Story by Brittiny Edwards
“Water is a fundamental right of every living thing, water is not the human’s property, it belongs to nature,” Sitaram Shelar tells a group of students at Mumbai University.
shelar is the convenor of Pani Haq Samiti in Mumbai, a Non-Governmental Organisation fighting to secure the universal right to water. Loosely translated as the Committee for the Right to Water, the Mumbai-based group believes the right to water is a “fundamental precondition for the realisation of all other human rights”.
Shelar says despite more than a decade of campaigning, water shortages are still most acute among the poorest people living in the large number of slums scatted around the city.
According to India’s last census in 2011, about 42% of Mumbai city’s 12.5 million people live in slums. Maharashtra State Government’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), puts that number at 6.5 million in June 2016, accounting for about 55% of the population within the city limits alone. SRA mapping from the previous year show 3,293 slum clusters spread over 9,008 acres or 36.45 sq km.
A large percentage of these are ‘non-notified’ slums – illegal tenements that have little protection under law.
Pani Haq Samiti is a major player in the Mumbai’s water scene, responsible for a 2014 High Court ruling that disentangled the right to water from the property rights of slum dwellers.
But five years after the landmark court ruling the playing field for Mumbai’s slum dwellers remains far from level.
A two hour drive from Mumbai central, Ganpath Patil Nagar slum in Dhaisar is a hive of activity in the early morning with women waiting for rickshaws to take their kids to school, and hordes of men, women and children weaving though the makeshift slum’s alleyways.
With 50,000 people crammed into 10,000 shanties constantly pressing in on large swathes of fragile mangrove forests on Manori creek, and ‘illegally’ occupying nearly 50 acres inside the Coastal Regulatory Zone, Ganpath Patil Nagar is Mumbai’s most populous, and sensitively positioned, non-notified slum.
Down the rabbit warren of gullies, women crowd around water pumps to secure the day’s water supply before the restrictions kick in. It is hard work, pumping water by hand. It is lengthy process to get enough water for the day, with each small bucket taking nearly ten minutes to fill.
And it is almost exclusively women’s work. Girls as young as eight or ten are put to work as the family’s water collectors. It is a chore their mothers and grandmothers have performed all their life until they become too fragile to work.
Meena Nagin’s family is one of forty families who rely on a single pump down the end of her gully. She rattles off a list of chronic pains and ailments she attributes to pumping water every day.
She says ordinarily, you would expect five families to use the one pump, but in some parts of Ganpath Patil Nagar each pump has to service more than 40 families and even then, its use is restricted to just two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening.
Meena assures us the water is safe to drink.
“No, no, no it’s fine we can drink it,” she says, but in same breath she acknowledges the regular bouts of illnesses she and her children suffer from bad water.
“All of our kids get diarrhoea frequently when they are young, yes we worry, but that is the quality of the water and that is the standard of living.”
Meena says diarrhoea is not limited to the kids. It is simply to be expected where they live, and besides, she says matter-of-factly, the Government doctors come once a month.
Water contamination comes as no surprise given the practice of open defecation and poor sanitation in the slums.
A team of researchers from the Amravati University in eastern Maharashtra, recently conducted a detailed study of how open defecation leads to contamination of ground water sources like open wells, hand pumps and tube wells. In the 2017 study, Dr Dilip Tambekar and his team focused on how open defecation on railway tracks contaminated local water sources.
The findings were consistent with Dr Tambekar’s previous work in 2012 that showed only 17% of drinking water in villages that did not practice open defecation was contaminated with faecal matter, compared to 48% contamination of water from villages that did practice open defecation.
However, Ganpath Patil Nagar slum dwellers say they have little choice but to defecate in the open given the acute shortage of proper sanitation in the community.
Locals say the slum’s two toilet blocks are only available for half the month, because of the limited capacity of the sewerage tanks. Once the tank is full, they have to wait for the Council truck to empty them at the end of the month. When the slum toilets are closed the Ganpath Patil Nagar residents’ only facility is the “government toilet” on the main road which is pay-per-use and cost them money they cannot afford.
Mumbai’s Observer Research Foundation vice-president Dhaval Desai claims the pay-per-use toilet fees range from 3-5 rupees per visit, bringing the annual revenue to a staggering 3375,000,000 rupees per annum – about AUD $70 million.
Even when all three toilet blocks are working, securing a spot in queue the among 50,000 people is no mean feat.
With children often suffering with diarrhoea from the unclean water, and the toilets either closed or crowded, resident Anjali James says its simply not practical to use the handful of toilets available to the community. “When the kids need to go to the toilet badly, we just put newspaper on the ground and throw it in the normal rubbish.”
Nineteen-year-old Khushboo Shrivastav, says it not only the children who are forced to improvise. “It is tedious when we are unwell. The elderly cannot move so they stay at home, walking from here [to the toilet] is hard work,” she says. It is an issue she is very familiar with, having put her dreams on hold to care for her family and her sick father.
Khushboo says Ganpath Patil Nagar’s toilet problems don’t stop with inconvenience, but have an even darker edge. “During the night time, it is not safe,” she says, echoing an issue highlighted by many women living in slum communities.
About 85% of people surveyed by the Mumbai based International Institute for Population Sciences in 2015 reported slum toilets were not safe at night, and about 12.5 per cent of the households said they resorted to open defecation at night.
Khushboo says life in the slums on the edge of a fast disappearing mangrove swamp that no longer soaks up rising flood waters, is even more impossible during the annual monsoon season. “We do not have a sewerage connection, so water stagnates when it floods,” she says. “The water comes up to our waists during the rainy season, all our utensils and belongings float away and are soiled.”
On the other side of town tucked between the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Eastern Express Highway connecting the old city in the south with the eastern suburbs, is the Bhandup West slums.
It is an area that gained notoriety as a ‘crime hub’, made infamous by three decades of gangland turf wars between the 1980s and 2000s. While major crime syndicates seem to have fallen silent, petty crime is on the rise making it dangerous for women to use public toilets at night.
Bhandup West slums is also home to the unconditionally generous Usha Kamat, who spends her weekends cooking for children from the local school. Usha is one of 130 residents in the slum whose life was changed through the benevolence of a benefactor who built her a private toilet. “The people who have running water in their houses, they don’t have any problems, but the people who use public toilets, they do.”
Usha, says public toilets in the Bhandup West slums don’t have running water or electricity and for women to use them at night, they need to take a companion with them, as well as water to clean themselves. With robberies and murders an all too common phenomenon, she says it is particularly risky for women to use public toilets at night in her neighbourhood.
When women go out at night there is a chance they will have their jewellery or purse snatched. “Even if they have nothing they may get killed,” she says.
And perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.
“If someone gets killed the police come for three or four days and after that get back into their normal routine. If someone dies no one really gives a damn about it,” she says.
In a community where women have little power or voice, it is refreshing to find someone willing to step forward, to make women’s lives better.
The walls of Dr Anita Maurya’s single room surgery, deep inside the slum, are bare. There are no posters promoting medications or health paraphernalia. Dr Maurya says women in the local community have little agency over their destiny. “Even if the female is not ready to have sex and gets married to a man she doesn’t know, she is still forced to have sex with him,” she says. “They don’t have family planning and they don’t know the concept of contraceptives.”
Dr Maurya explains that, women don’t often have the right to make decisions about what goes on with their bodies. “Even if she gets pregnant and doesn’t want the child if her husband’s family does, she doesn’t have the option to say no, she has to have the child.”
She says lack of contraception is due to both a lack of education and stigma, leading to families having four to five children even if they are not able to sustain that many people in the family.
A short distance from the doctor’s surgery, the local school is pushing back on ignorance and misconception, with a strong campaign on menstrual health for young girls. School teacher Jeesen Shaikh is eager to talk about the school’s new program. She explains how girls undertake separate classes to the boys to learn about menstruation, puberty and anything else they need to know but often can’t ask about in their home communities.
“(We also have) camps organised by Whisper and Stayfree, they come here and educate the girls and give them sanitary napkins and teach them about their menstrual hygiene” Shaikh says.
But Dr Maurya, says the use of sanitary pads is still rare, and while some young girls have made the switch and are more open to adapting to new methods, most women still use cloth, largely because they are cheaper than disposable pads.
Dharavi, on the edge of the old city, is perhaps the most well-known of Mumbai’s slums. Bathing in the afterglow of the Bollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire, it’s now almost iconic. A mere 20 minute drive from city centre on the edge of old Mumbai, it is now on the tourist map, with entrepreneurial locals running a number of ‘slum experience’ tours.
Home to about a million people, Dharavi is also a notified slum, which puts it at the top of the pecking order among twwhe city’s sprawling slums. But just like Ganpath Patil Nagar on the edge of Manori creek, Dharavi on the edge of Mithi River just two blocks for where the river empties into Mahim bay, is frequent inundated floods during the monsoon season and high tides throughout the year.
Daharavi resident Saroja Ramayanoor says in one area of Dharavi, the residents experience water rising to their waists inside their homes during high tides, bringing in human excrement from open defecation on the beach.
“The council used to come and clean but now they are just blaming the people, saying they don’t use the toilet the way it is meant to be used,” Saroja says.
Children are particularly susceptible to the damp during the monsoon season, with pneumonia and fever becoming more common each year. She says malaria is once again on the rise in her community with water stagnating on the Mithi river making it more-or-less become an open sewer.
But life is slowly improving as new houses are built on raised platforms with private toilets.
On the other end of Daharavi, Roshan Sheik’s house, like most slum dwellings, is reached through a maze of rabbit warren alleyways.
Despite not having private toilets in her area of Dharavi, Roshan says sanitation issues have been eased for the women in her community, thanks to a well managed public toilet run by the local women. “The bathroom was given to the women’s association by BMC, so the women who use it are also the ones who look after it,” she says.
Roshan describes it as women working for women. She stresses that unlike in other slums, these toilets are safe to use throughout the night, as a caretaker is employed to monitor the bathroom until one in the morning, after which another bathroom is used because the main one is locked.
It is a great example of a growth in community initiatives, communities that try to find local solutions to local problems rather than relying on external intervention. But that comes with education and greater awareness.
Dharavi is a hub of NGO activity, with organisations providing much needed resources like education and free contraceptives to local women. Unlike in other slums, the majority of residents in Roshan’s area only have a couple of children. She says many women choose to ‘tie their tubes’ after two children, and it is a service provided by the government free of charge.
Roshan’s own goal is to educate the people around her, particularly to educate women about their own health, because she says many women either don’t know about health issues or don’t have time to rectify them. She says, women are constantly under pressure to look after the household even when they are sick, which means they frequently ignore warning signs when it comes to their health.
But Roshan’s efforts are bearing fruit.
A few days later about 80 young girls and women sit around in a small open-air landing in Dharavi surrounded by rows upon rows of narrow two-storey slum houses on a Saturday morning, listing to Manavi Shivastav talk about women’s health. Shivastav is president of the Never Give Up Foundation, and she’s here on Roshan’s invitation. Shivstav is in town for a few weeks travelling around Mumbai running awareness and medical camps for women.
The small group of women are eager to learn, and when the workshop comes to a close, they can’t wait to bombard Shivstav with questions.