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February 10, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

In Phaltan, It Was The Pits

Children collecting water from a pit in Phaltan On a crisp but sunny morning two weeks ago, I watched a few hundred children commemorate Republic Day. Under the generous branches of an enormous tree outside their school building, they had lined up in rows in spotless uniforms. They sang the national anthem and saluted the flag smartly. Later, several put on a snappy show of marching, karate and exercises.

I couldn't help it. Despite myself, I was deeply moved. There was something else that was mixed in with the slight nip in the air I felt that morning. These bright kids brought to Republic Day a passion for their country, a passion that most of us have long become too cynical to feel. Speaking to me later that morning, their principal remarked on the same passion.

The sad thing, she said, is how fast they lose it. Those who lose it fastest of all are the kids from Mangalwar Peth.

I went looking in Mangalwar Peth for reasons for that comment. I think I found some. Several. They were in stone-lined pits, about two feet below ground level.

Mangalwar Peth is a largely Dalit slum in the town of Phaltan, in Maharashtra's Satara district. It is home to a few thousand Phaltan residents, including several students at the school I mentioned. The people who run the school also run a balwadi in Mangalwar Peth. Dozens of children attend the balwadi; many go on to attend the school.

Now you may remember my column here a few weeks ago, where I wrote about a tap I saw near a Baroda hutment colony. The sole source of water for the hundred-odd huts in that colony, it was no more than a pipe that projected from the ground. Because it offered the residents of the colony no way to turn the flow of water off, it was surrounded by a pool of slime. If they wanted water, the residents had no choice but to step through the slime.

I suppose there must be something about taps. That Republic Day, in Mangalwar Peth, I saw a few more of them. Unlike in Baroda, the Phaltan Municipality has been kind enough to provide the slum with several taps, dotted along the main road that winds through the slum. Each one thus serves the water needs of three or four dozen families. Also unlike in Baroda, these taps do not spout water continuously. But that is not because they come with a mechanism that shuts off the water. No, these are the same "taps" I found in Baroda, just pipes sticking out of the ground. Only, in Phaltan the Municipality supplies water to Mangalwar Peth for just two hours each day: between 8 and 10 in the morning. In those two hours, the families in the slum must scramble to collect all the water they need.

For this service, each hut in Mangalwar Peth is charged Rs 51a year. Far less than the Rs 252 a year the huts in Baroda pay for their water, certainly. Then again, these Phaltan families lack the considerable luxury of having water flowing around the clock, water forming a large slimy mess around their "tap." No wonder they pay less.

Still, they do have smaller wells of slime. You see, what's most interesting about these Mangalwar Peth taps is that the municipality is unable to supply water through them at a pressure enough to reach even road level. Thus the road is dotted with little stone-lined pits, each a few feet deep. Each pit is home to a tap.

And each pit, I don't need to tell you, is a little reservoir of slime.

A young girl demonstrates for me how she must collect water every morning. She steps gingerly down into the muck; her feet and ankles disappear into it. Nearly half her body is now in the pit, below the level of the road. She bends; she manoeuvres a large pot under the tap that's just visible above the slime, taking great care not to let any of it into it. Manoeuvring done, she turns and beams up at me. Meanwhile, her mother points to the stinking open drain that flows right past the pit her daughter stands in. Whatever is in there, she tells me blandly -- and whatever is in there does not look pretty -- often seeps or spills into the pit.

Every time I visit a place like Mangalwar Peth, or that hutment colony in Baroda, or any of Bombay's swarm of slums -- every time, I find more sights that astonish me, that dismay me. Like the way people must scrounge for something as ordinary as water. Call me naive if you like, but it's the truth: there is always something to jolt me. In Phaltan, it was the pits.

Of course, even if I don't visit dismal corners of our country, there are ways to get some idea, sitting at home, of how hard life is for hundreds of millions of Indians. For example, the UNDP's Human Development Report for 1996 tells me that 170 million Indians are without access to safe water, that 640 million are without sanitation. Depressing numbers, I think as I flip the pages of the report. But numbers. And how easy it is for them to remain just that: numbers. It is when I get a glimpse at the way so many Indians must live -- as in Phaltan and Baroda over the last couple of months -- that I realise what those numbers really translate into. It is then that they take on some meaning.

Now I do not know if the presence of those taps means Mangalwar Peth's residents are not counted among the UNDP's 170 million I mentioned above. That is, what I'm really saying is that even the miserable way they get water is a luxury for many million Indians. Perhaps that means that even with its sunken taps, but because of them, Mangalwar Peth qualifies as having access to safe water.

Still, I do know that the conditions in this slum, apart from being hard to cope with every day, are fertile grounds for dangerous diseases. It needs no expertise to understand that. Conditions like these make India a hospitable home to scourges like malaria and typhoid. In 1992, the Human Development Report also tells me, there were about 2 million cases of malaria in India. Given that level of incidence, it is safe to assume that close to a million Indians are now dying of malaria every year. Which is just about the rate at which the disease was killing Indians at mid-century, before the worldwide effort to eradicate malaria in the 1950s and 1960s.

Let me put it this way: today, malaria is back, and accounts for one of every 10 Indian deaths. It's not even as if we can assume that deaths from malaria are happening only in the slums, or off in some remote rural hellholes. Once the mosquitoes that bring us the disease breed, they know no boundaries. Malaria is just as likely to strike you who read this as it is to attack the woman who comes to clean your floors. Or the student from Mangalwar Peth on Republic Day who sings his national anthem with such husky-throated fervour.

And at least some of the blame for that lies with our municipalities, like in Baroda and Phaltan, which cannot be bothered to make water available in a clean, safe way. This, even though they regularly collect exorbitant fees for supplying water. Nor are these towns singular exceptions: conditions I found there are prevalent in slums all over our country.

Confronted with such conditions, even the most starry-eyed idealist might be forgiven for thinking poverty in India is a vast, seemingly intractable problem. I cannot pretend to have a grasp on it, any more than you can. Because it is so vast, we have turned our faces from it for years; in those years, it has only grown more intractable.

But perhaps it takes a few taps to remind us just what we are doing to ourselves by ignoring it. To remind us of passions so quickly lost. We have nuclear bombs and the world's second largest software industry. Yet, we cannot supply water above ground level, through real taps, to a few thousand Indians in Phaltan.

Tailpiece 1

I read with great interest Arvind Lavakare's examination of what he calls "The English media's hostility towards Hindus." He draws some comfort from what he calls "confessions" from the English media, confessions of having been unfair to the BJP and its Sangh Parivar. One such that Lavakare quotes is an article by Shekhar Gupta in the Indian Express ("No Printer's Devil Here", January 28).

But Lavakare also criticises Gupta:

'After admitting that the media has "something" as well as "much" to answer for, he quickly passes the blame on to the Sangh Parivar spokesmen's utterances for causing "self-inflicted wounds." He finds fault with (i) the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's charge of Christian conspiracy in the matter of the Nobel Prize awards to Amartya Sen and Mother Teresa, and with (ii) L K Advani for quickly giving a clean chit to Bajrang Dal for the Stains carnage. Now can any mature media man accept these two utterances as grave enough to warrant the kind of calumny that was repeatedly heaped on the Sangh Parivar by the media?'

Fair enough, so far. The thing is, Lavakare has carefully overlooked the first two of the "self-inflicted" wounds Gupta mentions, ones that Gupta examines at some length.

"At a time when nobody was charging the Sangh Parivar with the Jhabua rapes," writes Gupta, "a stunning self-goal was scored for the BJP and its allies by VHP leader and former BJP MP Baikunth Lal Sharma 'Prem', who said, somewhat grandly, that if the missionaries indulged in conversions they deserved to be raped. ... On the ground, there was nothing to link the BJP with the incident. But politically, a link had now been established."

In Gujarat, writes Gupta, "each one of Keshubhai's denials of excesses against the Christians was laced with unsolicited defence of the Hindu Jagran Manch. ... Not once did the state government say that what was going on was wrong and that they were going to put an end to it."

The point Shekhar Gupta is making is that the BJP brought any so-called calumny on its own head: by establishing connections to these disgraces where there had been none.

But quite apart from all this, it's time to call a very big bluff that men like Lavakare have been putting forward for years. "The English media's hostility towards Hindus," he calls his column, and then proceeds to examine the hostility he perceives towards the BJP. Hostility towards the BJP is one thing. How does that equate to hostility towards Hindus?

In much the same vein, he writes of the English media's "bellicose stance against Hindus and their BJP-led government." What does that word "their" mean? That this BJP-led government is only for Hindus?

Tailpiece 2

In his column, Lavakare also tells us: "... punishment alone will drum into all those errant ones that 'pelt' means 'attack', not 'throw', and that the correct thing is to say 'pelt the train with stones.'"

'Pelt' does indeed mean 'attack'. It also means 'throw'.

Here's a definition from a dictionary I chose at random, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language: pelt, v.t.: (2) to throw (missiles)."

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