Each day poses new threats and new questions for Jahan Ara, 33: Whether to eat food cooked beside the rolling sewage near her home or stay hungry and avoid disease? Whether to save money for a proper toilet or feed her children or send them to school? Her daily routine begins by gingerly walking over a narrow bamboo bridge to a ‘toilet’ that is perched precariously on stilts over a highly polluted lake. She cooks the family meals in her kitchen, which is barely five metres away from the toilet, and amongst all this filth, her kids manage to find some space to play in their free time.
Jahan Ara, who is six months pregnant, lives in a one-room shanty made of corrugated steel sheets in Dhaka’s largest slum located near the posh Gulshan Lake area of the Bangladeshi capital. Walking past the high-rise buildings, mega showrooms and sprawling homes that line both sides of the street in the heart of town, a sudden turn changes the scenario completely. The lanes become narrower and dirtier; instead of the concrete walls and glass windows are steel sheets with small holes cut out in them for windows.
This is the Korail slum, spread out over 90 acres of government land. According to Salina Bagom, Chairman of the Nogor Bostibashi Unnayan Songastha (Urban Slum Development Organisation), Korail came into existence about 25 years back and today has a population of 78,000. In the one-room, 100-200 sq. ft. dwellings, families with an average of five members, have created a life for themselves.
Unfortunately, the lived realities in these narrow lanes – no wider than three to five metres – are pathetic. For residents like Jahan Ara, spaces between lanes lined with steel sheets serve as bathing areas or kitchens. For her children, Shamim and Shahab, and their friends, these gullies double up as play areas, where they practice cricket regularly. And in these very narrow alleyways there are around 800 shops operating – be it a barber’s shop or a tailor’s, a general merchant or a medicine store. In fact, there’s also a dentist’s clinic, a community centre and a coaching centre here.
Nonetheless, when it comes to basic amenities, the 16,000 families of Korail are struggling. Not only are they grappling with severe sanitation and water problems, they don’t have any access to government-run health or educational institutions either. Says Abdul Mannan, a community leader, “The problem is that we are considered illegal residents and, therefore, we are not entitled to any government facilities like health, education, water, sanitation, and so on.”
Mannan is not wrong. A visit to Korail will reveal that it has just one government-run health centre, while there are no state schools at all. Of course, to fill in these service gaps, there are at least 30 formal and informal community-run schools functional in the slum as well as several local health ‘clinics’, though no one is sure of their authenticity. Obviously then, the health indicators are very poor here, with residents regularly suffering from debilitating ailments such as jaundice, skin infections and gastro-enteritis.
Dismal sanitation is the other big challenge in this area, one which especially affects the women and children. These days, a heavily pregnant Jahan Ara constantly fears slipping and falling off the narrow bamboo bridge on her way to the toilet, built after spending a precious BDT 1,000 (about US$ 13). In fact, more than 70 per cent of the slum dwellers, who do not have proper toilets, face similar insecurities.
Like their homes, the toilets-on-stilts, built over the Gulshan Lake, are steel sheets and bamboo structures. Fitted inside the small, one-square-metre space is a squat toilet fashioned with two heavy stones with a hole in the middle into which a four-inch plastic pipe is attached. The other end of this pipe opens into the lake.
Realising the urgent need for building proper toilets here, Salina Bagom, who has been working in Korail ever since the slum came into existence, and who acts as a bridge between the civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in the area and the local community, has facilitated the operation of a sanitation project, Advancing Sustainable Environmental Health, spearheaded by Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK), a Bangladesh-based NGO, and supported by Water Aid, a UK-based charity organisation.
Under this project, 5,000 households are being targetted for toilet construction and hygiene promotion. The average cost of building a proper toilet comes to around BDT 10,000 (120 dollars) and the community is being motivated to contribute money to build one toilet among 10 households.
When Jahan Ara heard about this proposal, she eagerly volunteered to collect the funds. However, with only six families in her lane, it’s unlikely that her dream of a proper toilet will be fulfilled. “I am collecting money to get a proper toilet but do not know whether I will ever get one,” she wonders.
Jahan Ara’s husband, Abul Kalam, has a push cart and can manage to earn around BDT 5,000 a month. A major chunk of this money goes into buying medicines, because her children fall ill frequently. Whatever is left goes into buying food and water.
In Korail, residents have to buy drinking water, though they can ill afford it. Though there are plastic pipes with drinking water supply coming into the slum – incidentally, these have been laid in the filthy Gulshan Lake – this is not official. An arrangement has been worked out with private vendors, who have provided illegal water connections for which each family pays at least BDT 600 per month.
Says Kalam, “It is an irony that people living in well-to-do areas across the lake avail our services – we drive their cars, maintain their gardens and clean their houses – but none of them ever bother to think about us; of the dismal conditions in which we are leading our life.”
Life of dignity
Community leader Mannan also feels that such severe neglect on the part of government authorities can only mean that they may be thinking of getting the slum site vacated. However, he has a proposal in mind. “We are demanding that the government make multi-storey buildings on at least 20 acres of land where we all can live properly,” he says. And for this, the slum dwellers have filed a petition for a stay order in the court. Unfortunately, Mannan’s prediction has come true – recently, more than 2,000 shanties in Korail, and adjoining areas, were razed to the ground in an eviction drive carried out at only a few hours’ notice, rendering thousands homeless.
Jahan Ara has the final word: “Just because we are poor it does not mean that we do not deserve a life of dignity. We also need potable water and proper toilets. Even my children deserve a decent education and something as basic as a playground.”
By Alka Pande, CNS
November 5, 2011
More than a billion people do not have access to toilets in South Asia. Over 700 million of these people defecate in the open and get exposed to severe health risks, violence besides adding to environmental pollution. On top of this, majority of schools without toilets and hand washing facilities, which restrict the behaviour change in the next generation, are only making the situation worse. The above situation has brought the South Asian at a crossroad where though they are performing better economically but at the same time facing daunting health challenges.
Ironically, this problem was resolved in the developed world as early as 18th century, after a realisation that sanitation and hygiene are the fundamentals to human development.
However, this deficit in human development may pose a barrier in the future economic growth of South Asian nations. The World Bank estimates that the consequences of inadequate sanitation cost India approximately USD 53.8 billion (6.4 % of GDP), annually. Similarly, Bangladesh is losing USD 4.2 billion (6.3% of GDP) per year.
In India alone, more than 1,000 children under the age of five die every year due to diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor hygiene. The situation places India in the top spot in the world diarrhoea rankings with Pakistan and Bangladesh closely following.
The question is why such a pathetic condition is socially and politically accepted in the South Asian is region? The predominant factor is lack of public sector investment and negligible or no political commitment at higher level, which has otherwise brought a change in the developed world.
“There is political commitment to change but it is not of the desired level. There are policies and investments but they are not adequate. The region also faces the inherent problem of exclusion which denies millions of poor and marginalised people of their basic rights,” says Mustafa Talpur of UK based charity WateAid, in Pakistan.
Digging deeper into the issue, early this year three non-government organisations carried out a study involving a cross section of poor and marginalised social groups across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The study sought information on people’s understanding of sanitation, their sanitation and hygiene practices, the status of sanitation infrastructure and facilities in the communities and their reflections on why interventions and projects in their settlements had succeeded or failed.
The collection of voices of diverse people from diverse geographical and political backgrounds, echoed with each other. A common message that emerged from the study is that “People in South Asia want a ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’ environment for themselves and their families. They aspire for dignity, privacy and freedom from a life of shame and embarrassment. They want functional toilets, waste water disposal systems, and adequate and regular arrangements for disposal of solid waste”.
People believe that sanitation programmes and projects have failed because of lack of involvement and commitment from both communities and external agencies –government or non-government. Besides there had been lapses in technology, planning, implementation, supervision, support, and above all, accountability. They suggested that in order to make services sustainable and programmes successful, the quality of construction work should be improved, corruption should be controlled and an effective operation and maintenance system should be established.
A common but predominant message emerged from peoples’ voices across the region was that their political leaderships must take a collective resolve in the region to promote right to sanitation and assure dignified lives to people by providing them and their children with a disease-free and healthy environment.
Now the question emerges as to how the people’s aspirations could be translated into a reality when the region is facing political hostilities and struggling to share a common regional development vision?
The answer can evolve from the 17th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) slated to be held this month in the southern island of Maldives where the heads of the governments in the South Asian nations will gather for the summit. Incidentally, during last 16 summits in 25 years time sanitation had never been on the agenda of SAARC Summit.
The meeting should focus on clear and ambitious targets, appropriate timelines and sufficient funds for sanitation in order to help South Asian nations achieve their Millennium Development Goals. The Summit must recognise the sanitation crisis in the region where diarrhoea is the biggest child killer.
The Summit members need to act proactively to provide stronger political leadership to WASH (Water Sanitation Hygiene) issues. They can encourage their respective national governments in this regard. They need to work out a regional mechanism for implementation, co-ordination, research and knowledge sharing and steering the plan through the existing SAARC secretariat and strengthening the process of South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN).
Information related to finance and service provisions, is inadequate in the WASH sector and this becomes worse due to data inconsistencies and definitional issues. This leads to bottlenecks in monitoring and accountability. SAARC Governments need to work together to strengthen monitoring and financial reporting and improve transparency over WASH budget allocations and expenditure to ensure that poor and marginalised section of the society is covered.
India, being a large, politically stable and economically growing nation should take up the responsibility to raise the issue in the Summit. The nation can also offer to lead the rest of the SAARC nations in ensuring a clean, pollution and disease-free environment to the citizens of this region. (CNS)
Arun Kumar, TNN Aug 31, 2011, 03.40pm IST
PATNA: The state government is considering a proposal to levy water tax on users. Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) minister Chandramohan Rai on Wednesday said that with a view to checking the misuse of water, the proposal is being discussed at the department level.
He, however, categorically said that interests of the vulnerable sections of society – dalits, mahadalits and slum dwellers — will be protected and they will be exempted from paying water tax. In the proposed Drinking Water and Sanitation policy of the state government, there is a provision for financial sustainability of the safe drinking water supply projects, Rai said.
Ranjan Kumar, who works on water and sanitation issues in urban areas of several districts of the state with the purpose of ensuring access to sustainable water and sanitation services to urban poor, said that he had organized a daylong discussion on the state government’s Drinking Water and Sanitation Policy on August 29 to make the state policy more people-friendly, responsive and comprehensive for addressing the future challenges in the state.
The discussion was attended by people working on water and sanitation issues, academics, social activists, subject experts and representatives of civil society organizations besides PHED minister Rai and Magsaysay awardee water activist Rajendra Singh. On this occasion too, the PHED minister, in his speech, had mentioned about the proposal to levy water tax. In course of the daylong discussion, the issue of water tax figured. But there were two opinions on it. A sizeable section was against levying water tax, whereas another section was in favour of a balanced approach to it.
Even those who were in support of water tax wanted it to be executed with a rider. Those in favour said that water tax should be levied only in urban areas, not in rural areas. Besides, high tax should be imposed on water used for industrial purposes.