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A prerogative?

While there are repeated appeals asking people to wash their hands frequently, many struggle to afford the 'privilege'

A prerogative?
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When the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit the world, one of the first measures put in place was frequent 'hand-washing'. World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted numerous times about the importance of washing hands to prevent oneself from being infected by SARS-CoV-2.

Hours before a country-wide lockdown commenced in India, grocery and medical shops ran out of soaps and sanitisers because people stocked up and wanted to wash their hands as often as possible.

Access to water and soaps may have not been a challenge for many of us and washing our hands may have been a privilege. Yet, to families and children like Himanshi, washing hands frequently (at least 10 times a day) was not easy and has never been a privilege, leave alone washing hands with soap.

In her Adivasi village in Baran, Rajasthan — one of the hottest and most dry districts of India — Himanshi was sensitised not to shake hands or play with her friends. She was also told to wash her hands as often as possible.

For that, this little 11-year-old had to hop across another village to reach a common well and fetch a bucket of water. What was worse was that the water was brown in colour, which indicated that it was not safe.

Himanshi and her siblings had often fallen sick with diarrhoea, fever and stomach aches over the past many years. The pandemic and lockdown became an additional threat to their vulnerability. Social distancing while lining up to fetch water was not an option. The carrying of pots and buckets of water for a distance of more than a kilometre was an even more difficult task.

In September 2020, giggles and cheer filled the roads in Himanshi's village. There was a sense of relief and comfort among the villagers. World Vision India, the non-profit I work for, installed a 'Hub and Spoke' solar water supply system to increase household access to safe water.

The Hub and Spoke model involves taking the best source of water available to distribute water to the last mile, covering households up to 300 metres. The water is stored in 5,000-litre overhead tanks, which then supply running water to community stand posts with four taps, each close to people's homes. The community was also trained on water management and conservation to bring about positive behavioural changes.

Eight-year-old Bhola, whose village also has the Hub and Spoke model installed, says, "Water collection is now very easy for us. We have access to fresh and clean water very close to our home."

We conducted a sample survey this March across 13 districts in Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh covering 123 households. We found that only 18 households had access to taps in their homes or near their homes. Besides taps, some villages had access to safe water through water tankers. Yet, including those households, only 37 of them had access to safe water.

Children were asked during the survey as to how frequently they washed their hands from March 2020 to February 2021. It was found that only 8.1 per cent of children, with no proper access to water, were able to wash their hands at least five times a day. Strikingly, that is lesser than 22.97 per cent of children with access to safe water.

The Government of India has been spearheading and actively working towards the goal to install a functional tap in every rural home under the 'Jal Jeevan Mission'. Some 36.83 per cent of households have been equipped with a functional tap since the commencement of the programme. Of these, 20 per cent received a functional tap over the past year, which shows that the need for easy access to safe water has increased multi-fold.

The data from Jal Jeevan Mission shows us that 63.17 per cent of households still don't have access to water within their homes. In states like Rajasthan and Jharkhand, only 0.93 per cent of villages have a tap within their home. It will take another three years or more for every rural home to have a tap.

This is why models like Hub and Spoke are extremely crucial for rural homes at this point, given the pandemic's impact on the country and the globe. The Hub and Spoke model is cost-effective and ensures last mile water connectivity.

Some 88.89 per cent of children in Rajasthan and 62.5 per cent of children in Jharkhand with access to safe water through the Hub and Spoke model, washed their hands at least five times a day. This was in contrast to the 24.5 per cent of children with no proper access to water, who washed their hands at least five times a day.

"Our village is very happy and enjoys water throughout the year now," says Surajmal Sahariya, the village leader and president of the Water Management Committee in Bhola's drought-prone village.

Himanshi continues to wash her hands frequently. "Now, water is so easily accessible to me that I don't have to go far with my mother to fetch it," she says. DTE

Views expressed are personal

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