Poor Water, Bad Toilets Cost Women Dearly

What is the first thing we, who can take our access to water and sanitation for granted, do every morning? Groggily stumble out of bed and head for the bathroom to freshen up. Only then are we ready to take on the world.   

What does middle-aged Munni or a youngster like Rajkumari do when they wake up? They trudge to the nearest water standpipe or make their way through narrow, muddy lanes to queue up for their turn at the invariably filthy community toilet.  

Thousands of women and girls, living in resettlement colonies like Bawana and Bhalswa on the fringes of ‘Global City’ Delhi, start their day in a queue. On an average, they spend 15 to 20 minutes to reach the convenience, apart from the time spent to access it. Of course, they have to make repeated trips during the day and that’s more time and energy wasted. And, if they are really lucky, they will not be harassed by male passersby.   

Recent studies indicate that nearly 24 per cent of Delhi’s population lives in slums, many of which are colonies where they have been resettled after eviction drives. Apart from the trauma of displacement and relocation with their attendant impacts like disruption of education and livelihoods, what really makes the lives of the women living here unbearable are the deplorable water and sanitation services. And yet, despite this massive deficit in infrastructure that affects thousands, funds to bridge the gaps are woefully low.  

These are some of the critical insights in the yet-to-be published study, ‘Women’s Rights and Access to Water and Sanitation in Asian Cities’ (2009-2011), a joint initiative of Jagori and Women’s in Cities International (WICI) supported by the International Development Research Centre, in partnership with Action India and Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA). A significant finding is that, annually, the Delhi government is spending a mere Rs 30 on water supply and Rs 80 on sanitation for a resident living in a ‘JJ’ (jhuggi-jhopri) colony (2011-12). In comparison, what’s the spending on a non JJ colony Delhiite? A cool Rs 879.  

Says Trisha Agarwala, Research Officer, CBGA, “These figures definitely point towards the priorities of the government. Water and sanitation for the urban poor don’t seem to find favour.”  

Agarwala goes on to enumerate some of the other findings, “In the Delhi budget, water and sanitation gets second priority and constitutes approximately 17 per cent of the total Plan outlays in the Eleventh Five Year Plan. For the JJ clusters, in the financial year 2011-12, only Rs 9 crore has been spent on water and Rs 24 crore on sanitation.”   

Is any of this money going to schemes that specifically target women? Agarwala says, “Policies and schemes regarding urban water and sanitation do not have anything for women, although the Urban Sanitation Policy 2008, the National Urban Habitat and Housing Policy 2007 and Delhi’s city development plan under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewable Mission do recognise women and children as being more negatively affected than men and boys due to poor water and sanitation services.”   

Water and sanitation for that matter doesn’t even figure in the annual Gender Budget Statement of the government. Elaborates Agarwala, “Whether it is the Women and Child Development Ministry or the Urban Development Ministry or the Rural Development Ministry, none of them includes water and sanitation in their gender budgets.”   

Ground realities tragically reflect this neglect. Women and youth from Bawana and Bhalswa, the two JJ colonies on which the study focuses, present the true picture. Pooja, 19, a Bhalswa resident who has been associated with Action India’s youth group there, says, “We get dirty water here, sometimes it’s brown like tea. Then, although there are 10 public toilet complexes in the 10 blocks in Bhalswa, only six work. It’s a big problem for us girls especially during menstruation.” Just six working toilet complexes for a population of 22,000!   

The infrastructure woes of Bawana, a larger settlement of over 1,30,000, are no different. Elaborates Sarita Baloni of Jagori, who has been visiting Bawana for the last six years, “There are only 24 operational toilet complexes here. The standpipes initially installed by the government agencies don’t function. In most cases, the taps have been stolen. The water distributed is untreated ground water. None of the facilities have been designed or located in a manner that helps women’s access, especially if they are pregnant or very old.”  

Just how compromised a woman’s life becomes is clear when one takes a look at the disadvantages suffered in the absence of poor services. The study looks at the Opportunity Costs (OC) borne by women and girls, in terms of loss of time, income, and so on. Elaborates Swapna Bist-Joshi, consultant in Gender Responsive Budgeting, who undertook this part of the study, “We started by asking two questions: How much time does it take to access water and sanitation facilities; and whose time is it? Water collection is primarily the responsibility of women and so time saving and its use for productive activity are important issues from a gender perspective.” 

During her field visits, women told Bist-Joshi that if they had better facilities, the time they’d save could be spent being with children or even looking for ways to supplement their meagre family income. She adds, “When we took the average time spent per year in these activities and calculated it with the minimum wage rate, the OC for Bhalswa and Bawana came in the range of Rs 1,925 and Rs 9,520. That’s the kind loss they are looking at.”  

So, in a sense, not only are women overlooked in budgets, they are also incurring an opportunity cost that affects their ability to better cope with this systemic neglect.   

Bist-Joshi argues that the government would, in fact, benefit from ensuring better services, “They would translate into economic gains through a productive workforce. There will also be a lesser need to invest in healthcare because illness caused by bad water and dirty surroundings can be controlled. But the biggest gender argument is that if women’s lives are transformed, the lives of their families will automatically become better.”  

It’s not as if there is no money available. The recent increase in allocation for the Member of Legislative Assembly Local Area Development (MLALAD) scheme from Rs 20 million to Rs 40 million and an additional amount of Rs 10.5 million to the MCD Councillor Fund have given greater financial powers to elected representatives. As Agarwala says, “Now an MLA has the power to work for bettering the neighbourhood. But it also means that the community has to ensure this money is properly utilised for their benefit.”   

And women are certainly not shying away from this responsibility. In June, Bawana saw frantic activity as eight community women leaders, including Anita, Bhateri, Vimla, Munni and Prabha Devi and Neelam, among others, conducted a signature campaign supporting a letter of demands being presented to their MLA, Surinder Kumar. The letter gives concrete suggestions for using the Rs 13 crore Kumar has been sanctioned for development work in the JJ colonies in his constituency. Better water and sanitation facilities, not surprisingly, is at top of the list.   

The Bhalswa women are not lagging behind. Their local MLA, Devendra Yadav had declared that he has Rs 1 crore 15 lakh for improving infrastructure. But while water pipelines in Bhalswa are being laid, work on the drains and roads has not begun. If it doesn’t start soon, the women intend to meet him.  

As Uma, an Action India field activist, explains, “Sote hue ko jagana, yeh hum mahilaon ka kaam hai - aur hum yeh zaroor kareinge (as women its our job to wake up those who are sleeping – and we are certainly going to do this.)”  

By arrangement with WFS 


More by :  Aditi Bishnoi

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