‘Private’ Issues Become Public Issues in India


A newspaper catering to Delhi’s English-reading population carried an alarming headline the other day: ‘Watch out, there could be sewage in your tap water’. It went on to list the middle class localities that were facing the threat. But such a headline would hardly make news for people living in the resettlement colonies that dot the periphery of India’s capital. In these habitations where drains overflow and the tanker water supplied is sometimes a bright chrome yellow in colour, water contamination is a given.

It is the women in these colonies who are paying the heaviest price for this, in terms of their health, time, livelihood opportunities and a sense of well-being. In a survey conducted by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) in two resettlement sites – the Bawana JJ re-location Colony situated in the extreme north-west corner of Delhi with an estimated population of 130,000, and Bhalswa, located in north-east Delhi, next to a landfill, housing 22,000 people – it was estimated that the average time a woman spends per year in collecting water could translate into a figure as high as Rs 9,520 if it were to be given a monetary value. The survey was part of a two-year project, ‘Women’s Access To Water, Sanitation and Essential Services’, supported by IDRC and Women in Cities International, Canada, in partnership with the Delhi-based women’s resource groups – Jagori in Bawana and Action India in Bhalswa.

The project, which came to an end recently, provided significant insights into the everyday experiences of women living in India’s urban underbelly. These insights need to be taken seriously given that, according to UN projections, some 590 million Indians will live in cities by 2030 and a large number of them will be located in decrepit shanty towns. Delhi, today, has an estimated 24 per cent of its population living in slums. For Suneeta Dhar, Director, Jagori, what came across most forcefully through the two years of this project was every woman’s inherent right to the city. She says, “The women’s movement can no longer close its eyes to the everyday realities of women living in marginalised urban areas. We are talking about women reclaiming urban space and reclaiming, in the process, their well-being. There is a connection between one’s dignity and the design of one’s living space, just as there is a connection between safety and access to water and sanitation.”

The link between women’s security and access to water and sanitation may not, at first glance, be obvious. But in fact, as the ‘Women’s Access To Water, Sanitation and Essential Services’ project demonstrates, because of the lack of services, women in poor neighbourhoods try not to urinate or defecate because it is so inconvenient or because they fear they would be assaulted should they go out to relieve themselves in the open at night, since most public toilet facilities shut down by 10 pm.

According to Prabha Khosla, a consultant to the project, two issues clearly emerged, “First, governments tend to treat water and sanitation services as gender neutral. Second, the poor are not seen as part of the city. There is a lot of stuff in newspapers about how Delhi is going to be ‘slum-free’. But the notion of being ‘slum-free’ is not related to building better neighbourhoods so that people don’t have to live in such conditions, but removing those who live in slums and bulldozing their homes.”

Part of the problem, Khosla feels, is that the poor are disrepected and not treated as equals with the capacity to understand their own environment and the need to change it. “During our interactions with the community at Bawana and Bhalswa, we found a lot of women saying that now we want to be involved in decision making on the delivery of basic services. Governments need to understand that the people know their local living environment better than they do, and it’s to their advantage to make use of their capacities,” she elaborates.

There are international examples of how this can be done. In Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, for instance, after the city had earmarked some money to re-do a local park, some elderly women in the area did an audit of the space and ensured that their recommendations were integrated into the city’s plans. Kathryn Travers, Director of Programmes, Women in Cities International (WICI), believes it is crucial to work with local communities, “Often we find people have a negative image of where they live. So their solution is to go somewhere else, which isn’t a sustainable solution either.”

WICI, when it worked in Regina, Saskatchewan, a province in central Canada, came across a neighbourhood that was labelled the worst in Canada. Recalls Travers, “What we noticed when we went there was that people really held on to that stigma and kind of internalised it. So it took some work with them to explore the possibilities within their own neighbourhood and engage with everybody who lived there.” To do this WICI chose the format of the women’s safety audit, where women residents themselves surveyed their neighbourhood and came up with a list of elements that would make it safer and better for them. Continues Travers, “Since we wanted to be as inclusive as possible we involved women from different backgrounds in this exercise, including Aboriginal women, new immigrants, the elderly and physically challenged, and those who did sex work.”

The safety audit format was used in Bawana, too. Dhar elaborates, “We conducted a safety audit walk with the local women. It drove home the point that women are able to deeply understand the spatial relationship between where they live, where the services are and how they are formatted. They understood where the dangers were, and what the solutions could be.”

Interestingly, the medium of radio was also used in Bawana. Geetha Bhardwaj, a former OneWorld South Asia coordinator, which had hosted the programme, explains the process, “We handed over recorders to the local youth – including girls – and asked them to capture the voices of women in their homes so that they could tell their stories. When the women began articulating their experiences, that itself became a self-affirming process. With information, came analyses about who they are and what their entitlements were. Later, these voices were disseminated over All India Radio.”

Thus issues that were earlier left unarticulated slowly came to the fore. Tabooed subjects like menstruation, defecation, urination – now seen through the rights framework – began to be openly discussed. As Khosla puts it, “When men and women, boys and girls, can speak about such issues in the same space, it is a big step forward, because it means there is now some collective responsibility at finding solutions.”

These, of course, are early, tentative changes brought about through interactions with local communities over two years. It is crucial to build on that change. What gives rise to optimism on this score is the fact that the women here are now both aware and articulate. Many of them addressed a public meeting in Delhi recently on their right to be heard and one wouldn’t have guessed that just a while ago these very women hadn’t uttered a word on a public stage.

Says Kalpana Vishwanath of Jagori, “Everybody needs to speak out against the fact that governments are now planning cities in which the poor have no place.” For Viswanath, toilets and water are very much a women’s issue, “The Indian women’s movement has had to contend with violence against women for over three decades now. What we are trying to do is to look at safety from a broader perspective: We are talking here of the right of the women to the city, we are talking about gender inclusion in every aspect of city life.”

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.