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Rethinking Cities, Slums and Sanitation in a Post COVID 19 World

Cities around the world have faced the brunt of the COVID19 with Denser cities turning out to be easy targets, perhaps due to the assumption that they are anathema for social distancing. Heavily promoted precautionary measures such as social distancing and maintaining high hygiene standards are critically important to survive the pandemic but, these ideas are based on the assumptions that all residents have adequate space, services and possibility of keeping up with prescribed cleanliness measures to survive such an order. This is simply not a reality with areas like Slums and Informal settlements with dense population and insufficient sanitation infrastructure. What defines the graveness of this challenge is the fact that 10% of the total population lives in slums alone in the capital city of Delhi with approximately 2 million people residing there.

The pandemic has brought renewed attention to informal settlements and the Sanitation planning and policy failures within. This article emphasizes upon exploring the existing hygiene standards in the Slums with a focus upon water supply and sanitation facilities and understanding how the slum dwellers have been managing their day today schedules in pandemic times. 30 slums in Delhi have been identified as the study area for conducting surveys and related research tasks. Another part of this article talks upon reflecting on the impacts of both the pandemic and the public health responses on lives and livelihoods of slum residents to draw lessons for future of urban planning and development policies. This would include identifying the inadequacies of the existing physical infrastructure along with possible lack of coordination and data amongst relevant authorities.

Slums, sanitation and self-isolation:

The supreme Court of India protects the right to reserve water as a fundamental human right as part of the right to life guaranteed, and yet India is suffering from the wort water crisis in its history (Source: Composite water management index 2018, Niti Ayog). Additionally, the United Nations General Assembly has declared available, accessible, acceptable, affordable and safe sanitation is a universal human right, the ministry of housing and Urban Affairs in India has promoted subsidy plans for the construction of individual household toilets under the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan, still around 118 million people in India do not have access to a clean toilet in today’s time (Source: UNICEF, 2019).

Almost all of the principal healthcare authorities have focused upon the importance of handwashing and physical distancing to prevent spread of the pandemic, nonetheless the idea of physical distancing in itself is a privilege which most of the Indians fail to have. It is quite understandable that the notion of maintaining successful physical distancing and hygiene are backed up by certain supporting factors such regular access to clean water, availability of adequate and clean toilets and most importantly the likelihood of evading long waiting queues of people in order to use the community services. Travelling longer distances to fetch water and waiting with high exposure to the crowd, these slum dwellers face every day dangerously higher risks of water contamination and catching the infection.

While usually water is supplied through HH pipelines, Borewells or municipal water lines inside the houses, however the slum dwellers have to depend upon mostly communal sources such as tankers, hand pumps, stand posts, onside tanks or sometimes even buying bottled water. The availability of a tap inside the house is a necessity to ensure that people stay inside the house and frequently handwash. Travelling longer distances to fetch water and waiting with high exposure to the crowd, these slum dwellers face every day dangerously higher risks of water contamination and catching the infection. As identified by the census of India 2011,around 84 million people, are living without a source of clean water in India (Source: Ministry of Housing and Family Welfare, India). Nearly half (48.3%) of the households have shared access to drinking water, 34% have to travel to access water with some of them walking more than 1.5 km (Source: Ministry of Housing and Family Welfare, India). The reality becomes furthermore terrifying when we take into consideration, there are 1.8 million people living in India who are at present homeless with no access to home, clean water, clean toilets and other basic hygiene amenities such as soaps and disinfectants(Source: IGH 2018, Habitat 2019).

Using the Baseline data (2018-2019) on 30 settlement in Delhi, an assessment was done on basic sanitation amenities, which were then compared with the preventive measures suggested to tackle the COVID-19. Amongst many other key findings, the assessment reveals that 61.5% of slum households do not have access to tap water in the house. This implies that staying inside the house is not option for these households. Around 81% of the slum households were identified without individual toilets in their homes. With absence of individual toilets majority of the slum dwellers, around 66.5% were using community toilets and around 3% accepted to practicing open defecation. This increased much more in pandemic times as people found it a solution to avoid standing in long waiting lines for community toilets with a risk of catching infections.

Figure 1: Source of water for drinking purpose

Also, maintaining the social distance itself is a difficult in these circumstances. Data shows that around 25-35 household fetch water from one stand post and around 50-70 household collect the water from one tanker. This reflect that there is a higher risk of contamination of water and spread of infections from these common sources.

With irregular access to water supply, people are forced to carry their own water from far. Collecting the water from outside source is a very challenging and hard, task specially done by females, regular hand washing by every family member is difficult that would depend upon the availability of water in the house. The data also show that 66% of the dwellers go outside every day to fetch the water from communal source. It clearly reflects the maintaining the social distance might be little difficult every time. Also, it also attracts the higher risk of getting infected.

Figure 2 Dwellers go outside to fetch the water

Figure 3 Distance travel to fetch the water from outside source

66.5% dwellers stay more than 15 min outside for collecting the water. And 70 % dwellers travel more than 20 mts. to collect the water. 34% of the community toilet users were found waiting for more than 15 minutes for using the toilets with 40% of the users travelling more than 100 mts. everyday. With many community toilets closed from 10 pm to 4 am, a large number of females resorted to staying thirsty and hungry all night to avoid going to the toilet.

Figure 4 Time taken to fetch the water from outside source

These results again imply that social distancing is difficult to follow for a large proportion of households. It is not that these people undermine the importance of having individual toilets, however in their own words sometimes space limitation and other times financial restrictions have been stopping them. With no regular clean water supply, compromised hygiene and insufficient sanitation means, Indian slums are fighting a losing battle each day.


Primary surveys, interviews and conducting Focus Group Discussions have helped us not only in identifying such hindrance faced by the people to follow prescribed safety standards, it also helps us in understanding the vastness of the gaps between on ground realities and planning and policy recommendations. Slums are home to vulnerable populations, such as racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; the poor; and migrants who often face marginalization and discrimination. The degraded health and hygiene conditions in densely packed areas like slums play a principal role aggravating the overall infection cases in cities. These special areas facing distinct social physical and economic challenges need much more emphasis and research whose significance is far more crucial in Pandemic time

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