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Water and Sanitation Challenges Amidst Social Inequality in Urban Areas in India

Fawzia Tarannum Lecturer, Department of Regional Water Studies, TERI University

Water and Sanitation Challenge in Ekta-Vihar Slum in New Delhi

NEW DELHI, Mar 21 2016 (IPS) - During the month of March 2016 and ironically very close to the World Water Day, the Supreme Court of India had to step in to resolve a water sharing dispute between three contiguous states including the National Capital Region. That, this was not the first time that the Supreme Court had to intervene is a stark indicator of the extent of the water crisis that is confronting India, a country that aspires to be a global power. Earlier Supreme Court had to step in to resolve a bitter dispute on water sharing between two Southern states of India – Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

On the international front, India has been having major differences on water sharing arrangements with almost all its neighbouring countries. For a country that is home to almost 17.5% of the world’s population but has only 4% of world’s fresh water resource; the criticality of sustaining these sources of water cannot be overemphasized. The Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC has identified India as one of the most vulnerable countries due to climate change. The impact of climate change, manifested in the increased incidences of droughts and crop failure, is already leading to large scale rural-urban migration in India. Even though, as per official figures, India’s pace of urbanization is considered to be much slower than the global average, the World Bank brief ‘Leveraging Urbanization in India’ brought out in 2015, disputes this fact and highlights that urbanization in India is ‘messy and hidden’. Statistical disputes apart, what cannot be denied is the sheer size of the humanity affected by this rapid urban sprawl, characterised by lack of access to clean water and sanitation.

Fawzia Tarannum

Fawzia Tarannum

In India, the multiplicity of agencies with overlapping jurisdictions over water and sanitation, have led to diffused accountability and therefore official impunity in denying the basic right to urban slums. While ambitious schemes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) were launched in 2005 with an objective to create ‘economically productive, efficient, equitable and responsive Cities’ through capacity building and infrastructure development, the outcomes on the ground have been marginal. Drawing from the experiences of the earlier schemes, the present government launched their flagship programmes like Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) in 2014.

The objectives of these developmental agenda of India are also closely aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While SDGs have taken of from where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) left, it has looked at water and sanitation more holistically by including other water related challenges like insufficient availability of water, inequity in its access, efficiency in its usage and sustainability of water resources in its targets. Water being a cross cutting goal has a bearing on achievement of other goals like poverty eradication, quality education, gender equality, good health, sustainable cities etc. Thus, achieving SDG 6 would be like winning half the battle. According to the latest UNICEF report, India accounts for 59 per cent of the people in the world who practice open defecation, a major cause for the diarrheal deaths, malnutrition and school drop-outs among children and health, safety and dignity issues among women. Nevertheless, open defecation has a cultural approval in India and building toilets may not bring about an immediate attitudinal change. In addition, the geographic constraints present in the urban slums in India also pose a major challenge in setting up conventional sewerage infrastructure. Simpler technologies in the form of low-cost communal toilets have not gained popularity due to lack of ownership and odour.

TERI University in partnership with TERI and Coca Cola India and with the support of USAID has been working on a project, ‘Strengthening of Water and Sanitation in Urban Settings’, since 2014. The project aims to help achieve the government’s sanitation targets as well as contribute to the SDG target 6.2, by conducting a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) risk analysis and socio-economic behavioural assessment in urban slums in two Indian cities. The data thus generated shall be used in developing participatory intervention strategies in urban areas and capacity building of university faculty and students through design and implementation of model sanitation curriculum. The program interventions aim to reach 20 municipal schools, 2500 students through school WASH programs, 50000 beneficiaries in low-income settlements, and over 300 professionals through governance strengthening activities. As part of this project, the alliance has recently concluded an Inter-University National Water Competition designed to create awareness among undergraduate students in the field of water and sanitation. The competition focused on engaging with youth to develop sustainable, replicable and scalable decentralised solutions for water management. Parallely, the team is also engaged in conducting summer schools for stakeholders and training of trainers programme for catalyzing behavioral changes in slum children on WASH.


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