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Despite Claims, Ahmedabad’s Slums See Regular Open Defecation, Manual Scavenging

Those living in Shankarbhuvan say the state government and local authorities treat them as invisible – and conveniently cover up their hardship when investors come to town.
Women queue outside a single usable stall in Ahmedabad’s Shankarbhuvan slum. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Ahmedabad: “When VIPs pass our slum, they cover it up to hide our poverty,” said Tulsidas Vikrambhai, a resident of the slums in Ahmedabad’s Shankarbhuvan.

During the Tenth Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit which was held from January 10 to 12, 2024, the slums of Shankarbhuvan were curtained to hide the dilapidated conditions of living from investors who visited the capital.

In Ahmedabad’s Old City area as well, residents recall how every time VIP vehicular movement would occur over the flyover near them, their slum dwelling would be hidden with covers. But this doesn’t change the stench of their streets.

In this slum setting, where at least 400 homes sit in a bed of sewer that enters their dwellings, drainage water soiling their homes is just one of their problems.

AMC has installed various mobile toilets throughout Ahmedabad, but their upkeep is questionable. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Futile facilities

In 2015, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) declared that Ahmedabad was an “open defecation-free” (ODF) city. In January 2019, it was graded “ODF+” by the Union government, implying that the city had hygienic and usable public toilets. However, residents of Shankarbhuvan slum area told The Wire that their sanitation situation was far from what was advertised.

To cater to a population of at least a thousand slum dwellers, the AMC installed 30 toilets in the Shankarbhuvan slum. However, dwellers complain that due to the ramshackle condition of the toilets, they are forced to defecate openly.

According to the AMC, Ahmedabad has a total of 350 public toilets, community toilets and public urinals in the city. The ODF+ certificate states that almost all the 350 toilets and urinals met the ODF+ criteria.

Ramesh, a security guard for the site employed by the Corporation, was formerly engaged in cleaning the toilet stalls. “There are so many toilet stalls here, some don’t have drainage, some don’t have water supply, they are useless,” he said.

Another slum dweller, Sagarbhai Sinh, says that many like him have resorted to constructing toilets in their own homes since the ones installed by the AMC are simply unusable. But this too has its own repercussions. Sinh, a daily wager, explains how the makeshift toilets that they have constructed within their own homes are rendered inoperable when sewage drains overflow, pushing sewer into their dilapidated homes.

Overflowing sewerage lines in Shankarbhuvan reduce makeshift toilets to uselessness. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Shehnaz Ansari, a member of the Human Development and Research Centre (HDRC), told The Wire that despite the AMC’s claims, 1,000+ people defecate in open. “This topples the government’s tall claims. The HDRC shared their findings of the survey conducted they conducted for two months in 2019. In February 2019, we surveyed 24 slum pockets across city and contacted 7,512 families,” she said.

Ansari also said that while some of the pockets had community toilets, even those did not have proper drainage or water networks. The toilets were not in a usable condition. She also shared that even after their 2019 survey, they continued to be in touch with people from Ahmedabad’s areas such as Lakshminagar Na Chhapra of Chandkheda locality, Ghoda camp, Asarva, and Keshvaninagar – here, residents still do not have hygienic and functional toilets.

Poverty and politics

Kailashben, 32, has been living in the Shankarbhuvan slum for 10 years now. Every morning at 5 am, she carries an empty, worn-out paint can, and walks to the outskirts of her slum, covering her face with the edge of her saree. Kailashben meets other women on her way; they have a common purpose, with one hand covering their face and the other carrying a tin can, they set out to defecate near the dysfunctional public toilets.

“Out of the 12 stalls here, only one is usable. Not that it has facilities, but it has less trash and relieving oneself there is manageable. When that one stall is occupied, we are forced to defecate behind these stalls,” Kailashben told The Wire.

Open defecation is the only resort left for slum dwellers in Ahmedabad. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Bhoomi, who recently turned 18, is dismayed by the situation. “I am forced to squat and urinate if I want to use the one stall that is available. It is humiliating to defecate in public, having to ask fellow women to cover you while you relieve yourself. For every woman here, menstruation is an added ordeal, physically, mentally and financially,” Bhoomi said.

“I am ashamed sometimes when I defecate openly, and sometimes scared too. What if someone sees me unclothed? But I have no choice,” said Bhoomi. Women like Kailashben and Bhoomi discussed how installing toilets doesn’t end the AMC’s role. “They should also ensure that toilets are functional, sometimes even the water tank outside the stalls runs dry. It leaves us helpless,” said Kesudaben, a 50-year-old slum resident.

Some local women also shared how they are forced to also take cover under the flyover near the slum to avoid eve-teasing incidents when they head for defecation.

Mahendra Tulsibhai Bariya, a daily wager, was eager to talk to The Wire during the field visit. His idea was to somehow make the AMC let go of their apathy towards the slum dwellers. Bariya, a father of five, claims that the AMC people visited their slum over time but there was no change. “Sab bolte hain Vikas, Swacchta, Viksit Gujarat. Humari koi nahi sunnta, sarkar humare saath nahi hai, sarkar humko maarne chali hai (Gujarat is celebrated for being developed, clean, advance. But nobody listens to us, nobody supports us. The government is out to kill us),” Bariya lamented.

Bariya also shared how whenever locals from the slum visited the Corporation office, they are shooed off and told that their slum had been sold off to private builders. “Vote maangne sab aate hain, gareeb ke paas bhi, but Gujarat mein gareeb ki kya sunnvaai hai (When it’s time to ask for votes everyone appears, even in front of the poor. But who in Gujarat will listen to what the poor need)?” he asked.

Countering claims

On January 2, a Valmiki sanitation workers was lowered into a sewerage line without protective gear at 12:30 am. Photo: MGT

On January 2, at around 12:30 am, in eastern Ahmedabad’s Bapu Nagar ward, a Dalit man was lowered into a 22-feet-deep gutter. The man, who was in fact a sanitation worker, was lowered into the sewage gutter without protective gear at midnight by a private company hired to clean the line. Others at the scene told The Wire that Bali Boy India, a private company, was behind this episode of manual scavenging.

While India prohibited the act of manual scavenging in 1993, the legal scope of the task of manual scavenging was expanded over the years to include the manual cleaning of drains, sewer and septic tanks.

On October 2, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared that India had become an open defecation free country as a result of his ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’ at a glittering event held in the Harijan Ashram, Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. Yet, over 1,200 families belonging to the Valmiki community living in the city continue to be forced to resort to the practice.

Parsottam Vaghela, president of the Manav Garima Trust (MGT), an NGO striving for the rights of the Valmiki community, has consistently tracked the debilitating state of facilities for the community.

Since 2013, when the 1993 law banning manual scavenging was amended, Vaghela’s MGT has tracked that at least 105 sanitation workers have died while cleaning septic tanks and sewerage systems in Gujarat.

“Due to systemic oppression and the poverty that comes with it, the community has internalised this occupation. Though the law prohibits lowering of any human being into such hazardous tanks and sewerage, these incidents still take place,” Vaghela explained.

Vaghela also shared that the sanitation workers are not only subjected to unsafe conditions but also are not given access to safety gear such as masks, safety boots and face covers.

He highlighted that from March 22 to April 26, 2023 – in one month alone – as many as eight people died while cleaning sewers in various parts of the Gujarat.

Vaghela, who regularly keeps track of the situation of open defecation, said that despite the AMC’s claims, at least 200 sites in Ahmedabad are not free of open defecation.

“Areas such as Shankarbhuvan, Shahpur, Mirzapur, Narol, Vatva, Juna Vadaj, Shahwadi, Nagorivad still see people defecating in public, where slum-dwellers defecate in the open, and sanitation workers manually clean it up. Despite these ground realities, which we have brought to the government’s notice time and again, AMC claims Ahmedabad is OD free,” he told The Wire.

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