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Women unite against all odds in one of Delhi, India’s most polluted neighbourhoods

Women in India’s capital Delhi bear the responsibility of fetching water for their families. Often, this can take time away from other activities that would earn them more money. But at the base of one of Delhi’s landfills, women are working together to support one another in the hopes that their children will have a better future. Many of the women have built their own collective, and they say paying bribes would deplete the savings they’ve built together.

Every day, Latipha, who lives by a landfill in India’s capital, Delhi, spends two hours getting water while her husband goes to work picking through waste. She and around 30 other families share a water pipe set up by the government. They say most of the free water they get from the pipe is bad — they only get around 30 minutes of good water every day.

“Women have to face more problems,” says Latipha, who manages the home and works on the landfill. “Men go out to work. When women have to stay back at home, they have to face more troubles for water.”

Latipha’s story isn’t unusual. Around 90 per cent of Delhi’s groundwater is in a critical or semi-critical condition, the Central Ground Water Board told India’s Supreme Court.

Every year, Delhi’s population of an estimated more than 26 million uses more groundwater for drinking, daily use and construction activities than gets refilled through rains, according to the Central Ground Water Board.

A woman’s responsibility

In India, a Dasra report found 23 per cent of girls drop out of school when they hit puberty - and it’s largely related to a lack of water and sanitation. Women usually bear the responsibility for collecting water.

Across Delhi, women in slums spend between two to five hours per day trying to get water for their families, according to studies by Jagriti Kher and Savita Aggarwal from the Institute of Home Economics at the University of Delhi.

Kher and Aggarwal also found that women often make more than six trips a day to access water. In some parts of Delhi, water is brought by trucks, while other parts of Delhi rely on groundwater. But the water levels have been dropping for decades.

“Climatic changes and the non-climatic drivers such as rapid urbanization and high rate of population growth will further confound the scenario and make the lives of poor women harder,” the study found.

“It is extremely important to enhance the adaptive capacity of women to face climatic stresses and to invest in water- and sanitation-related infrastructure.”

Part of helping women be more prepared to face climatic stresses like access to water would be to include more women in decision-making processes. When women are part of local governments or in positions of leadership within their community, they are able to raise awareness and set up processes to support issues that directly affect them. And to encourage women to be in leadership, it also helps to study their needs.

Part of helping women be more prepared to face climatic stresses like access to water would be to include more women in decision-making processes.

- Latipha manages her home and water supply and works on the landfill. Photo by: Manon Verchot.

For example, knowing that fetching water takes up several hours of a woman’s day can help NGOs and government bodies direct their attention towards relieving women of that burden. When that burden is relieved, the women can turn to other activities that may help their family earn more money.

“When women are empowered with safe water and toilets at home they are empowered to change their world,” according to, a non-profit aid organisation.

“No longer burdened by the water crisis, they can care for their families. They can start small businesses, adding to their household income.”

For Kher and Aggarwal, there currently isn’t enough research that focuses on women’s needs and how issues like water and climate change affect them in particular. When studies and programs don’t look at gender impacts, it can mean women will be left behind.

“[Women’s] strategic gender needs of education, skill development and income will continue to be ignored leading to persistent gender gaps in attainments in different sectors,” they found.

“It is therefore very important to enhance the overall adaptive capacity of urban poor women to face the challenges of rapid urbanisation and climate change.”

Waste pickers work together for a better future

Many of the people in the community at the Bhalswa landfill moved to Delhi in search of a better livelihood. Some have been in Delhi for decades. Over time they’ve learned to come together and advocate for themselves.

By talking to the government with the help of an NGO, they have managed to add some infrastructure to their locality. The women have also created their own support group.

Two years ago, they got a toilet complex. It was built to serve 30 families, but a much larger number of people actually use it. It came at the request of Anil Chaurasia, from the Chath Puja Samiti NGO and head of the Residents Welfare Association near the landfill. He reached out to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-led Delhi government. AAP had promised in its 2015 manifesto to build 200, 000 toilets across Delhi, 150,000 of which would be in slums.

“Lots of people used to have to defecate on the road or landfill and we’d also have to face that smell and pollution,” he says. “And women would also have to. It didn’t seem right.”

Latipha feels the same way. “Since they’ve made the toilet, all women go there,” she says, “Earlier, women faced a lot of trouble having to sit in the open.” The women would climb up the landfill just behind their houses when they needed to relieve themselves. But they wouldn’t have any privacy.

The community has appealed to the government for more help. They spent months approaching the local minister to get a sewage line installed. After 8 months, the government put in the sewer.

Appealing to the government doesn’t always work, though, several community members said. They’d like to get a better water supply, drains and a proper road. When coming into power, AAP had promised 20,000 litres of free water per month per household in Delhi. The party claims to have laid water pipelines in 217 colonies (authorised and unauthorised).

The government also promised to set up a water supply plant near Bhalswa, according to Chaurasia. But he says they told him they will only do it after 2019 - an election year.

“There’s nothing we can do,” says Latipha. “We go to the government officials and they say they’ll do it, but no one does it. They promise, then leave.”

A support system for women

Around the world, women’s responsibility of providing water for the family can put them in difficult situations, a report from the Water Governance Facility found.

“Women may often be expected to engage in corrupt behaviour – such as paying a bribe to get a water supply connection for the home, or accepting that the water bill gets hiked by one’s landlord,” the report said.

In Bhalswa, though, the women are adamant about not paying any bribes for their water supply. Many of the women have built their own collective, and they say paying bribes would deplete the savings they’ve built together.

“A lot of the men do alcohol and other intoxicants,” says Saira Banu, one of the women living by the landfill, and one of the leaders of the collective. “I ask women not to increase the conflict by fighting with them. Let us unite as women. First, we’ll try to convince them to become better and improve the kids’ lives.”

Saira and some of the other women put aside what they can, whether it’s ₹10 or₹20 (0.12-0.25 euros). Every month, it adds up to ₹200-300 (2.48 to 3.71 Euros), which they keep in a bank account.

“Some men are into gambling and use force to take away the money, and don’t even help us out when in need,” says Saira. “As long as men keep getting the money at home, there will be no improvement, because they don’t think about its significance.”

- Saira Banu, one of the women living by the landfill, is a leader of the women’s collective. Photo by: Manon Verchot.

In Bhalswa, the women are adamant about not paying any bribes for their water supply.

The women now use the money when someone is in need, or when the whole community is facing problems. They’ve even used the money to buy debris to soak up the flooding during rains. Gradually, they’re bringing the men on board.

“After a while of collecting money, we noticed improvements,” adds Saira. “By saving up little by little, we have seen that our account has increased to ₹ 20,000 (247 euros). And no one is in need for it, so we thought let’s keep adding to it.”

The women are still waiting for a clean water supply from the government. It’s a slow and tedious process of returning to government offices. But now that they have a toilet and a sewer system, they are encouraged that their living conditions are slowly getting better. And with the help of NGOs, they continue to strive to solve the issues they face.



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