Pune, India: Community leaders forming multiple partnerships to tackle the impacts of COVID-19

In Laxmi Nagar, a slum in Pune, India, local community leaders are joining forces with civil society organisations as well as local government to achieve resilience against the global pandemic. Isha Joshi reports

This is the thirty-first in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Sanitation services for the densely populated urban poor in India have always been scarce and have resulted in serious health and hygiene issues for the residents of the slum settlements. Shelter Associates (SA), a civil society organisation, established in 1993, have long been advocates for the rightful need of the urban poor. They strive to develop solutions towards achieving sanitation for all.

One such initiative is the One Home One Toilet (OHOT) which provides individual household toilets to families living in informal settlements on a cost sharing basis. Shelter Associates also take tremendous efforts in bringing about behavioral change through various mobilisation activities conducted to spread the importance of having a home toilet. OHOT is an ongoing process which has delivered over 20,200 toilets in the slums of selected urban cities of Maharashtra such as Pune, Sangli-Miraj, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Kolhapur, Navi Mumbai, Panvel & Thane.

Life in Laxmi Nagar during the pandemic

When the news of the disease that was crippling the world reached the slum, it came as a huge shock. Everyone was gripped with the fear of getting infected and found it difficult to even step out of the house safely. However many in Laxmi Nagar had no choice but to move out to visit the extreme high risk zones that are the community toilet blocks as they did not have individual household toilets.

“Lack of proper sanitation has always been a deep seated issue, but the risk from it was considerably less. But now, visiting the toilet means a drastic increase in the risk of infection, especially when almost 430 households are using the 9 community toilet blocks” says Balu Dandekar, a community leader of Laxmi Nagar.

Community leaders joining forces with Shelter Associates

Laxmi Nagar, inhabited by around 1000 families, was one such area in Pune where SA was in the process of providing individual household toilets when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and adversely impacted the lives in the slums. In a matter of a few days the patient count graph increased exponentially. The area was declared a containment zone and a strict lockdown forced people to stay indoors.

Despite the lockdown, SA kept in touch with their beneficiaries and found ways to provide assistance to the residents whenever possible. They undertook online training and made awareness calls to the residents with the help of community leaders like Balu Dandekar, Ganesh Zombawade, etc. All have taken great steps to understand problems related to sanitation, food, health and other medical facilities.

“After visiting the community toilets, most would fall sick in a few days. To counteract the problem, we took the decision of selecting a separate toilet block for COVID infected patients. We made people aware to avoid direct contact, use a piece of paper while opening the doors or water buckets and provided dustbins just outside the toilets where the used paper would be disposed of” says community leader Ganesh Zombawade.

Such small measures went a great way in ensuring safety of the people, but considering the population and the threat from the disease, it was not a viable solution for long.

That was when Balu Dandekar came forward to ensure the long term availability of healthy sanitation services. He helped SA continue their work under the “One Home One Toilet” initiative by ensuring the material provided by SA would reach the beneficiary’s doorsteps.

A team was formed that regulated the supply of materials. As it was a containment zone, SA would coordinate with the community leaders and deliver material at the slum entrance. The community team members would then distribute the material to individual houses and help them construct the toilets. They have managed a herculean task of constructing 110 toilets in the slum during the lockdown.

In September 2020, Shelter Associates in partnership with UNICEF installed pedal operated hand wash stations in the slums. They have also distributed soaps to every household in the slums to inculcate correct hand washing habits.

Community leaders assisting local government

During the pandemic, the leaders faced many challenges while working with the community. The residents were troubled and restless with the situation and any attempts to spread awareness were met with a lack of support. The rising cases resulted in shopkeepers closing their shops which meant a sharp shortage of supply for essential goods.

To reduce the burden, Pune Municipal Corporation had started providing food kits to the residents. Balu Dandekar with his fellow workers began coordinating with the officials and helped distribute them to every household. With the kit they would provide a mask, medicines if required and immunity boosters. During the visits they would spread awareness related to the pandemic and means to keep one safe.

Together with the municipal corporation, they installed speakers on the main roads and gave instructions at different times of the day. At the end of the road where the barricades were installed, a guard would ensure that people would not jump and leave the containment zone. They explained to the people the consequences of flouting regulations.

Ganesh and Balu Dandekar have also helped many people avail ambulance/rickshaw services when required and assisted the patients’ family during need.

In the early days, when the cases were rising 10-15 people per day, coordination with the PMC officials was difficult. But then Balu Dandekar got in touch with the Mayor of Pune city and explained the hurdles they were facing and coordinated with the concerned authorities. His communication efforts were met with a good response and soon availability of ambulances, testing facilitates, medical supplies streamlined.

The team helped the ward officers in tracking patients, isolation and carried rapid household tests to reduce the community spread. They also guided the ward officers in timely sanitising the roads and houses. When the residents protested against any entry into the house for sanitation, Balu Dandekar would personally look into the problem and help resolve the issues.

These measures brought down the staggering number of 180 patients to zero in the time of a month and half. Achieving this in the densely packed slum of Laxmi Nagar is an applaudable task. Within a few days after having a home toilet, the beneficiaries have a sense of relief that the risk from the virus has reduced.

“I am scared to go out to the community toilet again. Now after receiving a home toilet I can stay home and ensure the health safety of my family” says Sunita Salunke, a resident of Laxmi Nagar.

In the months during the work, Balu Dandekar himself got infected and he and his wife quarantined themselves in the local Covid-centre. His dedication to work is so strong that even in the centre he helped people resolve their issues. He was in touch with the local authorities and ensured that the delays in food distribution were resolved. He has fully recovered and is back carrying out commendable work in the slum.

Interviewer’s Perspective

Over the past few years a preconceived notion among urban local bodies was that small houses meant no space for home toilets. They had never understood the demand for having home toilets and community toilet blocks (CTB) were considered as the only solution. Also many slums lacked proper drainage systems and if available, the lack of awareness in understanding the existing drainage systems and poor financial conditions prevented them from even thinking of owning a home toilet.

The unprecedented times of the pandemic gave an impetus to home toilets. The community members realised the need for safe sanitation and  hygienic practices thus increasing the demand for home toilets. In addition the One Home One Toilet initiative was well aligned with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s mission. Now, under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan sanitation was taken up as a priority and the government encouraged CSR funding for sanitation. This has given an impetus to the mission for providing safe sanitation for all. It taught us that urban planning policies should take into consideration the various strata of the society and it is necessary to fulfil their basic services for a healthy lifestyle. Further awareness among community members is very important to inculcate sustainable practices for the urban poor. With the uncertainty around climate change and its effects that soon will be seen across urban populations, it is of utmost importance to provide resilience to the slum dwellers through access to basic services. It will make them better prepared to face the impacts of climate change.

About the Interviewer

Isha Joshi, aged 23, is currently an employee at Shelter Associates, working in the capacity of an Architect. She graduated from Dr. B.N.College of Architecture in 2020 and has started working in the field of sanitation and housing for the informal settlements in Maharashtra at Shelter Associates.

About the interviewees

Balu Dandekar, Ganesh Zombawade and Sunita Salunke are the residents and leaders of Laxmi Nagar slum who have been an integral part of Laxmi Nagar’s fight against the COVID-19.