In a recent NY Times, article, Mapping Toilets in a Mumbai Slums Yields Unexpected Results (India Talk – July22, 2012), Samuel Lowenberg reported about a class of Harvard graduates in public health, mapping public toilets in a Mumbai slum called Cheetah camp. I suspect this isn’t exactly what our young overachievers had in mind when they selected their coursework. Still, they give attention to the much neglected infrastructure and public safety in low income neighborhoods, that local governments should be addressing.
Mumbai is one of the largest cities in the world with an estimated population of 12.5 million people. According to a study by the World Bank more than half of that population, 6.3 million, live in 200 big and small slums in and around the city. In absolute numbers this is the greatest number of people and the largest proportion of a city’s population living in slums in the world.
In such shanty towns and slums the access to basic services like fresh water, sanitation, and electricity is always scarce. While it is easier for authorities to provide connections to electricity and communal fresh water taps, it is much harder to provide adequate sanitation services to these slum dwellers day in and day out.
In the Mumbai slums 72 percent of the inhabitants rely on public toilets. These public toilets are built by different public and private entities, some are free but most require a fee from users. The number of toilets in these slums are inadequate for the significantly larger impoverished population; estimates range from 81 to 273 person per toilet seat. Meanwhile children in slums mostly defecate in open sewers running through the middle of the streets since the seats in public toilets are designed for adults.
In 1995 the World Bank finaced $ 295 million for the Slum Sanitation Plan (SSP) as part of Mumbai’s larger Sewage Disposal Project (MSDP). By 2005 under the auspices of SSP 328 toilet blocks with 5,100 toilet seats were built in Mumbai slums. Despite these efforts by the World Bank and Mumbai ‘s Municipal Corporation (BMC) the sanitaion conditions in the slums remain dismal.
The same NY Times article (India Talk – July 22, 2012) states that politicians in Mumbai promise to build toilet facilities before elections but never finish building them, until the next election cycle when the promises are made afresh and construction renews. The World Bank concluded in their study of Mumbai’s Slum Sanitation Plan that government inaction and lack of political will are some of the reasons that slum dwellers don’t have adequate sanitation facilities.
The slums in Mumbai and other developing countries are a powder keg for impending calamity. Lack of proper sanitation and hygiene combined with overcrowding creates an environment where diesease and death can spread quickly. The 1918 Influenzaepidemic infected a third of the world population and by some estimates killed between 50 to 100 million people. Recent reserach shows that Bird Flu (H5NI) and SARS viruses are mutating with every human contact. Epidemiologists are afraid that soon there will be a strain of one of these viruses which would easily pass from human to human. A Bird Flu or SARS pandemic could wreak havoc in these slums and could easily spread out to the rest of the city.
A timely investment to improve sanitary conditions in these slums is not just in the best interest of slum dwellers but also in the best interest of city administrations. If a pandemic of SARS or the Bird Flu breaks out in one of these slums which are spread across most of the developing countries, then it would claim countless lives in these cities.
These epidemics would not just cost lives but would also bring financial devastation to these cities and societies. The inability of their local politicians and bureaucrats to effectively improve living conditions in slums poses a threat not just to the people already living in poverty, but those who look past them in their high rise buildings and their air conditioned cars.