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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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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.

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