…and we’re back!

31 Mar

Dear friends, family and other fans,

Lotsofshit is back! Time has passed since my last post. I’m older, greyer and I’ve seen even more shit pass by. Since my last update, I’ve left India, went back to the Netherlands, wrote a thesis, graduated, found a job at a NGO (maybe I’ll write about that someday) and after a year I’m back at the university. This time I’m going to do a PhD, so that’s at least four years (!) of lotsofshit updates.

The topic of my PhD research will revolve around the governance of a sanitation marketing project in a city in the Northwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Right now, I’m writing my research proposal, meaning that I’m unable to explain the exact meaning of the words ‘governance’ and ‘sanitation marketing’, as I’m trying to make sense of these concepts myself. As things proceed, I’ll make sure to keep you posted on how I try to unravel all the puzzles in mind that keep me awake at night.

So as this blog will move from the settlements of Mumbai to a sprawling city in the equatorial rainforest of the DRC, the images and stories will change too. The more I read and see on the DRC, the more I’m fascinated (and also slightly scared). I’ll try to share as much as possible and I promise to keep it short. As I’ll have to leave for the DRC in two months, I don’t have too much time to play around.

For sure, it’s going to be an interesting period of my life. I hope my stories during this journey will be able to interest you too. Best, G

Advertisements

Sexual violence and open defecation

25 Dec

I don’t particularly like to comment on recent public events in my blog of which I know little about. However, I would like to share my views on something that is related to the recent Delhi rape case, against which massive protests have arisen in the capital. In line with the topic of this blog my story is of course related to sanitation.

The debate that has set off after the recent rape case seems to be partly to be on this incident; but mainly it focuses the masculine, patronising mindset that dominates this country, which many believe that allowed for the incident to happen. Part of the outrage is therefore not only addressed at the perpetrators, but towards those that reacted on the incident saying that the girl should not have been out in the night in the first place. In the Indian society and unfortunately in many other places as well, rape victims are too often seen as instigators of the incident, if they are even believed to be a victim at all. Many victims do not report rape to the police or even to their own family out of fear. To make things worse, (Indian) rape victims, accused to bring shame to the family and in fear of not being able to find a husband, end up resorting to suicide.

In the world of sanitation, rape is said to be one of the risks that women face if they have to defecate in the open or walk to toilet blocks in the middle of the night. The infamous ‘flying toilets’; plastic bags filed with faeces flung out of windows, are supposedly a way of averting this risk for the women of Kibera, Nairobi’s massive slum conglomerate. Unfortunately, as a recent case came to my attention, I know that these stories of rape incidents during the act of open defecation are neither false nor exaggerated. I have heard of the destruction and distress that these events bring, also here in India.

Although I am an advocate for safe sanitation for all, preferably in the privacy of his/her own home and I believe that no one should have to resort to open defecation, my point of concern here is that the accusations are turned upside down. Open defecation is argued to be bad because it exposes women to sexual violence. But it is men that rape that expose women to sexual violence, not open defecation. If women that run the risk of being raped, did not have to leave the house for defecation, would the problem then be solved? Should we start locking up women inside houses just to be on the safe side? No, it is the other way around. The problem of sexual violence is caused by the perpetrators and the  patriarchal society which condones it. Safe spaces for women, such as their homes or the special women’s carriages in Mumbai’s suburban trains, should not be a reason for men to carry on their chauvinistic behaviour elsewhere.

Women should have every right to be able to go out at night with whoever they like without fearing for their safety. It is time that this should be acknowledged. Insulting comments putting the blame in the hands of the victim instead of the violator should end and stupid simplifications implying that the practice of open defecation is a cause of rape, instead of a result of society’s injustices, should be avoided.

Empty spaces and other myopic views

29 Nov

One of the sights that captures me each time I see it, is that of the tall flat buildings popping up all over Mumbai. In some areas they’re more present, in others like the suburb where I live, it’s a more isolated phenomenon. What fascinates me the most about these huge towers, is the stark contrast to what is around them. These flats are sometimes literally surrounded by chawls of 2-3 storeys or slum-type housing of 1-2 floors. Even regular flats of housing societies are nothing compared to these enormous skyscrapers. Perhaps these contrasts are similar to what New Yorkers were experiencing at the start of the last century.

Another aspect that triggers my interest, besides their mesmerizing height and brand new appearance, is the way the flats of these buildings are advertised. These ads are everywhere and each flat and apartment is advertised as a singular unit. There is nothing else on these images except the flat itself. It is as if the builder is not selling you a flat but space or emptiness. By itself, that seems like a plausible marketing strategy, especially in a country of 1.2 billion people. But it is exactly that what fascinates me, the fact that reality is quite opposed to that image of empty space.

I’m currently reading a book called “The Great Indian Middle Class” by Pavan K. Varma. It’s a critique of India’s middle class’ blind pursuit of self-interest and personal wealth, whilst being surrounded by poverty. The writer argues that the ability to ignore or to be blind about one’s surroundings lies at the basis of this. It is this myopia that leads to the bizarre situation of brand new flats with mega-malls filled the cars, jewellery and smartphones across the street from small shops, ‘informal settlements’ and raw sewage passing by for all to smell, both the rich and the poor.

How to deal with this? First one secludes him/herself in every way possible; by living high above the city or in ‘gated community’ you can avoid the ground reality and an obligatory AC installation in every space you inhabit not only keeps the city’s heat away, but also its smell. Second, you start making up stories that justify why you are so well off compared to them: I’ve literally heard someone say that “it’s their destiny” to be poor. Or you discredit the poor by stating “they are all illegal immigrants”; “they actually have a flat in the suburbs which they rent out, because they want to live in the slum”, “they are all uneducated, they just don’t know“. (These are actual quotes of what I’ve heard several middle class people say when I describe my thesis project or when I visit city officials with my colleagues.) Lastly, and this is also what Varma argues, is that you deny any responsibility as the cause or at least the solution of these stark differences. You do not wish to pay tax, you oppose raising the salary of your maid and you certainly don’t ask questions about what happened to those that were relocated to make way for your shiny new apartment. By the way, you also don’t vote because the poor are in the majority anyway (one person told me he shows up at the voting booth just to nullify his voting sheet).

Ever since I have been here I’m wondering how it is possible that these two cities co-exist in each other’s plain sight. After a while I started thinking that maybe people are just used to the situation. Now, I’m actually becoming convinced that people actually take effort not to notice.

Vote-bank politics and the pursuit of power

26 Nov

The last couple of weeks it has become painstakingly clear that the youth group we have engaged with in the community is not solely motivated by notions of improving the well-being of the area’s residents; some figures seem more concerned with becoming the new community leaders. At the same time there is a parliamentarian seeking re-election which can use the neighbourhood’s votes in exchange for some favours. Although she seems to be motivated for the right reasons, her close assistants appear to be very cunning and well trained in power plays. Below I’ll give a brief overview of the events of the last couple of days.

First the youth group. As our recent attempts to have the municipal corporation do its work and construct a toilet for the area have failed, the youth group seems to be a bit frustrated. They told us that they want money, they don’t want to go to government offices and waste their time, they just want somebody to give them the credit to construct a toilet building. To a certain extent they’re right, because the municipal corporation will never allow these ‘illegal encroachers’ (in their view) to construct a toilet just like that. It would take a demonstration every day in front their office, a considerable cash amount or the right political contact (or even a combination of the three) just to get the wheels of power moving. So logically the youth group wants us, the NGO, to bypass that and provide them with the cash. But even then, the corporation would not allow its power to be eroded just like that. Probably the toilet would be torn down after a short while. The NGO I work with does not even believe in handing out cash as the solution, but is interested in working to empower the community and to force the municipality in granting them their rights. Furthermore, some unspoken doubts have arisen if all the money given to the youth group would reach the desired destination, as they appear to be concerned with becoming the new leaders of the community in absence of the old ones.

These doubts are partially fuelled by the youth’s group close collaboration with a leading political party. In India, political parties need the votes of the poor, in exchange they promise to provide certain services to a community. Because the political parties cannot persuade to convince all the voters individually, they choose to work with some form of group from the community. This can be a religious group or other community-based-organisation (CBO), like the youth group in our case. The party workers are in close contact with all these CBOs and have the job of balancing the requests coming in from all the communities with promises and actually delivering a small something once in a while. A tool for this is the personal fund that each elected politician has to his/her disposal; a sort of institutionalised form of votes in exchange for services. The relationship between the CBO and the party worker is thus a very delicate and balanced one. On one side there must be co-operation and trust in each other, on the other side it is also a game that needs to be played with a certain level of astuteness. It is not uncommon that demands are granted only to a certain extent, just to keep the community ‘dependent’ on the party.

That is why, in an attempt to bypass the leading youth group, we (the NGO) have mobilised a group of women to form an women’s group to fight separately for their issues. Women in this community are those that suffer mostly from lack of toilets, as the public toilets are fewer for ladies and open defecation, unlike men, is not an option for them due to cultural/religious and safety issues. Of course, we told also the youth group that were going to do this, as rumours spread easily in a small community. The young men, even though they probably felt attacked in their power, could only agree as they cannot push to hard for demands due to their delicate relationship with the party. So we went with the women to meet the parliamentarian directly, during one of her ‘office hours’; a period of day when you can go directly to the elected representative and put your issue forward; often personal issues are discussed in a room with a bunch of people eager for their turn. This visit felt as a form of institutionalised patronage, but it does however function as a way of ‘reducing the distance to politicians’, something that is often argued for in the Netherlands. The member of parliament (MP) agreed to do something about the toilet and even to visit the area a couple of days later. The party workers however were less pleased to see us there. They argued that we should have come to them instead of bothering the MP; and we should have least mentioned his name and all his good work to her.

At the day of the visit all these actors came together. It was a fascinating spectacle of claims for space and power. On one side there were the party workers which had planned everything and formed a welcome committee with the youth group. On the other side there was the group of women and the NGO, cooperating in a struggle to get some of the MP’s time and attention. This was of course in the middle of a larger crowd of interested residents and bystanders, it’s not every day that a famous MP visits a slum.

The women didn’t hesitate to push and make way for themselves within the welcome committee and from the moment the MP arrived they managed to stick by her side even though the party workers were trying desperately hard to guide her through the area with their own programme. At the end, all sides managed to gain something but also concede. The women were able to speak with the MP; the NGO managed to show her the office and the work carried out in the community; the party workers managed to keep her away from the waterlogged alleys and the broken toilet building and rather steer her to the youth group’s meeting place where they gather for the obligatory photo moment.

I assume that each group will now try to take the credit for having organised the visit of the MP to the area. The party worker will use it to foster his relationship with the youth group; the youth group will in turn use her visit in their claim for local power and when they gather votes for the MP; the NGO will also claim to have facilitated the visit together with the women and claim for further mobilisation of the community. But will the MP actually keep her promise and build a toilet? The fact that she did not see the current condition first hand makes me a little pessimistic. There is always the risk of ‘forgetting’ promises after elections. So, probably it will take another couple of follow-up visits to the MP, some more dealing with her gatekeepers and some more power struggles in the community before a toilet is actually built.

The anti-politics machine

7 Nov

The slum where I’m carrying out my research was destroyed by a fire a year and a half ago. The communal toilet went up in flames together with all the houses of the area. Since then, the houses have returned, but not the toilet. Now the whole community of approximately 450 families is dependent on a pay-per-use toilet block of seven toilet seats for men and two for women. Most males now defecate in the open. The women and those that prefer the inside toilet, have to queue at least twenty minutes and are rushed to finish off their activities within a couple of minutes. The toilet is supposed to be open from 5am to 12pm, but as there is often a shortage of water it closes earlier, around 7pm. The cost is of usage is not high, but it can sum up to a high amount if one suffers from diarrhoea. Those that prefer shitting outside are in clear sight of people going to work as the area is located near one of the main train stations in Mumbai. Mosquitoes and others insects plague them during their act of relief and if they go at night they risk of being robbed or molested.

The project I work with is led by four local NGOs and and an international funding partner; they are cooperating to improve the lives of children in the slum mentioned above and two other areas. The intervention areas cover topics such as health, education and ensuring the rights of those that live in the community. However, until now, it seems that not much progress has been achieved on the theme of sanitation. One day the the local representative of the (giant) international funding NGO paid a visit to project’s field office. We were discussing my study regarding water and sanitation in slum X and he told me the following: “If they would have wanted a toilet, they would have built one by now.” He explained that if the inhabitants had the money to rebuild a house, then they would have also had the money to rebuild a toilet if they wanted one. At the time, I just thought of his statement as another example of the middle-class mentality that views the slum population as a bunch of illegal immigrants that live on public land without permit and are constantly demanding hand-outs from the state without paying any taxes. However, recently I’ve come to see this man’s statement in a different light, although I’m sure he meant it in the way I explained above.

A housing activist and professor at one of Mumbai’s colleges of social work told me that three factors are of importance regarding slum areas and their access to basic services; age, physical setting and political awareness. The older the slum, the more services it usually has; slums built on sloping or marsh land are difficult to reach for service providers; and if the community is not organised than it will be unlikely that their demand for services is a strong one. It is exactly this last point that seems to be a big problem in the area I work in.

A couple of days ago I decide together with my boss and my co-researcher that we were to map the water and drainage network of the slum. Water is not an issue for the people as they are connected, albeit informally. My boss and co-researcher, both being activists, know that unless the connections are legal, the community have no rights to fight evictions and that the inhabitants are probably paying the middlemen too much for their water connections. Unfortunately when my co-researcher and me explained this plan map the area to our other colleagues we encountered fierce opposition.

The area is politically divided amongst two powerhouses, the water lines are three and at least two of them are controlled by the local ‘bosses’. The fear of my colleagues is that if we start gathering data on monthly water bills and connection costs we risk of upsetting the fragile political equilibrium in the area and also jeopardising the work carried out by all the other people active in the project. My colleagues on the field think it’s better just to work with the local politicians and try to convince them to provide services to the area.

Before I came to Mumbai, I had read about this. Politicians make promises before elections in exchange for votes and come election time they forget everything they had promised. Now, I’m a part of this process. We’ve had so far a visit from the local councillor and an almost visit from a national parliamentarian. Promises are made and we can only hope that they will be kept. All the contacts with the politicians have been organised by my colleagues and I together with ‘youth organisation’,  composed of exclusively of young adult males. There is no overall community participation and no organised public outrage. In this process the community members become passive recipients of programs that may or may not materialise in the future.

This is nothing else than the ‘anti-politics machine’ (Ferguson, 1994) at work. The NGO refrains from touching upon politically sensitive issues, afraid that they might upset the status quo and thereby jeopardise their presence in the area. The inhabitants are afraid to publicly challenge their corrupt leaders for the sake of peace and at the same time they’re afraid of contesting the local politicians as they are probably their only defence against the ever present threat of eviction.

In the meanwhile people are still shitting outside due to a lack of toilets, their water taps are next to open drains and waterlogged areas, garbage is present everywhere and drainage water sometimes flows in people’s homes. Unfortunately this can only change if the people are willing to do something about it, not in the way that the man from the international NGO sees it, but by organising , mobilising and fighting for their basic human rights.

Reference:

Ferguson, J. (1994). The anti-politics machine: “Development,” depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Mumbai’s ‘modern’ women

26 Oct

If there is such a thing as ‘modernity’ it is probably best noticed when it is compared to or in conflict with the ‘traditional’. In Mumbai the classic example of this conflict would be the latest German car stuck in traffic because a cow is crossing the road (at its own pace of course). Various anecdotes like these can be told about India and the changes it is going through, however there are also less funny sides to the shift between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. It’s especially in the lives of Mumbai’s (young) women that it becomes painstakingly clear that this shift is not one without struggles.

Mumbai, as India’s financial capital, is an attractive place if you’re young, ambitious and eager to start working and earning. Young graduates move from all over India to this city. They can earn a substantial amount of money, especially if staying in house with a relative and live a rather care-free ‘modern’ life. For women however, I’ve noticed that this is something that is achieved through a continuous struggle with the family and the city.

Unfortunately, a large part of society does not judge the young professional women of Mumbai by the university degree they hold or the job that they do, but simply by the fact whether they’re married or not. For Indian parents, the single most important fact seems to whether their daughter is married or not (statistically this seems rather strange, given the fact that there are more men then women in India). For a 20-30 year old corporate employee in Mumbai, this must feel rather frustrating, knowing that no matter how good you did in school, how hard you’re working now and how much money you’re making, your parents are constantly asking you to get married. Of course, getting married for a woman would either mean quitting her job and becoming a housewife, or continuing working but getting up an hour earlier to prepare food in the morning and repeating the same task in the evening after coming home from the office.

This ‘traditional’ idea that women are not supposed to work outside the house is not just something in the heads and customs of people, it’s reflected in the city’s infrastructure as well. All over this city there are public pay-per-use bathrooms with free urinals for men. These can be found at all train stations and popular public places such as beaches, markets etc.. Women are not allowed to pee for free at these places, they are required to pay 2-3 Rs. per time. Especially for street vendors at the station this is a high amount of money for a tinkle. Other women prefer not using the public toilets, because they’re not clean or men are also frequenting them. This results in the fact that many of the women of Mumbai are chronically suffering from urinary tract infections caused by holding their urine too long or not drinking enough water (done on purpose to prevent the peeing urge).

When activists from the ‘Right to Pee’ campaign demanded free public urinals for women, they were simply brushed off by the city planners saying that if they would come up with space the city would build these urinals. Of course, these city officials knew that finding space in Mumbai was going to be a daunting task for the women. So, the Right to Pee campaign has decided that public urinals should be at least planned for in the future plans of Mumbai.

Mumbai has a rather archaic form of city planning; development plans are made every 20 years, the last plan was made in 1982. It was however only ratified in 1994, so the new one development plan should be ready by 2014. At this moment every NGO, action group and developer in town is of course trying to influence the planning process and so are my friends at the Right to Pee campaign. Yesterday the people behind this movement had a meeting with one of the city’s leading urban planner. She made it quite clear to all attendants that the scramble around the next development plan will not only be a fight to get the right to free public urinals for women, but it will also entail the right for separate dressing rooms in public offices, daycare centres and all the other facilities that can enable Mumbai’s women to equally take part in the professional working life.

Suddenly the Right to Pee campaign’s struggle appears to be about more than just the right to urinate for free like men, it’s about women having the choice and facilities to decide themselves whether they want to work or stay at home.

The (academic) problem of sanitation

9 Oct

From a theoretical point of view sanitation is a sticky business. I’m having quite some difficulties in defining it and resorting to any textbook definition doesn’t help. In this post I’ll try to explain how I see the matter, how that has changed over the couple of months and what the implications are of this change.

Starting on this thesis research I considered sanitation to revolve around shit; it’s production, disposal, conveyance, treatment (or not) and disposal or reuse. My view of sanitation used to revolve around the safe containment and disposal of shit as to prevent any spread of dangerous diseases. This is very much in line with the view adopted by the ‘Development World’, as I like to call it; the UN bodies, giant NGOs and national governments. These institutions have the natural ability of transforming a simple and natural activity such as shitting into parameters, proxy’s and key performance indicators, as to monitor progress (or not) and justify why billions are spent but nothing is changing. Of course I thought I was far more enlightened than this bureaucratic machine that keeps churning out report after report stating that we are in a crisis of global proportions and we need more commitment (i.e. money) to tackle this issue. Before embarking on this journey I was already aware that more money might not solve the problem, that technological fixes such as a ‘new 21st century toilet’ will also be a waste of money and time and that sanitation cannot be seen separately from water provision and garbage disposal. My big problem was however, that I saw all this in function of sanitation (that is of getting shit away from point A to point B where it cannot do any harm). I recognised the role of water in cleansing activities, which might seem logical, but is very much opposed to those that believe in Ecological Sanitation (i.e. the separation of faeces from urine as to render composting possible). I recognised the role of solid waste management, but just because I thought that drains would be blocked if filled with garbage, thereby rendering wastewater transportation impossible.

Two months of walking around in Mumbai and talking to slum inhabitants, various activists and concerned citizens has changed my mind. Sanitation does not revolve around shit, but around a safe and dignified environment that does not impose risk on human health. All this time I was confusing the objective with the availability of certain public services. In the slum I am working, sanitation means solid waste collection, drainage and access to a cheap clean toilet near their house. For activists struggling to have free public urinals for women, adequate sanitation would mean equal access to certain public services. Just because these services are administered by different departments and the engineers working there have been trained in different faculties does not mean that services are viewed in separate boxes of solid waste, toilets and drainage by citizens as well. People just want to live in an area that will not harm them or their children, it’s actually quite simple.

Of course this breakthrough is not all that spectacular, but I believe it’s implications could be. The problem of defining sanitation as a clean, safe and dignified environment is that this is 1) invisible, 2) unmeasurable and 3) a common responsibility. If you want to measure a safe environment you would probably have to look at under 5 mortality rates, disease incidence and various other epidemiological data. More clear and visible manifestations are the accessibility to water, sanitation, garbage disposal and functioning drainage. But these are all proxy’s, even if 80% of the people in an area have toilets and 20% practice open defecation, or if 80% of the trash would be collected, it would still be an unhealthy environment. Furthermore, access to basic services is not something that yields immediate health benefits. Benefits are seen years down the line and only if proper measures have been implemented for all. This makes it difficult stuff to ‘sell’. It’s not very logical to spend a lot of money on something that cannot be seen, must be done by all at the same time and of which the benefits may take years to manifest.

There are whole faculties filled with people trying to tackle these problems. In fact, sanitation, defined as a safe, clean and dignified environment, can be seen as a so-called ‘common good’. It is accessible for all, benefits are available for all and the actions of one individual influence everybody’s availability of the benefits. It takes only one person to clog a drain with his/her garbage; just one asshole that breaks a public toilet will make it inaccessible for all; and if you walk to a public bin every day, but your neighbour throws his trash out the window you still might get ill from the flies living off this garbage. The risk of the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ is also evident. Why should I pay to repair a toilet or drain if everybody is going to use it and break it again? Why should I walk 10 minutes just to throw my garbage in a bin if no one else does? If you look at the pictures on the facebook page you’ll see that this is exactly what happened in the area I work in (you don’t need to register, just click ‘close’ several times and the page appears to all).

If sanitation is conflated with its material manifestation (e.g. a toilet) than you can rely on state management (public toilets) and private management (pay-per-use toilets) to deal with this issue. Toilet construction then becomes the only important aspect, only tackling a part of the problem. This is what actually has been done by the ‘Development World’, where most attention and funds have been placed on building toilets and not on maintaining them. Use of emotions such as status, shame and disgust has been (in some cases successfully) deployed by ‘Development World’ to then get people to maintain their own toilets.

If however, sanitation is seen as a common good, then it becomes clear that it needs to be managed communally. The state or market would still be needed to provide certain services, but in the case of the slum I’m working in, the people also need to work together on this issue. For example, in making sure trash in not thrown on the streets or drains, people do not shit outside etc. This is however easier said than done. Poverty plays a major role in availability of funds, lack of education may result in people not seeing any problem, a migrant workforce may not feel any belonging to the community and lack of legal tenure will also deter people from investing in their immediate surroundings. How to go about it then? I’ll let you know soon, as I work together with social workers in these slum areas.