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Why hand-washing is a luxury for most Indians

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
October 15, 2020

Hand-washing is considered one of the best ways to protect oneself from coronavirus, but in India, water is scarce and people don't care much about regular hand-washing. Murali Krishnan reports from New Delhi.

The village borewell is the only source of drinking water, but pumping water up from 400 feet underground uses up all of the village's electricity
Image: Catherine Davison

Mangal Devi, a 35-year-old brick kiln worker in the northern state of Bihar, has been trying to teach her kids the importance of hygiene and cleanliness for months. She keeps telling them to wash their hands regularly with soap.

"I tell them to wash their hands especially before they take their meal. Some NGO workers told me that hand-washing is extremely important during the coronavirus pandemic," Devi told DW.

"But a single hand-wash with soap requires a lot of water. Where are we going to get so much water?" Devi added.

Read more: Coronavirus wipes the shine off India's diamond city

In India's rural areas, water is a rare commodity. People use it carefully, mostly for drinking and cooking. There is just not enough water in many areas for regular hand-washing and bathing.

Supported by Save the Children organization, Murshida Khatoon, a 15-year-old girl in Kolkata city, has been campaigning to educate people about the importance of hand-washing, especially during COVID-19.

"Young people understand the seriousness of the situation, but I can't say the same thing about adults. Children are now trying to make people understand the importance of maintaining hygiene," Khatoon told DW.

Water - a scarce resource

Water scarcity and a lack of hygiene practices

October 15 marks World Handwashing Day. This year, the occasion has become even more important due to the pandemic, which has wreaked havoc across the globe. The day is a stark reminder that hand-washing is extremely important for good health and is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of any disease.

Read more: Migrant workers in India struggle to shake off coronavirus disruption

But in most parts of India, hygiene practices are not a priority for many people. A National Sample Survey in 2018 found that 35.8% of Indians washed hands with soap before eating while 74.1% washed hands after defecation.

The situation is not very different in many other parts of the world. According to UNICEF, 40% of the world's population does not have access to basic hand-washing facilities at home.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has promised to provide running water to every rural household by 2024.

"Under the Clean India program, which was launched in 2014, the Indian government has built thousands of toilets, but many of them remain unused because there is no running water in them," Bhupesh Tiwari of the Saathi Samaj Sevi Sanstha organization in Chhattisgarh told DW.

A 2019 report by Niti Aayog, a governmental think tank, revealed that around 800 million people face high to extreme water stress in India, and around 70% of the surface water resources are contaminated.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine: Why does India's Serum Institute have a head start?

Rural areas more prone to COVID-19

In the past few years, several non-governmental organizations have launched programs to improve sanitation facilities across the country.

Hand washing competition in India
Several non-governmental organizations have launched programs to improve sanitation facilities across the countryImage: Save the Children India

WaterAid India, for instance, seeks to provide people with clean water and decent toilets in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Karnataka states. The organization has intensified its efforts since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

"People understand the concept of using soap, however, they are not clear about how diseases, including COVID-19, are spread, and how hand-washing with soap can protect them from viruses," Arundati Muralidharan, a WaterAid India official, told DW.

"Many people don't realize how important it is to wash hands after sneezing, after touching commonly used surfaces and objects, or coming in contact with a sick person," Muralidharan added.

Read more: Coronavirus hits endangered Andaman and Nicobar tribes

The scarcity of water and a lack of hygiene practices make India's rural communities extremely vulnerable to a number of chronic diseases, including cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis A and typhoid. Health experts say that many of these diseases can be prevented if people wash their hands regularly.

According to Oxfam, a non-governmental organization that has reached out to impoverished communities in several states, efforts to raise awareness about hygiene practices must be specific to a particular area.

"We used multiple approaches and strategies to reach out to various groups, focusing on their context and specific requirements," Oxfam's Moitrayee Mondal told DW.

Coronavirus has killed over 111,000 people in India and infected more than 7 million. The number of cases continues to rise.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11