Pratiba Bala Das, 34, stays with her husband and two daughters at a small rented room at Kalibarichar in Assam’s Cachar district. She is a housewife, while her husband works as a daily wage labourer. Every dawn starts with the same battle for her. As she shares an open makeshift latrine with many other families residing there, she has to wake up much before the sunrise to answer nature’s call.

“It’s really distressing to share an open kutcha latrine with around hundred people of the locality. It is taking a toll on my dignity. But, I have no other options,” she says.

Hers is not an isolated case. Every woman in the area has a similar story to tell.

An open makeshift latrine which women hesitate to use in the slums of Assam. Pic: Nilotpal Bhattacharjee

Pratibha doesn’t live in poverty-stricken rural India, but right in the heart of Silchar town, the second largest urban centre in Assam with its 15 square km area and a population of nearly 2 lakh.

Kalibarichar, a slum area on the bank of river Barak, falls under ward number 7 of Silchar Municipal Board in Cachar district of the Northeastern state Assam. The area is inhabited by around 1000 families, mostly belonging to Scheduled Castes.

Monsoon woes for women

The advent of the rainy season makes the situation worse every year as it brings a plethora of problems, mainly for the women.

During the monsoon, it is difficult to find dry areas for defecation. As the water level in Barak rises above the threshold limit, many families leave their houses and take shelter in the various schools and colleges of Silchar town. But there are also families who do not leave for relief camps even after the water enters their houses.

“We don’t go anywhere unless our houses are completely submerged. But, life becomes very miserable during floods. As we don’t get any dry places around, we need to defecate in the river water.”

“The menstrual cycle becomes a nightmare for every woman here during the floods. We can’t put the used sanitary clothes out to dry as it's embarrassing. So it becomes really difficult to get the sanitary clothes to dry which forces many to use the wet clothes itself, and this leads to various vaginal infections,” says Uma Das, 31, who works as a domestic maid in various houses.

Environmental damage

Open defecation in the area is leading to severe pollution in the river. Moreover, the absence of underground or covered drainage and sewer system in Silchar town is also taking a toll on the Barak, which is the second largest river in Assam, springing from the Saramati Hills at a point south of Mao on Kohima-Imphal highway and winding its way through a 902 km-course till it merges with the Meghna in Bangladesh. The refuse from open toilets is directly disposed of in the river.

Refuse from open toilets goes directly into the river. Pic: Nilotpal Bhattacharjee

In 2005, Barak was found to be one of the 37 most highly polluted rivers of the country by the Central Pollution Control Board during a survey done on behalf of the Ganga Project Directorate. A study titled ‘Water quality and pollution status of Barak river, Southern Assam, India - A case study’, published in the International Journal of Environment and Natural Sciences in 2014, says that around 50 tons of waste and pollutant get discharged into Barak every day.

The sorry plight in slums

Just a few metres downstream from Kalibarichar area is the intake point where the department of Public Health Engineering (PHE) pumps water for its reservoir and treatment plant, from which water is supplied to the people of Silchar town. Not surprising therefore that the people of Kalibarichar area suffer from various ailments due to the use of this polluted river water.

“In slums, where there are hardly any toilets the potential health risks are far too many for the residents. The women and children look sick and anaemic. They suffer from different ailments,” says Byas Moni Das, a primary school teacher, who hails from the locality.

“The risk of infection is high in children. Waterborne diseases like diarrhoea is common in every household here. Many children die every year due to various diseases,” Byas Moni says. He adds that most of the people including children do not wash hands properly after defecation and before having food.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the situation, a group of people are making money by deceiving the residents.

“We buy electricity and water at exorbitant rates. We pay Rs 200 per electricity point. I have a fan, a bulb and a TV set in my rented room, for which I have to pay Rs 600 per month,” says Pratibha. She adds, “We also buy water from the people who own a PHE water supply connection. We buy one bucket of water every day by paying an amount of Rs 10 every month.”

Kalibarichar, however, is not an isolated case; sanitary conditions in most of the slum areas in Assam are abysmal. The number of slum dwellers in Assam is the highest in all of the North-eastern states. As per the Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, the total slum population of Assam is 1,97,266 and 31 towns have slums.

Sumir Karmakar, a journalist with a national English daily, based in Guwahati, says that the situation in most of these is appalling. “There is a complete lack of hygiene and sanitation in all the slums of Assam. As the literacy rate is very low, the people are ignorant about the importance of cleanliness. The government is also not taking steps to address the issue.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has failed to take off in Assam as is evident from the status report card: the Anchalik Panchayat (Block) Water and Sanitation Committee, which should be ideally entrusted with the responsibility to look after the work and progress of sanitation at the block level, has not been formed in any of the districts of Assam.

In 2001, 64.6 per cent households in Assam had proper sanitation facilities within their premises. In 2011 the percentage stood at 64.9 -- hardly any improvement.

Hillol Bhattacharjee, vice-president of People Science Society, an NGO, says that the problems in slum areas are compounding the problem of environmental pollution as well. “We must understand that open defecation leads to both air and water pollution. The human excreta get washed away and get mixed in the land or water bodies which pollute the environment. The Assam government should take immediate steps to address the poor conditions of sanitation in Assam.”

Until then proper sanitation will remain a distant dream for slum dwellers in Assam.