Covid-19 and water security in India: Magnifying inequities in an unequal world

The "heal as one" narrative is a false one as the poorest are the most vulnerable to the disease.
In the absence of piped water access, poor households will find it exceedingly difficult to practice regular handwashing (Image: UNICEF, Flickr Commons) In the absence of piped water access, poor households will find it exceedingly difficult to practice regular handwashing (Image: UNICEF, Flickr Commons)

 

With Covid-19 spreading its wings across the world, the impact on quality of life and access to basic human rights will be felt exceedingly more in the global south. It is the nature of disasters, to bare the inherent socio-economic inequities in societies, that are invisibilized during normal times. The Covid-19 pandemic, an unprecedented public health disaster, is a case in point.

The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on Covid-19 call for frequent handwashing with soap and water, practising physical distancing, and home quarantining in affected areas. Hand hygiene, and consequently water is essential not just to arrest the spread of Covid-19, but also to ensure recovery and treatment of patients. It has been accepted as a first line of defence against the deadly virus.

The reality on-ground though, is drastically different. For a majority of the population, exclusive access to water sources and latrine facilities is still a dream, and citizens continue to rely on community sources for their water and sanitation needs. Crowding around water sources is a common site across various locations, making it impractical and near impossible for them to follow physical distancing.

The absence of exclusive bathroom and latrine facilities for a high number of citizens also poses a challenge to practice good hygiene. Additionally, researchers have warned that the virus can spread not only through faecal-oral transmission (Hindson, 2020) but also through aerosolized faeces, which causes infection after inhalation. This puts a large part of the population at a very high risk of getting infected.

Citizens waiting for water tankers to arrive at a community water collection point in Chikkaballapur district, Karnataka on 22 April 2020 (Image: INREM Foundation)

A popular demonstrable case to illustrate challenges faced by high density urban agglomerations is the Dharavi slums in Mumbai with a population density of 277,136 persons/sqkm. It is common to find 8-10 persons inhabiting a 10x10 sqft dwelling here. The unfeasibility of following the guidelines issued by various administrative and health agencies including WHO become amply clear in this context.

With peak summer on the anvil, the annual ritual of water scarcity and its resultant impacts are already being felt across large parts of the country. In addition to the struggle for many citizens to ensure even basic water security for their families in these months, the existing lockdown has exponentially worsened the situation of distress for large populations.

A case in point is Pillagutta village in Chikkaballapur district, Karnataka. It has high groundwater fluoride contamination and hence people here depend on the nearest government installed reverse osmosis (RO) plant located in the neighbouring village (10 kms away) as their only source of safe water. On normal days, autos are deployed by the villagers to fetch water cans from the RO plants. With the lockdown in place, only those with their personal two-wheelers (a small minority) have been able to access these safe water sources. Others have had to revert to the high fluoride groundwater, thereby forcibly putting them at risk of fluorosis.

A quick reflection on the latest NSS data (76th round Jul-Dec 2018) shows that these are not deviations but in fact the norm. The data throws light on the challenges that a majority of Indian population will face in following these basic guidelines.

More than 78% rural and 43% urban households did not have access to piped water within their establishments, and hence fetched water from one of the various other community sources such as public stand posts, dugwells, water tankers or other water collection points (NSSO, 2018). In the absence of piped water access within their households, these households will find it exceedingly difficult to practice regular handwashing. Reinforcing this challenge is World Bank data which suggests that about 40% of the population in India does not have access to even basic handwashing requirements - soap and water.

About 42% rural and almost 7% urban households continued to access handpumps for their drinking water needs and 10.5% rural households fetch water from points more than 30 minutes away from their households, translating to 15+ hours a month spent transporting water. 50% of rural and 25% urban households do not have access to exclusive bathrooms. Exclusive latrine access is not available for almost 37% rural and over 22% urban households, who either access public latrine facilities or do not have access to any latrine facility (NSSO, 2018).

Lessons

Through Resolution 64/292 (with India as a signatory), the UN General Assembly recognized the right to water and sanitation as essential to the realisation of all human rights. In India, where the right to water and sanitation is not listed as a fundamental right, courts at state and central level have interpreted Article 21 of the Constitution, the right to life, as encompassing the right to safe and sufficient water and sanitation.

In 1990, the Kerala High Court in Attakoya Thangal vs. Union of India recognized the fundamental importance of the right to water and in its judgment, clearly recognized the right of people to clean water as a right to life enshrined in Article 21.  

As we deal with this deadly virus, it is imperative that we view WASH access from a human rights perspective. Especially amidst a lockdown inherently pitted against the underprivileged in a country like India, where the top 10% of the population holds 77% of the country’s national wealth and 73% of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1% (Oxfam, 2020).

Safe water and hygiene is a prerequisite for strong public health systems. In the absence of treatment methods or an available vaccine - as is the case with Covid-19 - the public health and WASH responses need to go hand in hand. As and when we overcome this pandemic, we would do well to invest our energies in significantly improving these facilities.

While war-like strategies like the total lockdown adopted by the Indian government seem necessary to ensure the healthcare infrastructure is not overwhelmed, it has been at the expense of the basic freedoms for a large part of the country’s population. Quick and timely responses from governments are critical, but it is equally important to have human rights as one of the guiding principles of response plans. 

Finally, this pandemic is not the great equalizer, as the middle and upper class narrative wants us to believe. Emergencies and disasters often lead to violation of rights and it is the underprivileged classes that depend most on protection and access to their rights to even afford a life of basic dignity. As we wipe our surfaces clean and regularly wash our hands to keep ourselves safe in line with guidelines, we would do well to not forget how lucky we are to be part of a minority with access and ability to do that.

 

Karthik Seshan is a development consultant. He used to lead the Water Quality portfolio at Arghyam, and has worked extensively on issues of water (in)security across the country, covering aspects of practice, research and policy.

 

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