THE SUBJECT of human waste is, of course, indelicate; but it is a fundamental problem of urban life from which there is surprisingly little escape. And, one that needs to be faced head on if outbreaks like the current dengue pandemic is to be curbed.
With limited access to toilets, thousands of slum dwellers are forced to defecate in the open, in the process turning the City’s pavements into putrid, larvae-producing labs that send forth millions of mosquitoes bearing aloft diseases like dengue and malaria.
Nor is this all. The shanty dweller’s practice of relieving himself under the open skies results in fecal contamination of water supplies, the chief culprit for digestive tract diseases - the leading cause of death of infants and small children in shantytowns.
Open sewers and contaminated water rife with intestinal parasites like whipworm, roundworm, hookworm, and that old scourge of urban life cholera, claim hundreds of innocent slum children each year. Despite the unacceptably high human costs, civic authorities for the most part turn a blind eye to the noxious practice.
It is only when the larvae festering in the pavement petri-dish metamorphose into mosquitoes and unleash a particularly virulent strain of disease (chikungunya, malaria) that the Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC) is galvanised into action. By then it is usually too late to do the little the Corporation eventually manages to.
Let’s face it. The local self-government level is, of course, where the rubber meets the road in any pandemic. When the first dengue case was reported one expected health officials to manage the outbreaks, formulate methods for quarantining and handling infected people and make arrangements for speedy treatment.
Sadly, the district administration and the IMC have both been found wanting in this regard. The latter, in fact, tacitly admitted its gross failure in pesticide and insecticide operations by deciding to outsource the job of fumigation to a private firm for a sum of Rs 82 lakh.
And even now all efforts seem focussed on what seems to be the decidedly Sisyphean endeavour of exterminating the existing mosquito population rather than devising ways to check their proliferation.
“The Corporation’s approach to the problem smacks of sheer short-sightedness. The only way to check open defecation is by building community-owned toilets in slum areas. Intermittently, grand plans are unveiled for constructing such facilities in the presence of visiting politicians or representatives of international funding agencies only to be buried once their backs are turned,” charged leader of the Opposition in the IMC Suresh Minda.
He does seem to have a point. The Corporation’s Slum Cell had announced that it would set up ‘community owned and managed water supply and environmental sanitation facilities at 23 poverty pockets’ through funds provided under the Water for Asian Cites (WAC) programme funded jointly by UN-Habitat and Asian Development Bank.
The civic body further revealed that it would initiate household collection, segregation and transportation of solid waste to the nearest municipal bins. Nothing, however, has been heard of the project since.
And then there’s the Rs 1,035 lakh solid waste management component in the Urban Water Supply and Environment Improvement Project (USWEIP) that the Corporation is sitting on.
Says Project Manager of Project Implementation Unit, USWEIP, Prabhash Sankhla, ‘‘A provision of Rs 1,035 lakh has been made for solid waste management under the revised USWE Project figures. However, the IMC apparently wants to carry out the tasks from funds allotted under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). So the money has been kept on hold.
Meanwhile, in charge of IMC Slum Cell Harbhajan Singh said that construction of toilets at the 14 poverty pockets shortlisted under the Water for Asian Cities (WAC) programme had been delayed owing to quasi-legal issues. For instance parcels of land in two of the slums actually belong to the gram Panchayat and not to IMC. We are also examining whether or not shanties are legal. The issues are expected to be resolved within 2-3 days after which work will begin.