Monday, 25 February 2013

I have never been to a slum before....

Firstly, a quick apology for a gap in the updates of the last couple of days. We were able to see so much that time to sit and write was few and far between. To do our final visits justice, I have decided to separate the experiences of Friday into 2 parts. The 2nd part to this day I will aim to post later.


I have never been to a slum before, and the prospect seemed a little daunting. Since being in India the word poverty has taken a new meaning to me and ultimately one which I thought would only develop further with the experiences which would lie ahead. Only 15 minutes from our relatively plush hotel we turned right off the main road into a large open expanse and down a dirt track. To the right were some houses with a water tower overlooking them and it was explained this was where better off people lived, the tower being their water supply. Approximately 750m directly opposite was the slum the land in between is where the community in the slum are forced to openly defecate.

There was rubbish everywhere. The entire site looked like a rubbish tip. A drain akin to a small brook at home was full with black rotting sewage. Wild boar roamed endlessly around eating the rubbish, and in amongst the small crowd which had now gathered by a tree near the start of the slum. Surprisingly I thought the smell would be worse, though I have worked on a sewage treatment works before and feel this could have desensitised me a bit. Every now and then when there was a gust of wind though the smell of urine and sewage would hit you strongly.

A big welcome would not have been appropriate this morning. WaterAid India have highlighted the slum of Shiv Nagar as somewhere for potential future intervention, but to date had not mobilised. The value of visiting Shiv Nagar would be to experience a slum first hand pre-intervention. There are 3000 households in the slum with an average of 5 people living in each household. The slum has existed for about 40 years and is predominantly populated by migrants from nearby districts who have moved to the city in an attempt to find work. In Shiv Nagar, none of the households have their own piped water connection. Instead, water is drawn from low level standpipes from 6 bore wells providing water for just an hour a day. With such a small windows of opportunity to draw water, the sheer volume being drawn off in this hour means pressures drop in the pipes such that insufficient water can be collected from certain parts of the slum.

In the summer, this problem is further exacerbated by all but one of the boreholes wells drying up. The Municipal Corporation though providing this well haven't trained anyone to operate or maintain it. In terms of water supply therefore, the slum suffers severe water shortages. This is just one part of the story. The second is water quality. The pipes which convey water to the standpipes run in small channels which are used for drainage through the slum. These drains run outside every house and next to every standpipe throughout the slum. Surface water, grey washwater and rubbish are dumped in these channels causing them to overflow. As there is barely any gradient, the sewage is retained, stagnating all around. All of the drains are open.

What this means is that, any small break in the pipe (of which there are plenty as, desperate for water, people deliberately break the pipe to get water) will result in infiltration of this sewage into the pipe as soon as it becomes depressurised - which it does of course, for 23 hours of the day! As the standpipes are simply open connections just above the level of sewage, people have to collect water in these conditions, and as I noticed, often barefoot. I collected water from one standpipe and could visibly see it was slightly milky and almost certainly contaminated. What deeply shocked me was our translator relayed a message from one of the women we passed saying it had been know that one lane in the slum had drunk from the drain itself before, due to a lack of water.

Out of 3000 households, only 250 have toilets connected to sceptic tanks - the overflows of which run directly into the open drains. Everyone else in the slum either openly defecates or pays to use the small communal toilet. The communal toilet is a fair distance for the majority of households as it is sited up by the main road. People must pay 5R (6.25p) to use the toilet and a further 3R to use the shower (3.75p). Though seemingly insignificant amounts, paying this for one person would consume a decent proportion of household income, let alone paying for a family of 5. When I approached this old building, the smell was awful. A group of ladies at this point approached me holding their noses of waving their hands in front of the faces signalling the smell was unbearable - they were right. There are 12 toilets for men and 7 for women, yet surprisingly when I walked into the men's there was no smell and the toilets were relatively clean. Two things suddenly dawned on me, the men must openly defecate instead and it was the women having to suffer the smell.

Like the villages yesterday, I was told how women would wait until dark to openly defecate, unable to do this in the daylight due to the shame they felt and not being allowed to defecate in front of men. With disease and illness rife in the slum, when suffering with sickness and diarrhoea women and children would run to the communal toilets to go. Due to the distance though, they would seldom get there quick enough forcing them to go in the street.

There is no waste collection or diposal in the entire slum. All waste is dumped in the open and left to rot as the Municipal Corporation does not provide waste management to the slum. The result is diseases such as Malaria and Typhoid are rampant as well as most inhabitants suffering from one or a combination of sickness, fever, skin problems, stomach upsets and diarrhoea. When shooting the footage with the media team, a women was holding a 3 month old baby and once again I could feel that lump in my throat rising again - in the UK this baby would have been rushed to the nearest intensive care unit.

After the initial insight to the slum we were separated into our groups once again. My group were led to a nearby house. The lady who met us was Vidhya, who was a wife and mother of three. Her front yard was spotless and as she welcomed us in, she laid out a beautiful white and purple mat for her guests. Often throughout our trip we have been offered food and water as gifts of warmth and hospitality. It is a difficult but necessary thing for us to refuse in order to avoid getting ill ourselves. Both food and water are scarce to the people we have met and the realisation of a person inviting you into their homes and sharing their lives and what little they have with you, is a difficult thought to process when the reason I'm turning it down is the very reason they become sick.

Vidhya had moved to the slum with her husband Pappu from a district called Vjalpur in Madhya Pradesh as they had no family and needed work. I asked Vidhya what problems she faces day-to-day; “for the last 7-10 days there has been no electricity which means we cannot eat anything other than boiled rice".  I asked then how there was still water flowing, to which our interpreter explained an illegal connection had been made to a private electricity supply in order to maintain water. Vidhya explained every evening the ground (the large area we had originally driven into) was used for open defecation with women having to wait for up to 3 hours before they could go. This was as a result of the open defecation area having a dirt track from the road through it which meant women would have to wait until there was no one around so they were not embarrassed. Vidhya further explained she had a daughter of 16 and it has become increasingly difficult for her as she was not safe; "men from the tracks can drink and do anything - it is not safe for them".

Vidhya also explained how the drains overflow in the rainy season. The slum had asked the Municipal Corporation to clean it but they never have. I probed a little further about how she felt about the safety of her and her daughter; “people would drink. I would go with her to keep her safe. Many times boys and men would tease them. Many times I had difficult situations with men taking drugs. Men would take advantage of the darkness so no-one could see them”. With the dirt track being just off the main road, truckers and men from the city would come and drink and smoke drugs in the open defecation area. Though she did not explicitly say it, I knew the same atrocities were happening here as they were in Amrod. The other groups from our supporter’s team later confirmed what I suspected in so much as women and young girls were being sexually assaulted. For one group though, it had been explained that young boys had been assaulted too.

Our conversation moved on to talk about the Government. By this time the yard outside Vidhya's house had become full of the women who lived on the lane. They all explained how; “many people come here and commit many things but never come back”. She explained how they were never provided with chlorine tablets or even able to access doctor; “people only come at the time of elections to collect votes. Politicians came and used to call us brother and sister but afterwards they never came back. We were told we would be given facilities but never do. Government make policies but people who have to implement them never do".

Given what we had witnessed, it was important to understand what Vidhya and the other women felt about the safety of the water they have to drink; “we can only drink that water so safe or not we have to use it, we cannot go elsewhere. Within the community, what I had feared from seeing the malnourished baby earlier began to unfold before us. In the community many ladies lose children shortly after child birth due to illnesses such as diarrhoea and vomiting. Vidhya herself explained how she had been a mother of four until her 3 year old daughter Neeta died as a result of dehydration. This was shocking to hear. All the more heartbreaking was how this was common place - the lady next to her had lost their child after just 3 days.

Vidhya explained how all activities of child birth used to be carried out in the households but now go to the hospital due to infections and lack of care at home. As there is no doctor nearby, they can call for an ambulance, though it may only turn up 50% of the time. With no ambulance, they are forced to hire whatever they can in terms of transport to get to the hospital. As we asked a little more about the medical care they could access Vidhya explained how they have a green card which indicates they are below the poverty line and with this card they can access free medicines. The problem with this is corruption. To have the application form for a green card processed, a bribe of 1000R is necessary. Moreover, doctors at the hospital purposefully prescribe medicines which are not stocked at the hospital so that people such as Vidhya are forced to attend pharmacies where they must pay for the medication. This culminates in a massive proportion of a households income being spent on medication.

Given everything we had discussed, I asked Vidhya what her hopes or fears were for the future; “I am afraid to stay here. It is very hard for us and painful to lose children and see them getting sick”. I asked what would improve her life; “I want basic facilities, water, a toilet and electricity. There’s no-one to clean the drains and lots of flies and mosquitoes. Lots of families are not getting food because there is no electricity so are just boiling and eating rice”.

Nearing the end of our conversation we asked the crowd which had now gathered whether they had any questions for us. Vidhya asked what it was like in our country. I once again found myself proud in explaining the services people in the UK receive. A doubt sprung in my mind at this point whether this would be hard for them to hear, but it was received with hope. The next question was what WaterAid would do for them – the earlier message about the Government’s inaction vivid in their minds. Careful not to make promises which might not be delivered, James and I explained how WaterAid raise international awareness and support for communities such as theirs. We explained how the education and promotion of some communities we had visited in India had meant people’s lives were transformed, but ultimately we would tell all we could about Shiv Nagar to pressure the Government into releasing funds to help their situation. For this answer, Vidhya said we were like Lord Krishna who visited his neighbour to help him because he was poor.

Following our visit we made our way back to the open area where our buses had parked. Confronting us was a JCB and two lorries excavating the rubbish in the brook I had described earlier. The stench was overbearing and black sewage was a sight to behold. The people in the slum were now coming out of their houses to see this too, many sweeping more rubbish into the drain. It was difficult to understand what was going on. Confused, I wandered parallel to the drain until I was directly opposite this large machine; “the Municipal Corporation found out we were coming”. By this point I didn’t know how to feel, the emotions of listening to Vidhya’s daughter dying, the malnourished 3 month year old baby and the physical and sexual assaults which were ongoing deflated me.

I learnt from our translator the head of the Municipal Corporation wanted to meet us. I didn’t want to meet him. I turned to James and said I wanted to tell this man he had failed as a human being. James had been a good friend right from the very start and a great person to share the trip with, with his positive outlook he explained he saw it that WaterAid had shamed this man into taking action, we had made a difference. That difference may only tackle a small part of the problem, and may have stopped as soon as we left, but WaterAid had made a tangible, positive impact on these people’s lives simply by raising awareness. James was right and I found myself smiling for the first time all morning.

As our party said goodbye, I smiled at the man from the Municipal Corporation, hope being at the forefront of my mind that even if this man did not make any changes in the future, the people of this slum would always remember our white t-shirts with WATERAID written on them and know that more would always be possible for them.



  1. Brilliantly written reflection on a powerful visit to the slum. I will always remember our time there and must thank you for sharing it with others so eloquently.

    Throughout my time in India you were a true friend for me also and someone I will always respect for huge number of reasons.

  2. I have read yours and my son James blog today ,Although I must admit the tears flowed They were both beautifully written In am now more determined than ever to armchair campaign for the poor of India and WaterAid Before my son went on this Trip I had no idea of the problems people in the villages of India faced Well done to you all