In a city like

Kalpana Sharma
describes what it is like to live without adequate water supplies and sanitation in one of the world’s most populous cities

Travel to any city in India and you will find two common images – women lining up with pots of various shapes and sizes waiting for water, and men and children defecating in the open (women have to do this under cover of darkness). The basic services of clean water and sanitation have still to reach millions of people in India even as it boasts of an accelerating rate of economic growth.

The crisis is well illustrated by a visit to one of the many slums that dominate the scene in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai. Almost half of its 12 million people live in slums or dilapidated buildings. They are located on open land, along railway tracks, on pavements, next to the airport, under bridges and along the city’s coastline. Although there are variations, generally this half of the population gets little water and has even fewer lavatories. The water, when available, is often unclean. And the lavatories that exist are usually filthy, broken down and generally unusable: it is safer to defecate in the open than to use some of them. So few are functional that open defecation is anyway the only alternative for millions of people.

Life on the pavement
The 30,000 families who live on Mumbai’s pavements are worst off of all. They do not have access to either water or lavatories because in the eyes of the law they are ‘illegal’ and should not be living there. In fact, generations have grown up often on the same pavement since the city government turns a blind eye to their existence and does not plan for an alternative.

Women’s lives on these pavements are dominated by a daily hunt for water. They beg it from people living in adjoining buildings. They find ways to break open fire hydrants for water. They find plumbers who know how to tap waterlines running below the pavement that is their home. As Sagira, one such pavement dweller, says, ‘These are unofficial taps. We cannot get taps officially'. ‘Official’ water is not available to those who are considered illegal. And the ‘unofficial’ water can cost more than 10 times the water supplied by the municipal corporation. For poor people, this can mean a daily expenditure of up to 10-30 per cent of their incomes.

Close to a million people live and work in semi-permanent structures in slums that have been around for a long time, such as the vast agglomeration called Dharavi located at the crossroads between the old island city of Mumbai and its expanding hinterland. The settlement is ‘regularized’ in that the city government does not plan to demolish it and move its residents elsewhere. It has also provided them with water, electricity and lavatories – but these are nowhere near adequate for the numbers of people living there.

Most of the water is accessed through public standpipes located in various parts of the slum. It is the women who have to line up and collect the water. Water is released in these taps at different times of the day for a couple of hours at a time. This system has been devised by the municipal corporation to ensure that the water coming into the city from its sources outside the city limits is distributed to all parts of the city.

Heavy toll
Such a system is not a problem for people who live in formal housing as they can pump the water up to overhead tanks regardless of when it is released and so get a continuous supply through the day. But, for people in slums, there is no option but to collect the water whenever it is released. The timings can be at any time of the day – or the night. Each slum devises its own system of water distribution. But one aspect is common: it is the women who collect the water. The amount they collect depends on their ability to store water in their tiny houses. And the wait for water – and carrying heavy pots of it over uneven surfaces to their homes every day of their lives – takes a heavy toll on most women’s health.

The situation with lavatories is even worse. In 1986 a survey revealed that there were only 800 lavatory blocks in Dharavi, for a population of around 400,000 people. Each lavatory block would have perhaps 15 or 20 individual lavatories. Almost two decades later, the population has more than doubled but the lavatory situation is much the same. This situation is mirrored through all the slum settlements in Mumbai without exception.
Basic clean water and sanitation have still to reach millions of people in India

Patchwork solutions
Mangal Sadashiv Kamble, who used to live along the railway tracks, described her daily experience to two researchers working with the urban poor in these words: ‘For lavatories, we had to use the railway tracks. There were public lavatories, but they were some distance away – about half an hour walk. They used to be so dirty that we did not feel like using them. And there were such long queues! Instead of using those filthy lavatories, we used to go on the tracks after ten at night or early in the morning at four or five o'clock.’

Given the density of slums, even constructing new lavatory blocks is a problem. The Mumbai municipal corporation has taken on the task of building lavatories in several slums. But they have to negotiate with the residents to find a suitable location, as some of their houses would have to be demolished to free up the land – a hugely complex and often explosive process.

Providing safe water and sanitation to the urban poor is inextricably linked with a sound and affordable housing policy. Without this, only patchwork solutions are possible – and these can never meet the extent of the need of people for safe water and sanitary living conditions in a city like Mumbai

Kalpana Sharma is Deputy Editor of The Hindu in Mumbai. She is author of Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum (Penguin India, 2000).

PHOTOGRAPH: Stephen Dolmer/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Action for tomorrow | Turning words into action | One hand washes the other | People | Fragile resource | Realizing the dream | Washing away poverty | At a glance: Water and sanitation | Music makes magic – Angélique Kidjo | Targeting sanitation | In a city like Mumbai | Flowing from the bottom up | Books & products | Watering a thirsty land | Peace through parks | Reaching the unheard

Complementary issues:
Water, 1996
Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996
Freshwater, 1998
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
Freshwater, 2003