Sustain India’s hard-earned hygiene gains with the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund

Many of slum dwellers in India say their lives are upended due to the coronavirus pandemic and can’t afford to practice good handwashing. In the series to mark this year’s Global Handwashing Day on 15 October, an article reveals how the COVID-19 crisis has affected the vulnerable population the most, leaving them out of “hand hygiene for all.”
Raza Naqvi
Women in India washing hands

The historic clean movement led by the Government of India has benefitted more than 45 lakh households across the country with a tap water connection this year alone. And the Clean India campaign, locally known as Swachh Bharat, continues to provide 100,000 additional families with tap water connections every day.

As more communities are climbing up their sanitation and hygiene ladder to become cleaner and healthier, the focus of hygiene partners has turned toward those who are left behind, in particular slum dwellers and those living in informal settlements.

Nasreen Bano, 50, runs a small shop in a slum at Sanjay Nagar in Kanpur, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. “People say to wash our hands frequently but what to do when there are not enough resources?” she asks.

“We lost all our savings during the lockdown. We are now rebuilding our lives and don’t have enough money to buy sanitizers and soaps. People in my community are using ash to wash their hands to save money.”

Bano, like so many others, is concerned about COVID-19 but feels that she lacks the means to protect herself and her family. Although she does have a tap water connection, the service is often patchy and sometimes stops altogether.

Woman in her shop in India

According to a report released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, it is the poorest and most vulnerable – including children, older persons, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees – who are being hit the hardest by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women and girls are also bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects.

19-year-old Sonam Valmiki also fears the pandemic. A resident of Kachhi Basti slum, she says that handwashing with soap was never important in their family until COVID-19.

“We wash our hands after defecation and eating our meals, but frequent handwashing is not an option for us as not a single day passes without scarcity of water and we don’t have the money to buy sanitizers,” she said.

Valmiki is not alone. Many more people in his community have no access to safe hand hygiene at all. Nine-year-old Chotu walks two kilometres each way to collect water. He only washes his hands if the water is left after the household chores are done.

“We don’t wash our hands. My mother tells me to go to the taps installed by the government to wash my hands, but I don’t want to walk so much for just washing my hands,” said the boy.

Ram Avtar, 55, a resident of Rakhi Mandi slum, has to pull a cart twice a day to fetch water from a government-installed tap located far away from his home because all the taps and handpumps near his home are non-functional.

Most of the people living in the slum face a similar situation. “Our problems are often overlooked. I have to pull a cart to fetch water, and there is never enough water to wash our hands frequently. Even if we wash our hands, we use only water or sand, as buying soaps becomes an unnecessary burden for us,” said Avtar, who is a daily wage labourer.

A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington suggests that more than 50 million people in India do not have access to effective handwashing.

“In a short period of time, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives, especially the lives of the poorest and the most vulnerable. Making matters worse, this crisis could reverse years of progress we made on sanitation and hygiene through the Swachh Bharat Mission,” said Vinod Mishra, WSSCC National Coordinator for India.

“Now more than ever, we need a financing mechanism to fill the sanitation and hygiene gaps exacerbated by COVID-19 at a larger scale and sustain our hard-earned gains. That’s why it is really timely for WSSCC to transform into the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund to raise a large sum of funding and spend it on the sanitation and hygiene crisis efficiently,” he said.

Mishra emphasized that long-term investments and solutions are needed to avoid deaths and the spread of infections and diseases each year due to poor handwashing access.