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Opinion: If We Want To Defeat COVID-19, Universal Water Access Is The Only Way Forward

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COVID-19 lockdown teaches me new things every day. I am discovering how little I know about my city. Confronting the truth of this city of dreams, even in numbers and statistics, is heartbreakingly shameful. But no one has the time to pick up the pieces of my breaking heart. Even in this pandemic, too many people are spending too much time, waiting in serpentine queues to collect water. Something tells me if we really want to defeat COVID-19, this scenario needs to change. Universal Water Access is the only way forward. 

Right to Water is a prerequisite to Right to Life.

Every living being that has a right to live has a right to access water, because, without it, we cannot survive. Yet, incredibly, as per an article from Hindustan Times, over 20 lakh human beings are being denied legal water access in the city of Mumbai. That’s a whopping 12% of Mumbai’s population. This denial of water is a gross violation of basic human rights.

The water struggles of urban poor. Photo by Rahul Mahadik from Photography Promotion Trust, 2019

In 2012, Pani Haq Samiti, a collective of community leaders of 54 peoples’ settlements across 17 administrative wards of Mumbai, filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay High Court demanding Universal Water Access. In 2014, the Bombay High Court gave a judgement upholding the Right to Water as an integral part of Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It directed the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the richest civic body in Asia, to provide water to all people living within municipal boundaries irrespective of the date of their arrival in the city and legality of their residential structure. In simpler words, the court said that if they are human beings, the city must not deny them water.

However, the MCGM agreed only in part. It adopted a “Water for all” policy which begins with a list of excluded citizens; those living on Central Government land, private land, homeless and pavement dwellers, people living “near the seashore” and people residing on land where a “vital project” is planned. These conditions exclude up to 15 lakh people. Another analysis estimated 5 lakh people, who were previously denied water because their settlements came into existence after 1st January 1995, continue to face administrative blocks in their application procedures for water connections.

As a result, thousands of families depend on informal water suppliers that charge them up to a hundred times more than the rates offered by the MCGM, while providing compromised water quality. Those with piped connections pay a subsidized amount of Rs. 5/1000 litres, while these families may sometimes have to pay the same amount for a mere 10 litres, greatly restricting their water use. 

Nearly six years later, as we attempt to fight the COVID-19 pandemic unitedly, rising above all political and religious differences, 62 people’s settlements documented by Pani Haq Samiti in our city continue to be denied legal access to piped water. Even as the Prime Minister of India and international health agencies like World Health Organisation issue public service announcements explaining that washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds is the most important step in keeping oneself safe from infection, at least two million people in the financial capital of India wonder how to follow these instructions without water.

The informal and expensive sources of water that they previously depended on for survival have disappeared due to the lockdown. One wonders how the city will succeed in stopping the spread of the disease when millions of people are forced to live in conditions of poor hygiene. Here’s an excerpt from an article by the Indian Express:

“We would get our water from a residential chawl in the vicinity. But after the lockdown was declared, they have been refusing to let us in. Had it not been for the cemetery, we wouldn’t have water to drink,” says Rajput, whose family of garlanders has been staying on the pavement just outside the Charni Road railway station for over four decades. Prabhat Waghela, who stays in the nearby hut, remarks, “We fear that we may die of hunger and thirst before COVID-19 hits us.”

Like Rajput, most residents of informal settlements have low incomes and are dependent on daily earnings. Many do essential jobs that contribute significantly to the functioning of the city like construction, domestic work, auto-rickshaw drivers, porters, sanitation workers, plumbers, mechanics, etc.

Long wait to collect water, Siddharth Nagar, Andheri (W) by Pravin Sunita Ratan from Photography Promotion Trust

The struggle for water access is not new in India. Dr B. R. Ambedkar led the Mahad Satyagraha on 20th March 1927, when thousands of Dalits marched with him to the Chavadar public tank in Mahad, Maharashtra and performed the simple task of drinking water. For this, they were brutally assaulted by the dominant caste group. The tank was then “purified” with cow-urine and the chanting of hymns. Nearly a century later, large sections of our fellow citizens are still denied the right to access clean drinking water on the basis of their economic and social status.

Living in an apartment building in Bandra, I never had to think twice about the water running in the taps of my family home. However, if I were incidentally born in a “slum” on the other side of the tracks, I would have had to spend my mornings in a queue for a can of water. The public water tank of the Mahad Satyagraha now takes the shape of large dam reservoirs, and only those with a “registered pipeline” are allowed the elixir of life: water.

Why do we subscribe to a water governance model that deprives so many people of the right to live? Why do we deny some people a healthy environment? Whose health are we really compromising?

The COVID-19 pandemic forces us to acknowledge that whatever the background of a people may be, whichever part of the city they may live in, what unites us all on a biological level is our shared gene structure. As much as we emphasize the differences between us, the COVID-19 does not discriminate on these lines and the human genome uniting us is inescapable. Therefore, the threat posed by the lack of water access to vulnerable communities is a threat shared by all residents of the city of Mumbai.

If we are to fight this pandemic and the countless more that are predicted in the course of climate change, we must recognize the interconnected nature of public health and demand the Right to Water and Sanitation for all human beings, without which public hygiene is unattainable.

As we sit in our homes, saving ourselves from the dangers of COVID-19, I pray that we will realize the cleansing power of pure water and will stretch our hearts enough to share this bounty without imposing borders. If we let Water flow, she will purify our hearts as well as our hands. So let her flow.

An urgent appeal: please support the campaign for Universal Water Access, follow Pani Haq Samiti, and share this video.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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