The Luxury of Washing Hands in a Pandemic

A Village in Himachal Pradesh State Whose Residents Can’t Afford this Luxury

A general view of the area

A general view of the area

One of the cheapest, easiest and most important ways to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus is to wash your hands frequently. But this is not a viable option for the people of this village in Himachal Pradesh state.

In the quaint hamlet of Chalog in Mandi district, washing hands is a luxury. They barely have water to drink, let alone for bathing and washing.

Santosh Kumar is part of a joint family of 15 members who live in a house with six rooms and one washroom. “We are three brothers and we have seven kids in our home,” he said.

Having just one washroom is not much of a problem since they hardly use it.

“All of us, men, women and children go outside to defecate,” Kumar added. “There is no point in sitting on the toilet when there is no water. I wake up early in the morning, get a jug of water and go to the bushes every day around 5 am. Sometimes even that is not available. Imagine what a luxury it is to take a bath.”

Himachal Pradesh was declared “Open Defecation Free” (ODF) in 2016 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission. One of its goals was to build a toilet in every house. But the ground reality in this village is very different. Kumar also said that often he and his family members don’t take a bath for a week for lack of water.

“Thank God, the schools are closed nowadays. Every morning is a struggle. If our kids got a handful of the jug to wash their hands and mouth, it’s a good day. Otherwise, they used to go to school without taking a bath, wearing dirty clothes and even without water to drink sometimes,” Kumar said.

According to the United Nations’ Children Education Fund (UNICEF), respiratory viruses, including COVID-19, spread when mucus or droplets containing the virus enter the body through the eyes, nose or throat. This often happens through the hands.

StoriesAsia asked many villagers in Chalog, which has a population of about 350 people, how often they were washing their hands. The answer was nowhere near what the World Health Organisation has declared mandatory.

“The supply of water here is very irregular,” said 17-year-old resident, Hemlata. “We are a family of seven but we get only two buckets of water once in two days. That is hardly enough to take a shower, wash hands or even cook.”

When asked if she fears she might contract the coronavirus due to the lack of basic hygiene, she said, “Of course it is scary. But what choice do we have?”

Chunni Lal, another resident, said, “We have to walk for about four kilometres to get some water from a natural stream. It is difficult to walk that far with buckets and tubs every day,” he said.

Every household in Chalog has large tin and plastic buckets to collect rainwater.

“Aasman ka pani hi hamari pyas bujhata hai (Only rainwater can quench our thirst). We collect the water falling from our roof, boil it and use it for drinking and washing. But even that works out only when it rains,” Lal said.

The irony is palpable with the river Sutlej flowing right next to the village.

“We do not have technical support or permission to draw water from the river. I can see the river Sutlej from my house but its water is inaccessible for us because of the difficult terrain,” Lal added.

StoriesAsia also met with an official that was locally known as a “water-guard,” Parshu Ram, who said he did not know much about the people’s problems. “I have just taken charge as the water guard. The villagers should not face such issues, especially in the rainy season.”

However, when villagers also came as I was speaking to him, he changed his stance and said that he would inform his seniors about the water shortage of the village.

Chalog is located near the border of the Shimla, the state’s capital. In the summer of 2018, the city got water only once every eight days, according to the Economic Times.

From climate change to reduced rainfall that year, there were many reasons. But man-made mismanagement of the resource was a crucial factor. The age-old piping laid down by the Shimla Municipal Corporation was responsible for major water losses. The people of Chalog are victims of similar piping system problems.

Kumar said that there was no proper water-distribution system in their village. The village got electricity only recently and it helped them pump water from the Sutlej river to their homes. But some technical faults in the pipeline led to the erratic water supply.

This is the only village with such a severe problem in the Hadaboi panchayat. And it could be because of systemic failures.

A senior engineer with the Mandi administration, Upendra Vaidya, admitted that pipelines in Chalog are old and rusty. “The pipeline to the part of the village where this complaint has been raised is indeed old. And the tenders for its replacement have already been given under the government’s Jal Jeevan mission.”

But the official dismissed the villagers’ claims, saying water supply to the village has been regular barring only occasional disruptions. “The supply is steady but they do face some disruptions during the summer due to lack of availability from the source and sometimes due to damage to the pipelines during heavy rains.”

Vaidya said that the pipes would be replaced within a month – perhaps an implicit admission that the shortage of water was possibly due to negligence.

As of Sept. 12, there were 8,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Himachal Pradesh state and 4.66 million across the country. 

As I left the village, I couldn’t help fear that villages like Chalog are highly unprepared to fight this pandemic without water.