Geeta Devi doesn’t remember the last time she used a proper toilet. In past few years, she has used one only while travelling in a train to her village in Uttar Pradesh. “It’s quite a hassle to walk far away and find an isolated spot. See, this land is so bare. There are hardly any bushes where one can get some privacy,” she said, pointing to the vast stretch of land at the banks of the Yamuna. “It’s embarrassing if a passerby can see us in that situation, so women have to be extra vigilant. In the night, it’s a little scary to go all alone and it’s better to control oneself,” said the twenty-five-year-old mother of three.
As her infant daughter cried for an incomprehensible reason, Geeta folded her hand in the shape of a snake’s hood to scare her into obedience. “We often spot snakes and mongooses while relieving ourselves. We just pray to God that they go away. It’s not possible to run away half naked,” she laughed.
Geeta’s house is like any other hut — put together with wooden sticks, pieces of cardboard, gunny sacks and plastic sheets — at the Yamuna Khadar slum cluster near Kashmiri Gate. Though the cluster has existed for the past fifteen to twenty years, there are no pucca houses or sewerage system or any portable or community toilets in the vicinity. Gayatri Devi, another inhabitant of the cluster, bathes by the side of a hand pump in the open while wearing a petticoat upto her chest.
“I’m an old woman. But I have a teen-aged daughter. It’s not safe for her to defecate or bathe in the open as young girls are often harassed,” she said.
Estimates suggest that as many as 1.8 million people live in hundreds of slums across the national capital. According to a report published by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) in 2015 titled Slum-Free City Action Plan, 55 per cent slum dwellers depend on community toilets, 16 per cent have their own toilets while seven per cent use shared toilets. However, 22 per cent of those living in JJ clusters in around 57,000 households have to defecate in the open. The report surveyed 2,55,435 households and over ten lakh people living in 589 surveyed jhuggi-jhopri (JJ) clusters in Delhi.
In a note filed before the Supreme Court in October 2012 on management of municipal solid waste, the capital’s civic bodies said, “About 49 per cent of the total population of Delhi lives in slum areas, unauthorised colonies and about 860 jhuggi-jhopri clusters with 4,20,000 jhuggies… A sizeable population lives in unplanned areas having no proper system of collection, transportation and disposal of municipal solid waste,” the municipal bodies said, adding that only 25 per cent of the city’s population lived in planned areas.
A total of 757 jhuggi-jhopri clusters and squatter settlements are mentioned in the two lists of notified slums in the city issued by the DUSIB. However, the settlement of 3000 people along the banks of the Yamuna where Geeta’s and Gayatri’s families have been living for years is mentioned in neither of the two lists. Most JJ clusters, including those notified by the DUSIB, do not have access to basic facilities such as toilets or sewerage systems, clean drinking water and electricity and their inhabitants are forced to live in deplorable conditions.
At the Ekta Vihar slum in R K Puram, residents often have to wade through swamps of faeces-infested water that flows out of blocked drains at the community toilet complex. The caretaker, twenty-year-old Urmila, sits on a cot at the entrance of the complex all day long, taking naps in between. She hasn’t been employed by any government authority but does the job out of her own will. “My parents started working as caretakers of this place when it was built 35 years go. They have passed away and now I am a cleaner here because this is the only work I know,” she said.
For the job of cleaning the 38-seater toilet complex singlehandedly everyday, Urmila doesn’t receive a monthly salary. She survives on 1000-1500 per month that she earns when people give her some coins after using the facility. “According to rules, everyone is supposed to pay 2 after each visit to the toilet. However, very few people pay. Many of them pay just 1,” she said.
When this reporter visited the women’s section of the dilapidated toilet complex, almost half of the eighteen squatting holes were found to be blocked and overflowing. “These have been blocked for many months now. All attempts to unblock them have failed as the main sewer line itself is blocked. This building was built over three decades ago and needs serious repairs, but the authorities don’t do anything,” said Sandhya, a middle-aged member of the locality’s mahila mandal or women’s group that was formed by NGO Asha to empower the area’s uneducated women.
The community toilet shuts at 11 PM and opens at 5:30 AM, which causes a lot of inconvenience to the residents. Many have to walk half a kilometre in the middle of the night to defecate at the open nallah nearby. However, the residents said that fear of vandalism by alcoholics and drug addicts prevents authorities from keeping the toilets open at night.
“We are simply fed up. Now that the civic elections are approaching, politicians will come to us begging for votes. They will give us assurances but once elections are over, they wont care. We will continue to live like animals,” said eighteen-year-old Vivaan Rana, a father of two, who plays the dhol at weddings and festivals to earn a living. His wife Anita spends around four hours a day to fetch drinking water twice daily from a tap on the main road, about a kilometre away. The water supplied to the locality is infested with filth such as mud and insects and sometimes even sewerage waste. The people filter that water with pieces of sieve-like cloth before using it for cleaning purposes.
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In Seelampur in North East Delhi, over one lakh people live in around eight blocks of slums. In K-block of the area, there is just one community toilet built by the government to cater to a population of around 15,000 people. The toilet, whose maintenance contract has been given to NGO Manav Sewa Kalyan Samiti, has separate sections for men and women with nineteen toilet seats in each section.
While the toilet is relatively clean and well-maintained, caretaker Sunil Singh said that it was a difficult task to maintain the place as people lack civic sense. “People here are quite non-cooperative and aggressive. If you ask them not to spill water or keep the toilet clean, they pick fights with me. Many times they leave the taps running or even break the taps and vandalise the place.” He said he had to ensure that the toilets remain clean as surprise checks are conducted once in a few months and he could lose his job if any laxity is found on his part.
Even this toilet complex remains shut at night, forcing residents to defecate in the open during the wee hours. Most houses in this block are small one-room tenements made of brick and mortar and many residents have built small toilets in their homes despite the non prevalence of a sewerage system. The waste from these toilets goes into the narrow open drains that flow outside all the houses. “This area stinks perpetually because the open drains are full of all kinds of waste including human faeces. Children often fall into them. Whenever it rains, the filth from the drains clogs the narrow streets and enters people’s homes too. This often causes infection and diseases,” said Subodh, who works for NGO Asha that runs a community health centre in the area.
In the G-block slum at Seelampur, where over 1200 people live, there is no community or portable toilet at all. All the residents use a single toilet built by them in the periphery of the neighbourhood by making a hole in the ground and building four walls around it. Since there is no sewerage network here as well, the waste from this one-seater toilet also flows out into an open drain.
Gulafsha and Tamanna, class VIII students at a MCD school nearby, have to wake up early every morning to avoid standing for long in the toilet queue. “If the queue gets too long, we get late for classes,” said Tamanna. The girls said that the toilet is mostly dirty and people have to clean it themselves before using it. “Sometimes it’s very dirty and we have to clean it ourselves by pouring water before we use it. While we leave it clean for the next person, not everyone is like us,” said Gulafsha.
At the office of the area’s councillor Shakila Begum, who was away campaigning for the upcoming civic polls, her husband claimed to be her representative. He refused to accept that there were any civic problems in the area. “This area was much worse earlier. Now it has become better after we worked for the people. The residents here are very happy and content,” he said, contrary to what the people had said.
While the Central government has launched its ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhigyan that includes the task of building a toilet in each household in the country, the AAP government in Delhi has pledged to make the city open defecation-free. The Delhi government had earlier announced that it would construct two lakh toilets in the city of which 1.5 lakh would be constructed in slum colonies. In December last year and January this year, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal inaugurated multiple toilet complexes in different constituencies. On January 10, he had inaugurated one of the biggest toilet complexes in the city at Bhoomiheen Camp, a slum cluster in Kalkaji in South Delhi. According to area MLA Avtar Singh, the toilet, with a total of 142 toilet seats and six bath halls to cater to a population of over 3000 people, was built at a cost of a whopping 95 lakhs.
Just two months after the grand opening of the toilet complex, caretaker Sonu Jha complained of the problem of vandalism and people leaving the toilets very dirty. “It has only been a month since I started working here but I’m already fed up with this job. Hardly anybody pays the 1 that they are supposed to pay after using the toilet. Some defecate on the floor and dump garbage that chokes the drainage pipes. Vandalism is a regular problem here,” he said.
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At the slum cluster of dilapidated huts in sector 27 in North West Delhi’s Rohini, Asia’s second largest sub-city, most residents are garbage collectors. Heaps of waste material — plastic bags, cardboard boxes, disposable food containers, glass bottles, broken pieces of furniture, old clothes, wet and dry garbage — lie outside the houses that are themselves made out of such waste. While most men go out to collect garbage, the women and children help in segregating it. They separate the waste material, including wet garbage, with their bare hands without using any gloves or masks, which leads to spread of infections and diseases very frequently.
The women of the locality are engulfed in fear for the past one month since two minor girls — aged four and seven — who live in another slum cluster nearby were abducted and raped when they had gone to defecate in a vacant plot. There was no toilet at the girls’ home. No one here has a toilet at home. There is no sewerage network or community toilet nearby.
Twenty six-year-old Khairunissa’s family has been defecating at vacant plots nearby for the past six years since they have been living here. After the incident, she doesn’t let her seven-year-old daughter go alone to relieve herself at an isolated patch of land just a few meters away, and doesn’t send her to school anymore. “She used to walk to school all alone. But now we fear that she might get abducted. While I can accompany her when she wants to go for toilet, neither me nor my husband can take out the time to drop her to school as it’s far away,” she said.
Parvesh Pingolia, an engineering graduate who volunteers with NGO Jugnoo to teach the children at the slum, said that he and his friends had approached local MLAs from different political parties time and again in the past few years seeking help to improve the conditions here, but none of them was forthcoming. “It’s unbelievable how elected representatives can turn a blind eye to the conditions of these people. Do they think these people are not humans?” he said.
Dirty water gets collected in puddles at different spots in the slum cluster due to the uneven potholed land, where young children often defecate and garbage gets collected. Mosquitoes breed in these puddles which cause the spread of diseases, especially during monsoon. Last year, many families here were affected by chikungunya and dengue which cost them an entire month’s income in medical treatment and loss of work for over two months.
“Due to the filthy conditions here we often catch an infection and fall sick for days, especially the children. The entire slum was affected by dengue and chikungunya last summer. A rag-picker earns around 150 a day. Medicines are very unaffordable for us. If we fall sick, we lose many days’ wages and have to go without food sometimes,” said Lal Babu, an 18-year-old garbage collector who has been doing this work for a living since childhood. “No body cares about us. Not even the government. Just like these mosquitoes that breed in the dirty water, they let us rot in filth,” he said.