For every 1,000 children born in India today, 90 will die before their fifth birthday as a result of preventable diseases like diarrhoea. Although there have been several national initiatives to increase sanitation coverage in India, more than 122 million households in the country are without toilets and over 170 million people in India don’t have access to safe water.
Today we saw first-hand how the UK Department for International Development is supporting civil society groups in India to increase access to sanitation services and also to empower poor communities. We visited the Dharavi slum (made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire) and saw a DFID-supported programme run by the NGO SPARC which has built and maintains communal toilet facilities for the local population. Around 70% of people in the area make use of the facilities because they do not have their own toilets at home.
Users can either ‘pay as you go’ or families can buy a monthly pass for 20 Rupees (around 40 pence). Signs like those above inform pass holders which facilities they can use. Although this solution is less ideal that every household having access to its own private facilities, this initiative has vastly improved health outcomes. Before the toilets were built, local people would goes days without going to the toilet because of the shame of having to do so in public. We were told that this caused serious illnesses which prevented people from going to school or work. The toilets have also helped families economically because they are spending less on doctors.
Later in the afternoon, we visited members of a ‘Slum-dwellers Association’ who are working together to improve living standards. A group of women have been employed to contruct and maintain communal latrines. With this income, the women told us they were able to maintain their households and send their children to school. Some of them also invested money in a microcredit scheme to provide greater security for the future.
When asked what they thought of politicians, one woman answered “We don’t need politicians, we’re the ones who do all of the work!”. Another agreed strongly with this view – she had lived for many years on the streets and when she went to local officials for help she was turned away because she had no rights. However, when it came to the elections, she said, the politicans were keen to ensure she used her right to vote!