- This story was done as part of a consultancy I did for Asian Development Bank. I went to do a story about provision of drinking water to slum dwellers and the story turned out to be one of empowering girls in the community through education.
By Kalinga Seneviratne
BANGALORE, 7 Oct 2007 (IPS) – While social taboos may hinder the education of girls in India’s poor communities, the experience in some slum communities in this southern Indian city indicates that the lack of access to water could be just as responsible.
“Women used to travel two to three miles to fetch water. Girls and women used to do this work. To wash clothes on certain days we had to go to the road at 1 (a.m.) and do without sleep. We were not able to send our children to school because they had to come with us to fetch water,” said Muniamma, a 40-year-old mother of two living in MRS Palya, a slum community near a large Muslim cemetery.
Muniamma with her pipe-borne water tap at home
“There was no peace in this community those days. They had to wait in a queue all night to get a bowl of water. Some young girls who go there get molested,” said Rahat Begum, a community organiser and coordinator of the non-government organisation Association for Volunteer Action and Services (AVAS) where she has worked for 34 years among the slums of Bangalore.
This city is known as India’s information technology capital. In some areas, slums have given way to spanking new buildings of high-tech companies – local and foreign – employing thousands of graduates from India’s elite technological institutions, servicing global markets from the United States to Japan.
A stone’s throw away is a reminder of another India – the slums housing the so-called untouchables shunned by the rest of the community. Bangalore has about 365 slums, which are home to a fifth of the city’s 6.5 million population and most lack water and sanitation services.
Salma Sadhika, a social development specialist with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), observed: “The contrast between the two only serves to reinforce the enormous difficulties faced by the urban poor and the urgent need for new initiatives to address the situation.”
Public service utilities like the Bangalore water and sewerage board could not give water and sanitation connections to the informal settlements because the latter do not have land titles. Years of lobbying by community-based organisations like AVAS finally persuaded public authorities to find a way around this legal requirement.
At Sundamnagar, for a community of around 300 households, mostly involved in casual labour and the service industry, AVAS was able to collectively buy land and work out a land title. AVAS also gave collateral to the bank so each family could borrow up to 20,000 rupees (500 US dollars) to build a house.
“We’re building people before building houses,” explained M. Nagarajaiah, a community organiser at AVAS. “We have to build, empower, organise and educate them.”
AVAS gave emphasis to educating women, particularly in water and health management, by setting up a water and sanitation (WATSAN) committee in each community. Most committee members are women.
At MRS Palya, Begum said, it is the women who maintain the system. “If the water doesn’t come and leakages happen, they immediately take it up (with those concerned),” she said. “Most of the men watch TV at home all day, and those who work spend most of their money on alcohol.”
Sundamnagar was supposed to be the pilot project of the partnership between the Bangalore water board and the slum communities in creating water connectivity. “Today it is a collapsed project,” said Nagarajaiah. “Water is not coming to the homes and people are refusing to pay.”
The women in the WATSAN committee, with the support of AVAS, took the case to the chairman of the Bangalore water board. The problem, they said, was that water was being diverted to other communities and water pressure was not enough to bring water into their home taps. They had to dig pits in front of their homes to get water from the pipes at ground level.
“Monthly meter readings are also not being made, and we refuse to pay bills for a service we are not receiving as promised,” said Josephine, a water and sanitation committee member and community health coordinator. “(But) water is essential for us, so we are trying to work out a solution.”
In MRS Palya, the residents regularly get two hours of water a day. “That is more than enough for each family,” says Begum. “They have time to sleep, take a bath and do all the housework.”
The community is clean because there are toilets inside the houses and they have adequate water supply.
“Before, we could not send our children to school because they had to fetch water at midnight,” said Muniamma. “Today, the children go to school regularly and they are doing well.”
“Society thinks that we are a poor slum class and we will not get our children educated and we will allow them to just roam around the community,” said Vanitha, whose husband died 20 years ago. Their two children have completed high school.
“We are proud to say that since we got this water facility our children have been doing well. Many of them are going to pre-university college, technical education. All the residents are happy,” she said.
“The environment is very clean, there is no pollution in the slums. We used to get many diseases, now we are getting trained in computers, in management, and many are getting degrees. I’m very happy,” said Murthy, a youth leader at MRS Palya who has already completed one year of a hotel management diploma.
“Politicians used to think that people are too poor to pay for water services, so they put up taps in the streets,” said Begum. “We have shown that by organising and motivating the community, informing them about the norms, rules and regulations, they will not only pay but will also help maintain the systems properly”.
(*This story is being distributed by IPS Asia-Pacific under a communication agreement with the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, in Singapore, which produced it.”)