Last Thursday, I visited a slum in Vasant Kunj, on the south-side of New Delhi, to see a water project which is being supported by AusAID, Australia’s overseas aid agency.

This is a life-saving device… Picture: AP

To see taps running when we turn them on is a basic reality in Australia which we rightly take for granted. Yet, in a community where this is far from a reality, it is astounding to see how profoundly water affects every aspect of life.

In the slums of Vasant Kunj, and across many large cities, meeting the need for water is fulfilled by a daily government water truck which delivers free water to the slum community.

When the truck arrives, what ensues is a free for all of people clambering over the water truck with hoses and buckets in a desperate effort to fulfil their needs. In full swing the locals identify the scene with Medusa: the myriad of hoses emanating from the top of the truck akin to the serpents which constitute Medusa’s hair.

Being forced to scramble on a daily basis for the sustenance of life is an inherently tension filled event.

With every hose that is put in the truck a new germ or bacteria is introduced into the water. Every germ in the water is a potential bout of diarrhoea inflicted upon a child or a mother.

With each bout, a day is not worked, money is not earned, school lessons are not attended, futures are lost.

A stark truth of life becomes clear: clean water is everything.

The simple act of putting in place a communal water tank which is filled every day by that same water truck has revolutionised water distribution in this slum community.

Where there was once chaos, now there is an orderly process of visiting the communal tank - complete with taps that work. Each person’s allocation can be fairly given, and not everyone has to come at once. Tension in the community has reduced.

The result is that the water is cleaner and disease is on the decline. In turn, kids are spending more days in school and parents are better able to earn a living.

Equally as important as the supply of drinking water are toilets and sewerage.

The aspiration of this community is to become open defecation free. For the majority of these people there are no toilets, there is no sewerage system.

As you comprehend the problem which is trying to be solved here, consider that half of India’s 1.2 billion people practice open defecation. In what is a global dilemma, India is ground zero.

The hygiene implications of open defecation are obvious. Diarrhoeal disease is rampant. It is a major cause of death.

But disease is not the biggest issue. Open defecation also means the fundamental loss of human dignity. For what is naturally an intensely private act, is simply not.

Adjoining this particular slum is a tree-filled bushland area. For most women in the community, their bodily urge is met by hanging on until the very middle of the night and then venturing into the park to seek relief, despite the added risk of possible violent assault.

There are about three hundred dwellings in this slum. Less than fifty have a toilet. I saw two. One had a padlock on the door to keep people out while the owners were at work.

As part of the revitalisation of this community a new communal toilet block is being built. It will eventually contain about forty toilets connected to the Delhi sewerage system.

While great freeways and bridges have dramatically improved our lives in Australia, as I tried to get my head around what daily life must be like in this slum, I couldn’t imagine a more life-changing piece of public infrastructure than this block of toilets.

This community is experiencing a revolution. The heroes of this change are the community leaders - mainly women - who have rolled up their sleeves, and with total practicality, got the job done. When you are talking about water and sanitation there are no airs and graces. This is a world of diarrhoea, stopping open defecation, and with total frankness, calling a spade a spade.

To make this happen they have stared down politicians, and pulled no punches with their own community about how daily habits need to change.

As our caravan moved on through the slum, spaces were created in our wake. In no time at all, one of them was filled by kids with a bat and a tennis ball playing backyard cricket. The boy inside of me wanted to join in. There were bouncers, and sixes, and roars of delight.

In a world away, I saw my own childhood. Yet a sick kid in bed with diarrhoea doesn’t play cricket. It made me realise: proper water and sanitation is giving these kids their childhood as well. That Australia is playing its part should make us all proud.

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    • Mahhrat says:

      06:54am | 08/11/12

      Top article.

      While we bitch about having to support single parenthood in this country (really?), kids don’t have drinking water and a toilet.  Yet we hire them to staff our call centres.

    • marley says:

      07:30am | 08/11/12

      @Mahrat - there is more than one India.  The jugghis are pretty much as the author describes - basically mud brick shanty towns with nothing much in the way of facilities. Lower middle class India is concrete block apartment housing with power and running water (albeit not clean water).  And upper middle class India is bungalows with small yards and perhaps several generations of the family living in some comfort, with a cook and a gardener and a household guard all at their beck and call. 

      The thing is, the people in the jugghis generally want better for their kids, and try to get them educated.  A job in a call center for a kid out of the slums is probably unattainable because of the language requirements, but it’s an aspiration for the kids in the concrete apartment blocks.  I have less of a problem than some with giving them that chance.

    • XT says:

      08:29am | 08/11/12

      @Marley - what is this conspiracy theory nonsense you are going on about?  Paranoid much?

    • Mahhrat says:

      10:18am | 08/11/12

      @marley:  Agreed, though there’s some caste issues there that need to be overcome.  (Strangely, I think the same thing applies in Australia, though we call them bogans instead).

      My point is that clean water, health and sanitation are things every human should enjoy.  This shouldn’t even be a thing.  It’s not about money - there are cheap solutions, such as the communal water and taps.  It all doesn’t have to be suburban Australia, but holy shit clean water, basic schooling and somewhere warm to sleep at night should be givens in 2012.

    • marley says:

      12:22pm | 08/11/12

      @Mahrat - don’t forget, it’s a country of a billion people - we can’t keep up with infrastructure here, so you can imagine what it’s like there, especially given the low level of industrial development and the limited tax base available to fund public development.  Still, they’re getting a handle on their birth rate, and the transfer of jobs to India has been good news for a lot of people.  They’ve got a huge way to go, though.

    • pete says:

      07:30am | 08/11/12

      Birth control is everything.

    • marley says:

      07:52am | 08/11/12

      @pete - they’re getting there.  India still has a fairly high birth rate, but it’s half what it was a generation ago, and dropping.  The more education those slum kids get, the better chance they have at a decent job and the fewer kids they’re going to have.

    • Sue says:

      08:06am | 08/11/12

      We are “playing our part”? In a country that is as rich as India!!! Good grief.
      We have got to stop trying to be the world’s Santa Clause.
      These people live as they do because of the disregard of their government.

      In the same way there are people who suffer in Australia because of the disregard of our government. Proof is found in the vasteness of the suburbs of our cities and populated by those experiencing intergenerational unemployment and other forms of welfare dependency. Victims of the propoganda spewed out by schools and the media that we should feel guilty for every ill in the world and that we have no right to what we have. And so here we are- what we have not sold off to foreign interests and government, we have given away under the greatest guilt trip inflicted on Australians,  “land rights”.

    • AFR says:

      08:34am | 08/11/12

      One of the things I will always appreciate when I return home from overseas (and it doesn’t have to be from a third would country either), is the ability to turn on the tap and have a glass of water. Simple stuff really.

    • michael j says:

      09:01am | 08/11/12

      FRACK,FRACK,FRACK, I think that if i owned the Largest Supply of Under-ground Fresh-water on Earth i would let some Company’s put a Huge Chemical Dump on top of it thus bringing much Wealth and Happiness to a few people,

    • Jay2 says:

      04:59pm | 08/11/12

      Yes michael j, since most of Australia appears to be covered by multi national mining company’s exploratory licence and both sides of levels of government are against a moratorium (but are so keen to have a Carbon Tax to save planet earth lol), let’s just wonder for a moment how many precious artesian water sources (etc) are going to cop it in the neck.
      I’m just wondering where all the HUGE amount of byproducts are going to be dumped. Oh THAT’s right, this is the CLEAN energy source, there won’t be any massive amounts of salt and other chemicals.


      09:38am | 08/11/12

      Hi Richard,

      When 600 million Indians are lacking the very basic sanitation, I can hardly call that the largest democracy, in our world!  How about the new elite middle class, the very rich with all the outsourcing jobs at their fingertips and all those wealthy Indian students studying abroad?  Are you telling me that they don’t contribute in any way to improve things in the Indian society?  By statements such as India being a rich nation and a power house of the world, has only managed to make it worse by some people trying to justify it with the wonderful class system India seems to thrive on.

      Nothing much changed in the last forty years when my uncle had a chance to travel through India. And nothing much will actually change, if we keep on having selective memories and limited knowledge about the misery of Indian life.  Very timely article, indeed.  I only assume that when Ms Julia Gillard goes back for another visit, she can help in her own special way by teaching the Indian women about contraception, because surely the message isn’t getting through in their own language. Since most Indians speak perfect English, hopefully they will comprehend it better and want to become like Australians, maybe?  Kind regards.

    • marley says:

      01:40pm | 08/11/12

      @Neslihan - I gather your knowledge of India is restricted to your uncle’s opinions from 40 years ago.  Things have changed a bit since then.

      India has made huge advances since the “Green revolution” - to the extent that its population is better fed, less likely to be famine-affected, and has an improved life expectancy compared with a generation ago. It is industrialising, albeit unevenly, and as it does so, incomes and living standards are improving.  It’s nowhere near western standards of development, and enormous pockets of poverty remain, especially in rural India, but it’s on the road to development, not slipping backwards as Pakistan seems to be.

      The caste system, while an enormous social problem, is under threat – first, from the government, second from the fast growing Muslim population, and third from better-educated younger Indians.  Oddly enough, Indian society today is more progressive than the Indian diaspora in the west.

      As for contraception, the Indian birth rate has more than halved in 50 years, and is still dropping.

      On the other hand, it’s simply not true that “most Indians speak perfect English.”  Urban, upper-middle class Indians do speak English; however, the rural villagers and peasants, the slum dwellers and fishermen and street cleaners, do not.  The best estimate is that about 1/10th of the population speaks some level of English.  Language is in fact a problem there, since there is no common language:  even Hindi is spoken by less than half the population.

    • Reader says:

      09:39am | 08/11/12

      Thanks for the article Richard. I love that The Punch is doing more articles on these issues (such as the series about Tibet and Cambodia the other week as well). Good to hear about this community and I hope they achieve all their goals for a better future for their children.

    • Gregg says:

      09:47am | 08/11/12

      ” The heroes of this change are the community leaders - mainly women - who have rolled up their sleeves, and with total practicality, got the job done. “

      And that can basically be any community just as western developed countries get on with creating infrastructure and homes etc., those not physically contributing often paying for others to do so with rates and taxes.

      Why is it that a country like India with its wealth cannot be doing the same and even more to be asked is why is a country like Australia with less than two percent of their population contributing anything whilst we here will always have so much to be done.

    • baddog says:

      12:10pm | 08/11/12

      Only Punch commentators can manage to get bees in their bonnets about an uplifting, refreshing piece. The world is not created equal people, we are called THE LUCKY COUNTRY for a reason. Most people live very different lives to us through no fault of their own. Stop acting like over-privileged assholes towards the poor and let’s celebrate AusAid’s committment to global sanitation and education for all.


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