Pratima Joshi reflects on the work of Shelter Associates during the COVID-19 pandemic the vulnerability of slum settlements
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our worlds upside down. The most adverse effect is seen on the well-being of the weaker sections of the society residing in the informal settlements. The present condition demands a major focus on health and hygiene, as there are innumerable slum families who still have issues accessing safe sanitation.
Shelter Associates, an NGO providing sanitation and housing for the urban slums of Maharashtra, has facilitated over 20,000 individual household toilets to the slum communities and continues its efforts even in the pandemic situation.
While the present focus is inevitably on health and sanitation, Pune’s densely populated Laxmi Nagar slum in the Kothrud neighborhood has emerged as the newest COVID-19 hotspot due to inadequate space for social distancing and lack of proper clean toilets.
The slum houses 1,087 families, primarily serving as construction workers and housemaids. Based on the previous slum data generated by Shelter Associates in 2018, 43 percent of families had no individual toilets and were dependent entirely on community toilets, which meant that for each toilet block, 40 people were using it. On the flip side, 57 percent of families had their own toilets, out of which 55 percent were unusable due to insufficient and poorly maintained drainage lines*. In such a scenario, there was huge pressure on the community toilets, which were overused and poorly maintained, which posed a health threat to the inhabitants using them.
Swati Vairage, a resident of Laxmi Nagar, whose two young children have survived the COVID-19 virus, feels the dire need for an individual household toilet. “I don’t want me or my children to go out to the community toilet again,” says Swati.
Responding to the grief of Swati and many others at Laxmi Nagar, Shelter Associates has initiated its “One Home One Toilet” cost-sharing model. It provides people toilet construction materials free of cost at their doorstep with the beneficiary families investing in its construction.
The Pune Municipal Corporation’s lack of funds for laying additional drainage lines or clearing the existing lines did not diminish the hopes of the residents who decided to work proactively to improvise the situation. They voluntarily invested in laying an additional 40ft drainage pipeline and contributed money toward getting the drainage lines cleaned with a collective motto to get their home toilets ready for use and make provisions for those who are yet to build one.
Local resident Balu Dandekar has been instrumental in easing the entire implementation process: from identifying families that need individual toilets to liaising with the urban local bodies and police to get permission to enter the containment zone. His influence and active cooperation at every step enabled Shelter Associates to continue its efforts and also build a good rapport with the residents.
To date, over 102 individual household toilets have been facilitated at Laxmi Nagar, while many more await material distribution. Laxmi Nagar sets an example to all other slum communities as we see a positive change through the willingness of the community and the involved NGO whose joint efforts facilitated a cleaner and safer living amidst the most traumatic situation prevailing around. More so, we see a behavioral change among people who now recognize the importance and are demanding a household toilet as opposed to the age-old notion of defecating away from their homes. Shelter Associates hope to improve the sanitation situation of the residents of Laxmi Nagar and all other communities who are already living in extreme conditions waiting for help to reach their doorsteps.
*Data derived through Rapid Household Survey conducted by Shelter Associates
The article is published on the web portal of Salzburg Global Seminar
(Pratima Joshi is a Salzburg Global Fellow who is currently taking part in the Japan-India Transformative Technology Network, a program held in partnership with the Nippon Foundation)