One of the crucial guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is obligatory hand hygiene – to wash hands with soap frequently, or use sanitiser, and maintain proper hygiene. These activities need water access.
But washing hands frequently as a preventive measure to check the transmission of novel coronavirus disease spread is an unaffordable luxury for millions in India. In many parts of Odisha, including its capital Bhubaneswar, frequent hand washing is not a priority, or even a possibility, for migrant labourers, homeless people and slum dwellers, who are grappling with long-term water shortage.
Odisha, on the east coast of India along the Bay of Bengal, is home to over 41.9 million people. The population density of the state is 270 persons per square km and over one fifth of Odisha’s urban population lives in slums. According to the Odisha Economic Survey 2019-20 the number of people living in slums of Odisha as of 2011 is 15.60 lakh. According to Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) there are 436 authorised slums under the BMC with 80,665 households and population of 3,01,611.
In one such slum, Tarini Vihar Basti in Bhubaneswar, Muna Das rued, “Everyone is asking us to wash hands. But nobody is checking whether we have water for it.”
“Washing hands frequently is not possible for us. For my four-member family, it requires at least six extra buckets of water. We have to carry water from a tube well, which is 10 minutes away from our home, twice a day. And it is not that we go, fill our containers and come. We have to wait for our turns with 10-odd people waiting around the tube well,” said Das.
There are two tube wells in the slum comprising around 200 families. In addition to being insufficient for the number of families, the water drawn from the tube wells was also found to have iron content above the permissible level, making it unsafe for consumption. Two electric motor-driven bore wells, set up as alternatives two years ago, provide water on a rotational basis to each household through pipes twice a day.
“As the houses don’t have overhead tanks to store water, people collect water from pipes in whatever containers they have,” said Das. However, “the water we store is not enough. So, every household also needs to get water from tube-wells,” he added.
In summers, the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) used to provide drinking water to this slum (Tarini Vihar Basti) in tankers. However, this year, neither the BMC has come forward, nor could the slum dwellers approach the civic body due to the COVID-19 associated lockdown that requires everyone to stay inside to practice social distancing to curb the spread of the disease.
The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) launched in June, 2015 in nine cities of the state, including Bhubaneswar, aimed at ensuring water access through a tap with assured water supply and a sewerage connection for every household. Many slums and households are yet to be covered under the Mission.
According to Ranjan Panda, convenor of Water Initiatives Odisha, who has been advocating with the government to sort out water access issues, clean and accessible water is the first line of defence against any adversity – be it diseases or disasters. And because the pandemic has highlighted the importance and need of washing hands multiple times, the need for water has multiplied manifold.
Globally, around 800 million people live without clean water close to home and two billion people live without safe water, according to The State of the World’s Water 2020 report.
At the risk of contracting water-borne diseases and deaths due to lack of access to safe water, the pandemic has added to their vulnerability, Panda added.
“It is good that the Odisha government on April 15, 2020 has started a helpline to address drinking water issues both in rural and urban areas. The challenge is to ensure water in excess of the regular quota, because of two reasons. First, there is no water and second, poor people don’t have sufficient containers to store water,” Panda added.
Food versus water
The widespread “Stay Home Stay Safe” message urging people to stay indoors –fails for Mehrunnisa and her children.
The family, originally from Uttar Pradesh in north India, used to stay in a slum near Rasulgarh in north Bhubaneswar. However, during the lockdown, they have moved under the over-bridge at Rasulgarh square (crossing), where they are more visible, and can draw people’s attention towards their need for food.
Since the start of the lockdown on March 25, they had a proper cooked meal of rice and dal (pulse) only in early April, offered by social workers. The family has been approaching passersby for food and money with which they buy biscuit packets that they share among themselves and drink water from a tap outside a public toilet.
“We wash our hands after defecating and after having wet food (cooked food and food like flattened rice soaked with water), but never after having dry food. After the lockdown, we have not used soap even once. Why should we spend our money buying soap? Can it satiate our hunger?” Mehrunnisa asked.
All of Mehrunnisa’s family, who eked out a living selling balloons and cheap toys in the city, are desperate to return to their native place.
Migrant labourers battle for food, water access
With eight people in one room, maintaining social distance is a stretch for Samara Mahato and his friends who hail from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh and are stranded in Rourkela, another city in Odisha.
Mahato and his friends reached Rourkela on March 18, a few days before the lockdown started and were engaged as construction labourers. After four days, the work stopped due to the lockdown. The group is unable to adhere to the lockdown restrictions which recommend avoiding using rivers or public sources of water – because that’s the only place they have for defecation and bathing.
Around 65,000 guest labourers – workers from different states and internal migrants – have been housed in 1,945 shelters in the capital city, according to Ramesh Chandra Chyau Patnaik, chairperson of the Odisha Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board, Office of the Labour Commissioner.
“Every shelter has proper hand-wash and drinking water facilities. Health of each person is being checked regularly and they are being counselled for good mental health. This apart, it is being ensured that every worker maintains social distance and personal hygiene,” he said.
A section of guest labourers is sheltering-in-place in small rented rooms. Among them are Laxman Mandal of Jharkhand who is sheltering-in-place in a small rented room in Dumduma area of Bhubaneswar; Sumanta Jena of West Bengal who is staying at Mangalabag in the neighbouring city of Cuttack; and Fajlu Seikh of Kolkata In a rented room along with 17 others in Konark. They are struggling to arrange square meals and enough water to drink, let alone wash hands.
All India Centre for Trade Unions General Secretary Mahendra Parida flayed the government for addressing the issues of migrant labourers in a sporadic manner while criticality of the situation demands that it should act very promptly. “The government should resolve the issue on a war footing. Control rooms meant for sorting out labourers’ issues are not functioning properly. It is unfortunate that the government is not involving trade union leaders and civil society in this process,” he rued.
Food security can alleviate water woes
Daniel Umi, Director, Migration, Aide et Action-South Asia, while talking to Mongabay-India, expressed concern over water and hygiene issues in underprivileged sections of the society. Explaining the living condition of brick-kiln workers stranded in several cities in the state and outside, Umi said it is a blessing in disguise that kilns are set up near water sources.
As kiln owners draw water using water pumps, workers have easy access to water sources. However, at present, their water requirement has gone up as they need extra water for hand-washing and the kiln owners are not supportive of this.
The workers use tube-well water for drinking; and for other activities they use water from rivers and nalas (canal), which puts them at health risks. Open defecation is another problem, said Umi. “Kiln owners are not investing in creating temporary toilets, and there is no advisory from the labour department in this regard,” he said.
He emphasised that the government should implement portability of ration cards to ensure food security of migrant labourers which can in a way alleviate issues related to hygiene and water.
“Periods don’t stop for lockdown”
Limited water access at or near homes has added to problems of women in slums. “Neither do we have money to buy sanitary napkins, nor can we get them in shops as they are closed since the lockdown. We have to use cloth rags for periods,” said Gurubari Digi, a young married woman in Biruasa slum in the western part of the city.
“It is tough to wash the period rags. For a bucket of water, I have to toil for 30 minutes – 10 minutes each to walk to and from the stand post and at least 10 minutes to wait in the queue. And to wash a used period cloth, it requires at least two buckets of water,” she maintained.
“Periods don’t stop for lockdown,” said Sneha Mishra, secretary of Aaina, a Bhubaneswar-based NGO that works for women’s empowerment. She urged the government to provide sanitary napkins free of cost to slum dwellers. The last time sanitary napkins were distributed in slums was in December, she added.
“Looking at these challenges, the Supreme Court has already intervened and asked the governments to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in shelters. The Odisha government has been proactive in this regard. But, the government must form a task force to monitor the situation and ensure that these facilities are available in each place. The fight against COVID-19 has to be equitable and inclusive,” Ranjan Panda emphasised.
Pragati Prava is a Bhubaneswar-based climate and human-interest story-teller with 11 years of experience in journalism.