Skip to main content

Life down under: Urban children perspective

Urban poor children living in slum and squatter settlements are deprived of urban basic services. Climate change further aggravates their vulnerabilities and increases health risks by affecting their living environment, nutrition and sanitation conditions.

Patna, like any other growing city with an ever increasing appetite for vehicles and people needs to be de-congested. Smoother movement, lesser traffic snarls and reduced travel time, are the lifelines of any urban space. Flyovers seem a practical choice, over which uninterrupted flow of cars, buses and people can occur more smoothly. Over, the transition is smooth, but what about the under.

Kunti, along with her five siblings lives under just such a flyover, the Chitkhora Flyover in Patna. They are not permanent residents under the concrete structure but moved here when evicted from another area in the city, as have most of their neighbours. Her home is cramped in that tight space, squeezing a toilet in the corner. Her friends are not so lucky. They live with a makeshift enclosure for bathing only, often without doors or even a tap connection. The community toilets nearby are worse off- filthy, smelly and with an erratic water supply.

For water, the ‘flyover- colony’ residents walk to a temple, a kilometre away.  Cooking is another elaborate, unhealthy ritual. Every day, this 15-year old along with her mother lights wood in a chulha (stove), and as the food cooks, a dark, black cloud of smoke rises and floats out of every single shanty. The black soot casts a long shadow on the lives and health of people living here; children suffer from respiratory diseases, lung infections. 

There is a municipality run middle school where the children study, but its crumbling infrastructure seems to be a stumbling block to their education. Kunti explains, “During summers, it is worse. The class furniture including the fans is in shambles. The younger children are drenched in sweat trying to study in the hot, airless classroom. And most of the times, there is no water or electricity at our school at Phulwari Sharif.”

For Kunti’s family, making ends meet is always wearisome. Her father works as a drummer at a Bhangra band, older brother sells honey making a meagre 200 rupees on a good day, while their family-run petty shop closed down because of lack of capital. “Most people view us as drunkards or lazy beggars. But, we have to work very hard to make a living, and yet live extremely precarious lives. The unorganized nature of our work and the perpetual fear of being evicted leaves us with no bargaining power,” says Kunti.

It is a brutal life, often riddled with terrifying incidences for the women and children who live here, exposed as they are to all kinds of dangers. “Molestation, foul language, eve teasing and physical violence, these happen too easily here. With no spaces in our homes, we are left with no option to bathe and defecate in the open, making us even more vulnerable. And the younger children instead of playing or going to school end up begging in the streets,” adds Kunti. Rana Ranjeet, from Koshish Charitable Trust, explains further “Many people here die from pneumonia and tuberculosis; some get crushed while defecating along the railway track particularly during the rainy season. Life expectancy is abysmally low and infant mortality rates are high.” He continues somberly “Such living conditions also mean that the slum dwellers are likely to die earlier than the rest of the population of the city, and have fewer opportunities to improve their human development parameters.”1

With poor living conditions, no backup savings, food stocks, or social support system, the people ‘under’ are vulnerable to illnesses and health issues. Despite the presence of government hospitals and other healthcare facilities in the urban areas, they prefer to use private health facilities, as in the free government facilities they end up paying more when components like medicines and diagnostic costs are added.

Understandably, the area has poor reproductive and child health services. Kunti  clarifies “Access to public medical care continues to be problematic due to locational reasons, bad roads, the unreliable functioning of health facilities, transport costs and indirect expenses due to wage loss etc., making it easier for us to run for treatment to local quacks.” 

Kunti is among the forty per cent of Patna’s residents living in makeshift dwellings near railway tracks, below bridges, in informal settlements, near the garbage dumpsite or any unoccupied landscape for that matter. However, just two years ago, Kunti was introduced to Koshish Charitable Trust, and began to participate as a volunteer. Since then, she has been an active member of the child resilience and protection committee or bal samuh. Comprising of few more children from this forty households ‘flyover-colony’, the committee has taskforces dealing with various sectors, and Kunti volunteers in the health taskforce.

She encourages people to use the public healthcare system and promotes basic hygiene and preventive healthcare in her neighbourhood. Along with her friends, she stared an anti-alcoholism campaign to try and curb addictive behaviours like alcoholism. This was followed by a written complaint to the area’s police station, and then to the local MLA who directed the police to carry out raids in the slum area.

And even though Kunti, a teenage girl living ‘under’ is working to make a difference, the onus of slum development is on the government, and it must strive to provide a cleaner environment with adequate basic facilities of like proper waste disposal, sanitation, potable water. Poor access to health facilities on one hand and the poor quality of primary health care on the other, render the urban slum dwellers like Kunti vulnerable to health shocks. Other steps include the provision of free/ affordable quality health services and ensuring the existing public healthcare system is made accountable, a better disease surveillance system to monitor and reduce incidences of water and vector-borne disease outbreaks in slum areas, regular fogging during monsoon season and cool roof technology for resilience against heat strokes. 

Only then can the ‘down under’ urban children move upwards towards an improved, healthier future.

Moreno, E.L. and Warah, R. (2006) Urban and Slum Trends in the 21st Century. UN Chronicle, 43, 24-29.  

This is the 2nd  field story captured by GEAG during the children-focused vulnerability assessment in Patna, Bihar. It is a part of the UNICEF India supported project titled ‘Building climate change and disaster resilience for urban children’.