Sanitation precarity and subsistence; Women of Peeli Kothi

Poonam (in green) picking red chillies to sell-off at the weekend

“We live near a dump yard, no amount of waste produced by us equals the garbage that is dumped here from the city,” says 36-year-old Savitri Devi.

About 3 km away from the Chandni Chowk Metro Station, New Delhi, there is a market for spices and dry fruits, known as Pul Mithai. A mini stairway behind the sellers leads down to a local settlement of daily wage labourers, known as Peeli Kothi Slums. Savitri lives in jhuggi number 46 of Peeli Kothi slums, among a cluster of around 50 jhuggis which is also a dumping ground of the area. 

Peeli Kothi residents live in constant fear of eviction as they have been evicted from multiple places in the city. The residents say they have not been rehabilitated even once. About 50 years ago, Savitri’s parents migrated to Delhi in search of work. Savitri says she and her parents have spent their entire life searching for home and work. Residents here have been fighting a battle to either be rehabilitated or not to be evicted for many years.

The jhuggis lack proper sanitation facilities. The women use the open area, while the men use adjacent railway tracks for defecation. Most of the families here migrated from parts of Bihar decades ago in search of work as labourers, many of whom were second-generation Sirpur residents like Savitri.

The residents have to fetch water from the Railway’s supplier pipeline. Women have to walk down a stack of rocks that leads down to the railway tracks, across which lies the borewell from where they fill water. The same water is used for all household purposes including drinking, bathing etc.

Men collect water from a borewell.

The settlement is deemed unsafe by the locals as some children were kidnapped around Two-years-ago. Each jhuggi is a makeshift hut with no doors that accommodate 6-8 people. Savitri recalls the time when she had to leave her work because someone had to stay home to take care of the children. She adds,“we don’t get to keep a check on who visits this locality so we avoid using public toilets.”

Maintaining menstrual hygiene, a luxury

The women of Peeli Kothi slums say they somehow manage to cut other expenses to buy sanitary pads, but the pandemic resulted in the loss of livelihoods and income. Many women and girls feel that while they manage to get pads, the deplorable condition of toilets poses a challenge to their menstrual health. 

Savitri was recently diagnosed with a swelling in the gallbladder after her last period, the treatment for which is unaffordable. “We don’t have a regular source of income, the medicines for a week cost more than 1000 rupees and we barely manage to make ends meet,” she says. Her husband sells spices for a profit margin of  Rs. 5 per kilo.

The residents here rely on private clinics as they have to spend their entire day’s earnings of Rs.100-200  to reach the nearest government hospital. 

The women have built a bathing area in a corner of their houses. They are tiny cubicles surrounded by the walls of three huts. Inside lies a ceramic squatting bowl built on a slightly raised platform, many of which are broken, chipped or stained. These cubicles do not have doors and someone’s arrival is heralded by the sound of their footsteps. 

“We have spent our childhood living near garbage as we have nowhere else to go”, says 16-year-old Anjali. She either goes to her aunt Savitri’s house to change pads or they wait for sunset to change pads in the privacy of darkness. Anjali maintains silence when asked about whether she feels afraid while using the toilet at night, later admitting that there are no alternatives.

“It is difficult to use the bathroom in the daytime, as people from the main road can peek easily”, says Poonam Devi, a 35-year-old woman who lives with her son and daughter-in-law. Her husband left her 20 years ago. Before the pandemic, her monthly income was around Rs. 7000 which has been cut by half now.

Poonam earns her living by selling spices on the railway platform with other women of the settlement. “Once an NGO worker told us about sustainable options to use during the menstruation cycle. How are we supposed to do that when the larger part of our income goes towards making both ends meet?” asks Poonam.

Sanitary napkins are a norm, very few older women use homemade cloth during their cycle. During the lockdown, some NGOs distributed sanitary napkins. “If sanitary napkins are not sustainable, why doesn’t the government ban them?” Anjali giggled. She believes that the government will ban them only to sell them at higher prices to us.

Poonam and Savitri want their son to complete their education and become a doctor so that they don’t have to struggle for their source of earning: “We can at least dream, if not achieve it”

As per the ‘World Inequality Report 2022’, India is among the most unequal countries in the world, with rising poverty and an ‘affluent elite.’ Many women like Savitri and Poonam continue to bear the brunt of inequality prevailing in the very system.

Sejal is pursuing her Masters from Jamia in Convergent Journalism, hailing from Harda District in Madhya Pradesh. She seeks to bring rural issues to mainstream media.