Author : Dhaval Desai

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on May 16, 2020
‘One home, one toilet’ is the only lasting solution to combat the coronavirus in Mumbai’s informal settlements
Poor sanitation in Mumbai’s slums is compounding the Covid19 threat

As the number of Covid-19 cases in India threatens to breach the 100,000 mark over the next few days, Maharashtra continues to be the biggest contributor to the national count. As of 13 May, while the total all-India count of infected people stood at 78,118, Maharashtra accounted for more than one-third, with 25,922 cases. Within Maharashtra, however, Mumbai alonehas 15,747 cases (60 percent of the state’s cases). With nearly half of Mumbai’s total population living in slums in highly cramped conditions, India’s commercial and financial capital has also clearly emerged as the country’s Covid-19 capital.

Nearly 5.5 million people live in squalid conditions in Mumbai’s slums and are largely excluded from the provision of some of the most basic amenities, including guaranteed access to safe and clean toilets and water. Since 2011, several large pockets of slums in the Ghatkopar-Kurla-Govandi-Mankhurd belt in the eastern suburbs and the Dindoshi area in Malad in the western suburbs have grown even bigger than Dharavi in their expanse and population density. With unabated migration and the continuing geographical expansion of slums, this ratio will only worsen in the coming years.

While Mumbai’s slums have now been identified as the biggest Covid-19 clusters in the city, the presence of overused and poorly maintained mega community toilets inside these slum pockets are seen to be the “major reason” for the explosion of Covid-19 cases in the city. The absence of individual toilets inside each slum home has meant that these crumbling mega-sized community toilets are the only sanitation facilities available to millions of slumdwellers. Thus, at a time when adherence to social distancing protocols in the densely populated slums is itself a huge challenge, it is nearly impossible for the people to avoid close contact with each other in the multi-storied community toilet blocks that they have to use daily. The lack of basics such as running water, soap for handwashing and sewage disposal in these community toilets have only increased the risk of infections.

Nearly half-a-million residents of the city’s “notified” slums are served by 750-odd community toilet blocks constructed under the World Bank-initiated Slum Sanitation Programme (SSP) since 2001. These toilets have 26,379 seats. A simple calculation reveals that most of the SSP toilet blocks thus have one toilet seat for 190 users, as against the BMC-accepted WHO norms of one toilet per 50 people. This overwhelming load on the SSP toilets is partially reduced by those who use the 30,000-odd free-to-use Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) toilets, those who can afford to use the other commercial pay-and-use facilities, and those who defecate in the open.

Given this scenario, the user pressure on the SSP toilets, run on a community participatory model, is enormous. A BMC survey of SSP community toilets conducted in 2016 revealed that 58 percent have no electricity, while 78 percent have no water. The MHADA toilets—constructed solely out of the local area development funds of councillors, MLAs and MPs—by design, do not have either water or electricity connections. The pay-and-use toilets, on the other hand, are run as private commercial ventures, where the humanitarian aspect is overshadowed by political and other vested interests at the cost of maintenance and service delivery. The combined public and community toilet economy in the city generates a revenue of INR 3.37 billion per annum. That is nearly INR one million per day being spent by the poorest in the city for the most basic necessity of human life. For the local politicians, the toilet business helps in extending their sphere of influence over their vote bank. For the BMC and power distribution companies, it is good business as these toilets ensure the recovery of water and electricity tariffs at commercial rates.

The problem is compounded by the multiple agencies that have jumped into the business of toilet construction with convenient legislative mandates but zero accountability. Toilets are constructed by the BMC, MHADA’s Slum Improvement Board, private agencies such as Sulabh International, and even NGOs like SPARC and Pratha (for SSP), but none of them are accountable for the maintenance of these toilets.

Shared sanitation facilities are falling miserably short in serving the basic needs of Mumbai’s millions of slum dwellers. Worse, years of neglect of these mega toilet blocks has posed a grave risk to the life and limb of those who use them. Deaths of innocent people caused by caving in of dilapidated toilet blocks, and grievous injuries caused in septic tank explosions due to the accumulation of methane and other noxious gases are a common occurrence. However, with improved earnings of individual slum families, education and rising aspirations for a better quality of life, there is a growing demand for sanitation systems that are more hygienic, efficient and cost effective and especially those that cater to the privacy of users. Clearly, the only sustainable and assured solution to Mumbai’s sanitation problems is to ensure the maximum provision of individual toilets in slum households.

As part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, the BMC announced its ‘One-Home-One-Toilet’ (OHOT) scheme in September 2015. But it remained a populist gimmick that was summarily abandoned two years later. Over 200 applications made by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in partnership with local communities under the ‘Transforming M-ward Project,’ were all rejected by the BMC citing technical unfeasibility. Likewise, thousands of applications for individual toilet construction within slum homes were turned down by civic engineers on similar flimsy technical grounds, without even conducting a single site visit. As a result, despite individual toilets being one of the principal objectives of the Swachh Bharat Mission, the enormous potential and demand for individual toilets has remained untapped in Mumbai. Additionally, in a gross violation of the Swachh Bharat Mission’s guidelines for individual household latrines (IHHL) in urban areas, the MCGM has permanently shelved its OHOT programme. Since 2017, after just two years of lip-service, the civic body has decided to divert the entire quantum of central funds received for IHHL in slums towards the construction of multi-storied community toilet blocks.

Clearly, sanitation woes in Mumbai’s slums have compounded the inequity, discrimination and exclusion faced by the millions of residents. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has further amplified the problem. The lack of sanitation in the city’s slums as one of the causes of the spread of the virus was acknowledged by the inter-ministerial central team during its recent inspection of the slums at Worli Koliwada, Govandi and Dharavi. Addressing the media in New Delhi post this visit, Punya Srivastava, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, said, “The team found that the use of community toilets leaves residents to defy the lockdown and step out of their homes”. She further added that the team has urged concerned authorities to identify ideal locations and install portable toilets to reduce the use of community toilets in slum areas. It could be surmised from this statement that the central team of investigators opted not to thoroughly inspect any of these community toilets. They would have then realised that the real danger is not posed by the defying of the lockdown when people come out of their homes to use these conveniences. The people are most vulnerable to infection once they step inside the filthy toilet blocks, where social distancing norms go for a toss and washing of hands with soap or an alcohol-based disinfectant, which has been recommended globally as a crucial defence against Covid-19, is reduced to a sarcastic rhetoric.

The introduction of the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014 sparked off a race among states and local governments to earn the ‘open-defecation free’ tag from the central government. Eager to have won this this race, the former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis proudly tweeted the ‘Open Defecation Free’ certificate awarded to the BMC by the Quality Council of India in 2017. Instead of such blatant self-congratulatory theatrics, it would have been better had the BMC given serious attention to its OHOT campaign and really “earned” this coveted title. That would have helped in preventing Mumbai’s slums from emerging as Covid-19 hotspots in the country.

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Dhaval Desai

Dhaval Desai

Dhaval is Senior Fellow and Vice President at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. His spectrum of work covers diverse topics ranging from urban renewal to international ...

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