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When Covid hits slums

Government must ensure better access and availability of water, sanitation and hygiene services for urban poor to contain spread of the pandemic

Updated: May 15, 2020 10:06:14 am
coronavirus outbreak, india lockdown, dharavi cases, social distancing, mumbai news, indian express news Mumbai Fire Brigade sprays disinfectant in Dharavi. (Express Photo by Prashant Nadkar)

(Written by V R Raman, Nirma Bora and Kanika Singh)

As per Census 2011, India’s urban poor population living in informal settlements is over 65 million which is roughly 17 per cent of the total urban population. While the broad urban population growth is at two to three per cent per annum, growth in the number of people living in slums and informal urban settlements is much larger. It is also known that a significant number of them are excluded from different welfare schemes and basic services.

Their situation is even more vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the “privilleged” urban population can afford to ensure physical distancing, hygiene, access to essentials and non-essentials, work from home, and get covered under social safety measures, the urban poor are struggling to survive and make ends meet. But though they are the victims, they are often blamed for spreading the disease, and become targets of stigma, isolation and discrimination. Coming to the high risks of the pandemic, we have known examples like the relatively big outbreak in Dharavi, Mumbai, or the spread of the disease in the slums of Delhi, Bhopal and elsewhere.

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To help the country navigate the challenges of the pandemic, the central and state governments have issued various advisories, including ones for the urban centres. Most of these are based on ideal scenarios of managing the crisis, without considering the ground realities of slums and informal settlements, and the dearth of essential institutional arrangements to implement these.

For example, the advisory on the safe management of water and sanitation by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs suggests safe management of public and community toilet facilities in crowded urban areas. Similarly, the health ministry’s advisory on slums and COVID-19 apparently has the objective of checking transmission of the virus in slums. However, both these advisories do not provide any detailed strategy for meeting critical needs of the urban poor for availing services such as water, sanitation, hygiene, food and supplies. They also don’t outline any strategy that can effectively protect the residents from the pandemic.

While the challenges for the urban poor are enormous, we are highlighting some of the essential measures for the urban poor here — regarding access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. Access to WASH services has always been challenging for urban poor. It is often misunderstood that the poor communities get WASH services for free. The fact is the urban poor generally end up paying higher charges for water and sanitation as compared to the middle-income communities, since they are dependent on an unregulated market to buy water, or on “pay-per-use” community and public toilets. However, even these paid and unregulated services are not meeting the needs of the urban poor this time. Hence, there is no choice but to strengthen the public services for water, sanitation and hygiene for the urban poor.

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Most informal settlements rely on tanker-based water supply in the absence of piped water. During the lockdown, even tankers have become either unavailable or intermittent, forcing people to walk long distances to fetch water. Added to this is the challenge of the inevitable chaos that happens when the tanker reaches slums, where people crowd around the tankers out of desperation.

These issues can be addressed by way of introducing special systems in the most needy locations. For instance, by appointing nodal officers in slums and informal settlements for identifying and addressing challenges; ensuring scheduled, roster-based services for areas reliant on tanker-based water supply and strengthening the fleets of tankers including private providers. Provision and installation of multiple storage tanks in all slums, with three-four taps connected to these is another possible solution, wherein each tank may serve a group of 10-12 families — allowing tankers to fill these tanks, and people to maintain physical distance while collecting water from them. Wherever such measures are not possible, it is important to identify, train and involve community volunteers to manage the crowd, ensure physical distancing and prioritise the most vulnerable people such as pregnant women, persons with disabilities and the elderly. These measures, coupled with creating a helpline and grievance redress measures, can pave the way for continuity of water supply with accountability.

For sanitation, slum residents typically do not have private toilets and bath facilities and are dependent on shared or community-level facilities. As a community or a public toilet seat in slums will be used by multiple users in a single day, the risk of virus transmission is high, which requires adherence to a frequent disinfection protocol. While provision of mobile toilets can partially solve the issue by reducing the user load from community toilets, additional measures such as incorporation of daily cleanliness and disinfection routine, along with adequate handwashing facilities and the practice of physical distancing while waiting can lead to safer sanitation. In the areas where community or public toilet complexes are not adequate, temporary toilet facilities with adequate water and regular maintenance and desludging arrangements need to be prioritised.


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In order to ensure access and continued usage of these facilities by urban poor, it is important to waive off user fee for water supply and community toilets, at least until the situation stabilises. In order to ensure hygiene, it is important to distribute hygiene kits comprising soaps and menstrual hygiene products to slum households. Innovative designs of make-shift hand-washing stations and toilets should also be promoted and deployed to meet user requirements. Additional resources for such measures can be found from schemes such as AMRUT, funds for disaster management or other state specific funds. There is a need to attend to workers’ safety as well — for instance, by ensuring the supply and use of personal protective equipment for each category of workers, such as those involved in water supply, community and public toilets upkeep and sanitation workers. It is important to have health insurance and ex gratia compensation for all water, sanitation and hygiene workers on duty, irrespective of their nature of engagement.

Experience so far shows that while the lockdown might have slowed down the pandemic spread, it has adversely impacted the lives of the poor. Also, while the nation-wide lockdown might be relaxed to some extent in the days to come, the restrictions that would continue will impact the urban poor much more than anyone else. This is where the government needs to come with a quick but well-planned response mechanism.

Raman is a public health expert, heading policy initiatives at WaterAid India; Bora is policy lead on issues related to water; and Singh is policy lead on issues related to sanitation at WaterAid India

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First published on: 15-05-2020 at 09:07:36 am
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