Updated: January 19, 2017 5:20:58 am
LATE one night last week, Neelam Hadpat, 48, stepped out of her home warily. It was pitch dark, but she didn’t have a choice. “If you have to go, you just have to go,” she grumbles now, one leg in a huge yellowing cast. Like all other women in Damu Nagar slum, rebuilt a few weeks after a horrific fire last year, Hadpat tries to finish such business when there’s daylight, for urinating out in the open in the privacy of overgrown shrubbery comes with the its dangers. Sure enough, Hadpat slipped into a pit and suffered a fracture in one leg. “I had gone alone and I lost my balance. I fell into the pit and broke my leg. I was unable to move. When I cried out for help, luckily some neighbours heard me and picked me up and took me to hospital,” she says.
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Damu Nagar in Kandivli is located barely 10 km off the Western Express Highway with its shiny Swachh Bharat hoardings. Like many suburban slum sprawls in the suburbs located on forested hill-slopes or marshy land, residents, especially women, continue to use the dense overgrowth as open-air toilets. And with elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation approaching, residents of the 2,000-odd homes speak bitterly about the missing basic amenity.
Sixty-eight-year-old Nigamma Waghmare, who has been a resident of Damu Nagar for 25 years, says the lone toilet located inside the slum is never cleaned, compelling them to look for alternatives. “The men don’t have that much of a problem, they go anywhere. The women either have to go to the forest land or to the deserted section of a factory compound, either early in the morning or after dark,” she says.
Nobody in Damu Nagar knows that the BMC last month declared the city to be ‘open-defecation-free’, and most residents are willing to admit that they defecate in the open.
The women limit their toilet trips to only twice a day.
“Having access to clean toilets is the least anyone should have. But here, if we have to use a toilet during the day, we have to use the pay-and-use BMC toilet located at the base of the hill where we have to pay Rs 5 every time we want to use it. People who use it in the morning have to wait in line for more than half an hour every day,” says Waghmare.
The BMC recently constructed toilets at 118 spots across Mumbai. Damu Nagar has a single toilet block with 22 seats, an old structure renovated last month through the efforts of local Congress corporator of Ward 25 Ajanta Yadav. Despite the renovation, it stays filthy, owing to the absent water supply and over-use — 22 toilet seats for a population of nearly 5,000.
On the pathetic condition of this toilet, Prabhavati Vilas Kamble, 38, says it is not cleaned regularly. “The toilet has seats on two floors, which are supposed to be used by both men and women. However, they are not cleaned regularly and they are not fit to be used. There isn’t running water, or else we could have cleaned it ourselves,” she says. Also, Kamble adds, for many who live on the top of the hill, the 20-minute walk is cumbersome, so they prefer to look for a spot in the forest.
Women like 39-year-old Shabana Shaikh, who works as a domestic help in the multi-storey housing complexes nearby, have found another alternative. “The residents of the housing societies have been very sympathetic. They helped us rebuild our lives after the fire burnt everything down. As I spend most of the day time working in the building, I use the toilets there,” says Shaikh.
While BJP Member of Parliament Gopal Shetty offered to rehabilitate 800 families in Sangharsh Nagar, Mumbai Congress president Sanjay Nirupam demanded a higher compensation from the state government after the suburban collector announced a compensation of Rs 3,800 for each family. During the winter session of the Assembly, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis then announced an additional compensation of Rs 25,000 for each family. Nobody thought of offering better sanitation in the rebuilt slum, though.
In December 2015, in a massive fire aggravated by multiple explosions of LPG cylinders, two people lost their lives and 1,200 families lost all their valuables and belongings. Apart from the residents of neighbouring housing societies, leaders of all political parties swooped in to offer support.
Promising to resolve the issue now, MP Gopal Shetty says the residents will soon have water connections as well as toilets. “The forest department issued a circular on November 8 last year allowing all government agencies to construct toilets on their land under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. The process may be delayed by a month due to the code of conduct. But after the elections, the BMC can go ahead and construct the toilets as well as arrange for water connections for all residents of the slum,” he says.
Damu Nagar is part of Ward 25 in R South Ward, while the area around it is under Ward 23. With its large migrant population, the area has been a stronghold of the Congress for two decades. A majority of the residents continues to be loyal to the Congress, the attitude generally being that they will vote for the ‘hand’ symbol without much thought. The distrust for the ruling BJP appears to have sharpened in the aftermath of demonetisation. Even though younger voters say their political preference is not fixed, the support for the Congress remains strong. “More than a decade ago, when the NCP and the Congress were in alliance, Vidya Chavan, the then NCP corporator, had helped us rebuild our houses after the forest department demolished them. What has Shiv Sena or BJP done for us,” asks 70-year-old Saraswati Gondappa Aote.
Apart from toilets, the residents also face a critical water shortage, as well as poor access roads, absent garbage collection and clogged stormwater drains. After the fire, local corporator Ajanta Yadav arranged for a water pipeline in the area. However, residents say taps were available only at the base of the hill.
Auto driver Pandurang Suryawanshi, 38, says those higher up the hill slope have to make 2-3 trips a day to fetch water. “The water connections don’t come to our homes and we have to make a 15-minute trip every time we need water. Apart from making promises, no political party has helped us get even the most basic amenities,” he says.
Attributing the lack of amenities to a stand-off between the forest department and the civic body, corporator Yadav says she was recently able to arrange for water connection for the residents after several attempts. “Only a part of Damu Nagar falls under the jurisdiction of the BMC. Since the land belongs to the forest department, there isn’t much that the BMC can do without the prior NOC from the department. The problem is definitely serious but the civic administration has not taken any interest in the welfare of the people in Damu Nagar,” she says.
Yadav blames the state government for not facilitating the process of seeking approvals. “Gopal Shetty is the MP from the area and represents the state government. Even though BJP had given assurances to rehabilitate these people in SRA flats, nothing has been done to ensure that the process is completed in a speedy fashion,” she says.