Coronavirus because of lack of access to clean water. Thirty four percent households in the country have no source of drinking water at home or within their premises. So, they have to travel more than 1.5 kilometres to access water, according to NSS data.

Research shows that worldwide, the opportunity cost from a lack of access to water disproportionately falls on women and girls. Collectively they spend as much as 200 million hours (more than 22,800 years) every day in water collection, according to a 2016 UNICEF study.

Just as the Vivekanada camp, women and girls routinely spent hours collecting water in the Kali Bari camp, an urban slum located in central Delhi. Here too, the lack of access to clean water increased the drudgery and burden on women and girls since they were responsible for its collection. As there were only two hand pumps and four water standposts (hydrants) for potable water for 350 households in the settlement, the average time taken to collect water was about two hours.

What increased health risks of the residents, especially women and girls, was the lack of water in the two small dilapidated community toilet complexes. Unsurprisingly, residents preferred to defecate in the open. What made matters worse was the constant overflow of dirty water from open drains in the settlement.

The situation would have continued to deteriorate had it not been for the women. It was they who took the lead when the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), a not-for-profit NGO, started working in the Kali Bari camp to improve access to water and sanitation.

Meenu Singh was the first to step up. “She was eager, enthusiastic and quick to understand why a collective response from the community was necessary to bring change. After we conducted an initial baseline survey to assess the water and sanitation issues and its impact on hygiene and health, Singh helped to organise women into groups so that they could discuss how the problem could be resolved. Our aim was to empower the poor communities in slums of Delhi so that they understood the need for participatory planning and implementation of water and sanitation services,” said Ritu Kataria, project coordinator, CURE.

According to Singh, since women were the most affected, they needed to bring change. “We wanted to live a healthy life. We were determined to transform the basti,” she said.

Thanks to the training and information provided under this "Pani aur Swachta main Sajhedari" (PASS) programme initiated by CURE, women in both Vivekananda and Kali Bari camp understood that it was up to them to build partnerships with local service providers if they wanted improved service.

Once informed, the women in Vivekananda camp were able to convince New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) to increase the frequency of the water tanker to their settlement from just once to three times a week. They also managed to negotiate with local authorities and political representatives of the area for the installation of a borewell. The community also set up a water tank of 10,000 litres capacity at an accessible location. This is what has allowed the community to practice regular hand washing and maintain hygiene since the outbreak of the pandemic and keep the infection at bay.

In the Kali Bari camp, women led by Meenu Singh were able to increase the number of water standposts from four to 24. This made a huge difference to keep the community safe ever since Coronavirus hit the city. The renovation of both the community toilet complexes and increasing toilet seats from 14 to 28 has further helped to improve hygiene. An added boon has been the construction of a new toilet complex for people with disabilities by adding ramps and handicap seats. Community efforts also led to new drain pipes being laid so that there is no more overflow of waste water. Moreover, proper cleaning of the drain chambers has led to a reduction in bad odour.

This agency by the women has not just transformed their ‘bastis’. It has transformed them as well. They have learned to speak up for themselves with confidence. They know their rights and can negotiate with local government authorities to provide services. “The community was so impressed with my leadership that they urged me to contest for the post of pradhan of the Kali Bari basti. I am now the head of this settlement and have an identity of my own,” said Singh proudly.

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