Ok, so maybe its time I explain what I am doing here…. I came to SPARC expecting to be part of a slum upgrading project working with the community, but when I found out that most of my time was going to be spent conducting toilet studies, I was a little less enthused. Not only because it doesn’t relate to my chosen research subject but because of the dirty work that it entailed. My job is to accompany coworkers on a scavenger hunt for public toilets, deep into the slums to draw and evaluate them. Essentially tracking down the filthiest corners of the most inhabitable places of Mumbai in unbearably hot and humid weather just to hang out and talk to people about shit.
Streets in the slums
Part of this did draw my interest, wandering into the mazes of informal settlements to see how the majority of people are living first hand was something that I would never have gotten to do on my own. The exploration part of the project was intriguing; it was the toilet studying part that was the shocker. Although I must say that I think I handled it quite well, as I half expected to run away screaming. Even my coworkers covered their mouths while walking around and some turned around immediately after entering especially bad toilet buildings.
This toilet block isn’t the worst, at least it has light and no flooding!
Many times the worst of it wasn’t even the inside of the toilet blocks, but the surrounding areas would be used as dump yards and the state of the environment in general was unsanitary. Instead of being connected to any sewer or septic tank the toilets regularly drained into open water and have being doing so for the past ten years! This pretty much reduces the function of the buildings to a means of privacy for doing your business rather than proper sanitation and sewage systems. To assess the causes of these malfunctions, damages and lack of maintenance was the purpose of our surveys along with suggesting improvements; however I feel that I got much more out of these site visits.
When visiting informal settlements, I am always surprised with how normal the people are (I know this sounds rude but I have had very limited contact with urban poverty). You would never know that these people live in slums without seeing them there since they are well dressed, well-mannered and just trying to make the best of an unaccommodating city. Being able to talk to the community members and see people living their day to day routines revealed how similar their needs are to my own. I was usually inspecting the toilets first thing in the morning (busy time), and after seeing how valued they are I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for communities that still don’t even have these disgusting buildings to use and are left to find a bush somewhere – which can be pretty difficult in Mumbai.
In the end I am grateful for having been able to participate in a project that works so closely with the beneficiaries and gets personal with the important issues that they face in slums. It demonstrated what a difference proper sanitation and other basic services really make to these people, and what kind of extreme filth I can put up with. So hopefully next time I have get cozy with the armpits of the city I can start off smiling!