India declared open defecation free, but in Mumbai's Mahim, slum residents face a different reality

Anvisha Manral

India was declared open defecation free by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an address from the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. However, for the residents of Shahu Nagar in Mahim, nothing about 2 October seemed different. Except for the pandal that had been set up along the tracks to mark the nine-day Hindu festival of Navratri, the view remained unchanged, as did the stench of human waste.

For years, the people living on the eastern side of the Mahim railway station on the suburban line have been defecating either on the tracks or in the shadow of scrub nearby. To them, the promise of a clean toilet is an election special, and the government's claim of the country becoming open defecation free "a lie".

"They constructed toilets in villages where people have all the land in the world, but forgot about a city like Mumbai where one doesn't even have the space needed to relieve oneself. Officials have now started fining those who defecate on the railway tracks and in the open," says Imran Syed, who has lived in the same shanty in this locality for 35 years. "Nagarsevaks and aamdars come to us before elections, but once the voting is over, they don't even stop here by accident. I say, carry out the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in places where it is most required."

Imran Syed's wife, a new mother' sits in her shanty.

Imran Syed's wife, a new mother, sits in her shanty. She says they have had to bribe officials to let them defecate behind nearby shrubbery

Interestingly, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had declared Maharashtra an open defecation free (ODF) state in 2018. He announced that 60 lakh toilets were built in the state since the launch of SBM in 2015. Mumbai itself had been declared ODF by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation two years before the state, in December 2016; this, when the civic body had not built even half the targeted number of public toilets. It reached the halfway mark only in October 2018: 2,253 toilet seats against the target of 5,300.

The BMC's rush to announce Mumbai's ODF status in 2016 was attributed by some reports to the civic body's desire to earn points under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Additionally, violations of SBM guidelines were neglected. As per SBM directives, a ward or city can only be declared ODF if not a single person is found defecating in the open during any time of the day. And in Mumbai, as recently as February 2019, reports indicated that 75 individuals use a single public toilet seat €" a figure far greater than the recommended ratio of 25:1. The question of why Mumbai was declared ODF when the desired toilet count had not been achieved still remains unanswered.

Data received by the Praja Foundation through an RTI inquiry revealed that there already existed a 66 percent disparity between toilets for men and women as of April 2019. Even though the BMC announced a target of 22,774 new toilets to bridge the gap, its previous record does not project a promising picture of the future: For instance, in an audit conducted in April 2019, it was discovered that 554 toilet blocks out of 1,706 public toilets surveyed were in "extremely dilapidated" condition.

Residents say they would not have to defecate in the open had a sanitary toilet been made available.

Residents say they would not have to defecate in the open, had a sanitary toilet been made available.

"How could they declare India or even Maharashtra open defecation free without gauging the ground reality? Where is the government getting its inputs from? It is well-known that open defecation is prevalent from Masjid to Mahim to Sewri. People dump their trash on the tracks and that is dangerous from an environmental perspective. It is the local corporator's responsibility to ensure that people have access to both washrooms and dustbins," says Dharmesh Barai, founder of Environment Life, a Mumbai-based NGO which has been campaigning for cleaner railway tracks since 2014.

Ironically, on the same day that the Prime Minister declared India as being ODF, a Bandra-bound local train derailed near Mahim. Prima facie, the cause of the derailment was the accumulated waste on the tracks. Acting with alacrity, railway officials have since then been fining slum-dwellers for relieving themselves near the tracks.

About 42 percent (i.e. 52 lakh people) of Mumbai's population resides in slums, as per the 2011 Census. Nearly 20 percent of this 52 lakh live in illegally built shanties, such as at Mahim. Mahim's proximity to the sea also makes it a common spot for open defecation. Meanwhile, a tug of war between the railway authorities and the BMC means running water and clean toilets remain out of reach for slum residents on the locality's eastern side (including localities like Shahu Nagar and Azad Nagar).

"The government can say what they want but their words don't mean that there are toilets in every part of India. If we had community toilets that could be easily accessed, we would not be forced to defecate in the open," says Vakil Ali, 20.

Ajeez cannot pay Rs 5 for each trip to the public washroom.

Ajeez cannot pay Rs 5 for each trip to the public washroom.

Residents of the slum have been compelled to leave their homes at 4 am to defecate in the open while escaping the Rs 500 fine. A few have been taken into custody for not being able to pay the penalty when apprehended. The Mahim railway station does have a public toilet, but reaching it requires a 15-minute walk via a foot over-bridge or illegally crossing the tracks. For those with physical disabilities, neither option is convenient.

"If India is open defecation free, there must be enough toilets. Where is the toilet here? There's space to construct washrooms here but there is no commitment from the government. They do not want to change the rusted tracks, but they want to fine us," says 57-year-old pujari Ajeez. Ajeez, who is differently abled, cannot afford to pay Rs 5 every day to use the public toilet on the other side of the nearest platform. He is troubled that there are no provisions for the elderly and/or differently-abled individuals on the way leading up to the toilet.

Women and children seem to have a struggle of their own. Not only do they have to put up with the humiliation of defecating in a small 'jungle' (an overgrown plot) next to the tracks, they also worry about their safety. "Some men sit along the periphery of the jungle deliberately and watch us. Some of us have stopped going to the jungle and cross the bridge. Government officials keep holding meetings. If there was a usable toilet, why would we be living in such conditions?" asks 25-year-old Parveen, an expectant mother.

"When we squat along the tracks, men in the trains passing by often point torches or whistle at us because they know what we are doing. So we cover our faces and do our business. There is no direct way for us to access a washroom. Why would the people of the slum defecate near a dump, where you can't stand for five seconds, if there was a proper toilet available?" says Lakshmi, 51.

At night, going out to the dump is unsafe, so the women must wait for daylight. "Some women experience severe pain because of having to hold in their pee. If the children need to go to the toilet at night, we make them sit by the tracks as there's nowhere else to go in the dark," complains 60-year-old Noori Sheikh, sitting next to her 11-year-old granddaughter Aasma Mohammad Sheikh.

There are approximately 1,000 houses in this basti, but there isn't a single sanitary, accessible toilet. The BMC recently conducted a survey of the area and found that there isn't enough space to construct a toilet or sewer for better waste management. "A lot of shanties have been constructed illegally and taken up space. The Western Railway is responsible for allotting the space to us so that toilets can be built for communal use. That is still being worked out," Kiran Singh Patil, sub-engineer, G North Ward, told Firstpost. Patil also maintained that once the Maharashtra Assembly elections are concluded on 21 October, the BMC will fast-track the construction of toilets and create space for a septic tank. A few people may have to be displaced in the process, Patil states.

Ravindra Bhakar, Chief Public Relations Officer of the Western Railway, says a drive has already been launched to clean the tracks in the area. "We have not received a request from the BMC to construct public toilets in the area. The BMC has its own land in the adjoining area as well. Additionally, open defecation along the tracks is being tackled by railway authorities. Apart from counselling those who live along the tracks, we have started imposing fines on defaulters."

Residents here remain hopeful that someone will heed their demands and install a functioning toilet here. Their day-to-day experience belies the claim of India being ODF, but they continue to hope for a more dignified future.

Also See: CSE questions sustainability of Swachh Bharat Mission's public toilet initiative

Five years of Swachh Bharat Mission: Survey finds 72% believe cities now cleaner, but 88% report garbage still dumped in public spaces

'India is open defecation free': Experts question govt claim, say scheme is ‘archaic’, people might slip back to their old habit

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