Incredible India

The local tourism slogan here is “Incredible India”. It would seem to do a fair job of helping to inspire travelers to explore the deep richness and variety of Indian history and culture. While it is not tourism per se that brings me to India, it is to sample in the incredibleness that is India.

Home to over a billion persons, India is one of the more densely populated countries in the world to still maintain a traditional rural and bustling urban life. I am here to learn about the water crisis. I suppose most westerners would be surprised by this, since many consider the water crisis only an African issue. It is profoundly not. In fact nearly two-thirds of those who lack access to safe water live in south Asia. And to my surprise, the number of Indians who lack access to improved sanitation is nearing double the number of people on the entire continent of Africa that lack these basic services.

But like anything, to really understand an issue, you have to peer behind the numbers and walk the streets to see it first hand.

Just yesterday, I visited four different urban slums here in Trichy, India. The conditions are visibly harsh, but the people I met didn’t seem troubled by their station in life. Here, many families will earn the equivalent of USD$2-3 per day, ususally for jobs such as loading trucks, working lower-end retail positions, selling small items, or providing other services or manual labor. This level of wealth will put these families in the “middle third” of the world’s poor and well ahead of the 10 percent of Trichy residents who live below these means. Many have bank deposits, and surprisingly, some own property – be that as it may. Most of the residences I visited were barely the size of a suburban American bedroom; five, seven or eight people, their belongings, and their entire livelihood fit inside this residence.

The water crisis here is unique. Over the past decade, municipalities have constructed massive water towers which are filled with river water and then redistributed to community water points throughout the slums. Usually 50-60 families will share a single water point – a single tap. We arrived early this morning to see water collection; as often is the case, water is only available from 6:30 a.m. to around 8 a.m. every morning. Women are only allowed to take three vessels for their family’s needs. If they don’t arrive early enough to take their place in line, they will go without for the day. Women here will spend two hours a day collecting water. These are actually comparably favorable conditions, considering what many others in India and other developing countries must endure.

Sanitation in the slums is what one might expect. There are community latrines which charge a one-rupee (about two-cent) use fee; however, every latrine I visited was without customers. I did see open defecation and other sewage flowing through the “gutters” of the slum into a nearby stream. So, I am unsure of the logic of charging people for latrine usage.

On the edge of town, water is provided via water tower or water lorry, the latter being a large tanker truck that delivers water on a set schedule to neighborhoods. We visited one such place today but discovered water is delivered only every other day, not this morning as expected.

Finally, I did see families enjoying the convenience of household water connections and latrines in the slums. These were provided through our WaterCredit initiative here in India. They still have schedule limitations but the convenience can save them hours a day compared to their fellow neighbors.

Given the nature of construction in these villages and the need for water pressure, the water connections are normally 1.5 to two meters below street level. As I visited these families, I was proudly ushered to a step-down cement area, normally just inside the front door, where women were happily filling water vessels. In groups of 12-15, these families (or, more accurately, these women) borrow money through microfinance institutions to finance a water connection. The terms are favorable and are often repaid prior to the loan term which is normally 12-18 months.

India is most certainly incredible.