New Delhi: One of the most crucial protective measures against the novel coronavirus is the frequent washing of hands with soap. The mixture of soap and water accompanied by the thorough rubbing of hands kills the virus within seconds – the consensus appears to be that 20 seconds is the minimum amount of time needed.
In India as well, hand washing has been proposed as a key preventive measure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that physical distancing, wearing a mask and washing hands “again and again” will be the “biggest medicine to fight this disease”.
But for a large proportion of India’s population, this is easier said than done. Only 50% of rural Indians and 80% of urban Indians use soap and water to wash their hands, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16.
Water scarcity is a daily reality for a majority of Indians. Around 800 million people in the country face high to extreme water stress and as much as 70% of the surface water resources are contaminated, according to a 2019 Niti Ayog report.
“With several parts of India being water stressed, the need for frequent hand washing as a necessary hygiene measure for COVID-19 prevention becomes untenable for people living in those areas,” said K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI).
The newly rechristened ministry of Jal Shakti revealed last year that 82% of rural households don’t have access to piped water. 60% of urban households don’t either, according to the National Sample Survey (NSS) 76th round report.
About 43% of households in rural India access water through hand pumps in common areas and 42% of households in urban India access water through public taps, tube-wells, hand pumps and other common areas.
Access to water within a household through a pipeline gains importance because of the need for physical distancing. In fact, while announcing the initial 21-day lockdown Modi also said that a Lakshman Rekha has been drawn on the doorstep of people’s homes. “We must not step outside our homes. Whatever happens, we have to stay indoors,” he said.
“Ghar ke andar kahan se hath dhoyenge jab pani nahi hoga? Pani lene to bahar jana padega. Ya bina pani ke hath dhone ka koi tareeka hai to batao (How will we wash hands inside the home? We will have to step out to fill water. Or is there also some method to wash hands without water? Tell me),” said Salma Farooq, a resident of Meerut’s Lakhipura area – one of its most impoverished localities.
Farooq lives in a small one-room shanty in the slum colony. Selling chapattis to local workers, she, along with her husband, a rickshaw puller, earned around Rs 300 a day before the lockdown. Now that source of income has dried up.
“We used to buy water for Rs 20 every day earlier. But now it is getting difficult with no income. Sometimes some kind people give us some water. That’s how we are surviving,” she said.
Access to water in India is an acute problem which gets even more severe in the country’s dense slum settlements. The supply is sporadic, inadequate and a majority of households don’t have access to water in their dwellings. As per a 2012 study, almost 86% of homes in Delhi’s slums don’t have a tap.
According to Census 2011, 65 million Indians live in slums. This is likely to be an underestimate to the tune of a whopping 50 million. And the slum population would only have grown since 2011.
Those living in slums are particularly water insecure for a variety of reasons. “There is huge inequity in water supply within the city,” said Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct associate professor at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad.
“2011 Census data shows that 69.9% of non-slum urban households have access to tap drinking water whereas in slums this figure is 74%. However, if we look into the data carefully, the slum dwellers’ access to tap water was not through individual connections but a community stand-post (near premises or away from premises)”
Also according to the Census, 71% of non-slum households in urban India had their source of drinking water within the premises, while the figure declined to 56% for slum households.
Babita Paliwal lives in the Shiv Nagar slum colony in Indore. For her, gaining access to water is a daily struggle during the best of times.
“I have to line up late at night at the nearby water tank to fill water because the queue is the shortest at that time. Then I have to wake up again at 4 am for daily chores,” she told The Wire over the phone.
At the water tank, physical distancing is not easy to follow. “We try to maintain distance because of coronavirus but when there are so many people there it is not always possible,” Paliwal said.
Another coping mechanism in slum settlements is the supply of water through private and government-owned water tankers. That system has suffered due to the lockdown.
Bablu Bhatia has a submersible water pump on his property in the outskirts of Indore. Usually, in the summer, he supplies water in his 6,000-litre water tanker to nearby slum colonies six times a day for Rs 300 per tanker.
“Now the police don’t allow me to go. They beat us up if we try to go. So, I am not able to supply water to all colonies that I used to. I keep getting calls from people that they don’t have water but there is nothing I can do,” he said.
The situation is similar in Mumbai as well, according to Sitharam Shelar, convenor of the Paani Hakk Samiti, a water rights organisation. “Due to the lockdown the vulnerability of the most vulnerable – those living in informal settlements and the homeless – has grown up further. They already did not have access to formal sources of water and the informal sources have now dried up,” he said.
With 42% of the city’s population living in slums, Mumbai has the largest proportion of slum dwellers among major metro cities. According to Shelar, there are 20 lakh people in Mumbai’s slums who are not provided water through formal sources.
By some estimates, ten hand washes every day for a family of five would need 100 litres of water. So, in a situation where water supply in large parts of India is unable to cope with the demand under regular circumstances, the amount of water needed, in light of the threat posed by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, has now increased.
Speaking to The Wire, Shahid Khan, a resident of a slum in Mankhurd in the eastern suburbs of the city, expressed concern about the lack of water supply in his area. “We used to get water from a restaurant nearby. That is now closed. We know that it is necessary to wash hands to defeat coronavirus. We want to do that. But how do we do that if there is no water? In any case, we had very little water even before corona,” he said over the phone.
According to Shelar, people across Mumbai in slum colonies were suffering similar problems. “The regular informal arrangements are not working. The police are beating people up. Some people are giving water on humanitarian grounds. But these are in common places and there are lots of people there,” he said.
“Now, if we have to catch the disease, we will catch it. But we have to go out in crowded areas and get water. Can’t go without it,” Paliwal said.
Kabir Agarwal is a WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellow. Reporting for this story was supported by WaterAid India’s ‘WASH Matters 2019 Media Fellowship Programme.’