10 February 2002 © New York Times
BOMBAY, Feb. 9 — To be poor and female on the streets of India’s largest city is to exact a punishing daily self-discipline: to relieve yourself only before sunrise and after sunset.
For Selvi, a mother of four who lives in a shantytown on the banks of the railroad tracks here, that means rising at 4 a.m., the only time water flows bountifully through a jury- rigged pipe. She fills her small plastic bucket and wanders in search of a private spot on the tracks where she can hoist her sari and squat in peace.
The rest of the day she is out of luck. She has no bathroom at home. The nearest public toilet is in the slum next door, and to go there, which she does only in emergencies, is to risk being accosted as an interloper. Along the tracks that serve as her community’s front yard, garbage dump and lavatory, the Central Line trains roar by all day long, daily commuters dangling from its crowded cars.
“We are women; how can we go in broad daylight?” asked Selvi, who uses just one name, as she sat in the two-foot-wide corridor in front of her house, combing her daughter’s hair. “In the nighttime no one can see us. In the daytime, trains are going by.”
For Bombay, the capital of India’s financial services sector and the enduring symbol of the country’s ambition and pluck, supporting the basic human needs of its citizens is a challenge of mammoth proportions.
According to the 2001 census, 11.9 million people live within the city limits, which include a finger-shaped island built on reclaimed marshland. Nearly five million more live in the suburbs that have spread to the north and east, in what makes up the Bombay metropolitan region. By 2015, this is projected to be what demographers inelegantly but accurately call the largest “urban agglomeration” in the world, with about 28 million people.
Bombay’s trains ferry seven million commuters a day, several times their capacity. Fatal accidents are so frequent that there are insurance policies for daily commuters. The blare of horns from scooters, cars and buses form a wall of sound interrupted only occasionally by crows. The sidewalks, where they are not chewed up by roadwork, are thick with vendors doing brisk business in everything from pulp fiction to feather dusters to figs.
According to a widely cited 1995 estimate from the government, an astonishing 58 percent of Bombay’s population — more than 6.7 million men, women and children — live in slums.
In the dearth of toilet facilities for these slum dwellers lies the most revolting and most unhealthy sign of Bombay’s housing crisis — and the most vivid indignity of being poor here. People relieve themselves wherever they can — in open fields, on the seaside during low tide and along railroad tracks and gutters. It is virtually impossible for the rest of the city to ignore it.
In Selvi’s community, it is common to hear of someone who was run over by a speeding train while trying to sprint across the tracks with a water bucket in hand. Even in Dharavi, believed to be among the world’s largest sums and this city’s most established settlement, there is one public toilet seat for every 800 people. Theoretically, that means waiting in line for a week to use the facilities.
“If you really look at it, that’s the most, most important infrastructural need — the toilet,” said Jockin Arputham, Bombay’s best-known advocate for the poor and the president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation.
A municipal experiment is under way to address that need. About 400 public toilet complexes are under construction in slums across the city, financed by the World Bank and the city and carried out by nongovernmental organizations led by Mr. Arputham’s. Each complex will have 40 toilets, and they will be equipped with water storage tanks, a luxury that most municipal toilets currently do not have, making it impossible to maintain even a semblance of cleanliness.
The users of each toilet block are to pay a monthly fee for its upkeep. Identity cards are to be issued to those who pay: 100 rupees, or $2.50, per adult toward construction costs, plus another 10 rupees a month for maintenance.
“If it works,” said V. N. Pathak, chief planner for the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, a government agency, “it will make a big difference in public hygiene.”
Bombay’s crumbling infrastructure has not left better-off residents untouched, either.
Frustrated with the inability of city officials to satisfy their quality- of-life needs, an increasingly vocal band of middle-class residents has taken matters into its own hands. A movement against noise pollution has led to an unprecedented ordinance, a 10 p.m. curfew on amplified sound — a concept once unthinkable in a city known for its late-night, sometimes all-night, weddings, concerts and religious celebrations. Private security guards have been hired to patrol the streets of some prosperous neighborhoods. Street vendors have been cleared in a handful of areas.
“The rich and elite have realized that in sheer numbers, the urban poor outnumber them,” said Kalpana Sharma, an urban affairs journalist at the newspaper The Hindu.
“It’s not possible to travel from one part of the city to another without coming face to face with urban poverty,” said Ms. Sharma, who has written a book about the Dharavi slum. “It’s actually led to a hardening of attitudes and intolerance and a delusion, where you refuse to accept that the poor are as much a part of the city as the rich. You can’t block it out visually, so you block it out mentally.”
Bombay’s slums are on the banks of the sea, in national parkland, around old salt pans. They include dwellings made of blue tarp and gunny sacks and two-story concrete and brick homes, furnished with cable television and altars draped with blinking lights. The “pukka” houses, as the latter are called, are bought, sold and rented in the underground economy. Some of the shanties are brand new. Some are more than 100 years old. Some have been blessed with a water connection or electricity by a local politician trawling for votes at election time.
Many of the slums hum with commerce. Inside their clogged, twisting streets, leather jackets are sewn. “Papads,” the spicy wafers that are commonly found on the tables of Manhattan’s Indian restaurants, are rolled and sun-dried in the courtyards.
The slums here are home to doctors and social workers, as well as the multitudes of maids, gardeners and other laborers that sustain Bombay. More than 80 percent of Bombay’s slum dwellers are literate, according to a recent government- sponsored study.
What the slums do not have are the basics of human hygiene. At the Bharat Nagar colony, where Selvi’s family lives, the older residents talk wistfully about a time when it was not such a bad place. Most had come from villages down south and had built huts near the factories where they found work amid the woods that once lined the railroad tracks. The trees, as in their villages, offered privacy. A small boulder created a natural divide between the men’s and women’s toilets.
In the last 40 years, though, the colony’s population has exploded, with migrants from near and far. The one-room shacks are packed tightly against one another with narrow passages for roads and the roar and whistle of trains all day long. The tracks out front, the road above, is all there is now. If the children have to go, the mothers have to chase after them.
It is not exactly what Selvi, as a teenager in a village in Tamil Nadu, had in mind when she was married off to a man in the big city. But that was 17 years ago. There is no going back now.
“We came to Bombay,” Selvi said with a shrug and offered a jutting chin toward the railroad lines out front. “We have to go there, on the tracks.”