Bad environment makes the poor more susceptible to diseases

Since 1997, V Ramaswamy has been working in Priya Manna Basti in Howrah -- a town inhabited by railway porters -- under the Howrah pilot project on behalf of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He spoke to Lian Chawii on the poor environmental conditions that these people live in

Published: Tuesday 15 February 2000

How are the poor more susceptible to diseases?
The poor are more susceptible to diseases because they live in poor environmental conditions. Due to poor sanitation, incidence of gastrointestinal diseases and diarrhoea are very high. The rate of infant mortality is also high because they consume dirty water and fall victim to water-borne diseases.

Around 40,000 to 50,000 people live in Priya Manna Basti ( pmb), the size of which is that of a football field. The average size of a family is more than 20, but environmental hygiene is virtually non-existent. Around 20 households share one to two broken toilets. Furthermore, since the water supply is erratic, very often they are forced to use dirty water.

Are women involved in any of the activities in the basti?
The entire programme involves only women volunteers. They run a school, a bank, literacy classes and are involved in education-related activities in the neighbouring slums.

How does poverty contribute to pollution?
People living in unhealthy environmental conditions are often exposed to various forms of pollution, including indoor air pollution. In these areas, defecation in the open is common due to the absence of sanitation facilities. This is also one of the primary reasons for the transmission of diseases.

Poverty can also be associated with pollution control. Besides civic institutions, waste management in our cities and in developing countries is done by the urban poor -- sorting garbage, removing litter and so on. They perform this vital activity for the society because it is a question of survival for them. In the process of sorting out medical waste, they are also exposed to hazardous materials such as contaminated syringes. But this is an issue which has not been adequately addressed.

What about poverty in the country as a whole?
The situation is slowly changing for the worse. The worsening environmental conditions are making a lot of people vulnerable. The poor are already vulnerable to diseases, but even those who are not necessarily poor are also posed with problems. It is time to change the definition of poverty. It should no longer be just a material and income-generated definition.

How can science alleviate poverty?
Science is essential... perhaps lack of serious scientific attempts to address social problems is also the reason for lack of failure in ameliorating poverty.

What role does religion play in upliftment of the poor?
Religion can help in a big way. It is time to rediscover the meaning of religious preachings and seek to empower people through religion. This may bring a positive change from what religions are doing now.

Religion, today, seems to be acting as a negative force supporting conservative things and rejecting progress and so on. Some of the worst and obnoxious elements in the community are associated with religion.

What should be the focus of research particularly in the developing countries in the future?
Research in the future should be focused on how the rich enjoy at the expense of the poor. All this problem of poverty is not because of the poor, but because of the rich. Poor people are deprived of civic amenities because rich people get the civic amenities free of cost. Public resources are disproportionately, illegally and wantonly appropriated by the rich and powerful.

How are the poor being exploited by the rich?
Most of the urban bodies are subsidised by the state government and ultimately by the Union government. That money is used to maintain their basic system. For example, the corporation cannot recover nor pay the cost of the amount it spends on its entire water supply operation. The water operation runs at such a minimal level that it reaches only the affluent parts of the city and not the jhuggis or slums. When there are complaints of scarce water supply in the slums, the corporation says there is acute shortage of water.

The main problem is that nobody is interested in taking action. People are building institutions, writing papers, giving seminars, but nobody directly interacts with the poor.

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