4.30 am. The 28-year-old and her husband, slow-moving silhouettes in the dark, a water bottle dangling from her hand, walk up from their house, jump across a two-foot-wide drain and cross the railway tracks. They stop at a distance of over 100 metres from their house — he keeps guard while she relieves herself in a corner. Soon, others, in small groups of twos and threes, head for the tracks.
In the absence of toilets, for the 2,000-odd people who live in slums built along a three-kilometre-long stretch of the tracks in Faridabad, going to the toilet is a daily ritual that’s fraught with risks. On August 12, their worst fears came true — a 12-year-old girl from the slum was found raped and murdered in the bushes along the tracks. Her family said that around 8 pm that day, she had gone across the tracks to relieve herself, before she went missing. Her body was found an hour later.
“Har samay darr lagta hai…sharm aati hai…par majboori mein lino par jana padta hai (I feel scared and ashamed every time I go out… but I have no choice except to go to the railway lines),” says the 28-year-old, adding, “We do not have money to build a toilet.”
The couple has been living in the slum colony for eight years, paying Rs 1,300 a month for their one-room house. After her husband, who worked at a ceiling-fan factory, fell ill, the family barely earned enough.
The colonies along the tracks are home to migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, many of whom work in the nearby steel and auto-spares factories. Most of the homes here do not have a toilet and many others have no access to regular water supply. The situation turned worse two months ago, when a community toilet run by an NGO — the only one in the vicinity — shut down, allegedly due to non-payment of electricity bills.
“The women and children usually go out to the tracks either early in the morning or after sunset, when it’s safe and no one is lurking. The men go after the sun comes out. We women usually go in a group or are accompanied by a family member.
During the day, people are mostly at work, so they use the toilet at their workplace, unless it is an emergency… phir toh track pe hi jana padta hai, chahe jaan jokham mein ho (then one has to go to the tracks, even if it is at the cost of our lives),” says a homemaker.
Even in the few homes with toilets, the landlords often keep them under lock and key due to the lack of sewer connections, say residents. “Those who do not have toilets at home have no option but to go to the bushes near the tracks. But even in homes that have toilets, regular water supply is an issue. We get water twice a week,” says a resident, who works as a cab driver.
He says some of them had dug 20-foot-deep toilet pits, but they soon filled up. Besides, there was no way the machines needed to clear the pits could have entered the cramped lanes.
Yashpal Yadav, who was transferred from the charge of Commissioner, Faridabad Municipal Corporation, in a state-wide administrative shuffle on Friday evening, told The Indian Express, “We have built toilets and individual latrines after conducting a survey… For this particular area, work was allotted to a contractor to build toilets but the contractor backed out and was blacklisted. A fresh tender has been floated and toilets will be built to address the shortage. Meanwhile, mobile and portable washrooms are being arranged.”
“But these portable toilets have no water. During election time, politicians promise they will construct latrines for all, but those are empty promises,” says the cab driver.
It has only been two weeks since the rape and murder of the 12-year-old. Police have put up posters on the walls of houses, announcing a reward of Rs 2 lakh for information on the accused.
Women in the colonies narrate stories — of being approached by strangers and of narrowly escaping fast-approaching trains.
“Around 11 one night, I went to the tracks to relieve myself. My husband was standing a short distance away. Suddenly, five-six men approached me. I got scared and ran away. The same week, I decided to build a toilet in the house, borrowing Rs 12,000 from a relative. I have a 14-year-old daughter and a teenage son. I fear for their safety,” says a 42-year-old woman, who works at a steel factory.
Over 300 metres away, pointing to the tracks, a 36-year-old woman says that many years ago, while she was defecating in the bushes, a part of a passing train hit her on the arm, leaving her bedridden for months.
“Every year, several people squatting near the tracks die or get injured when they are swept away. A train passes this way every 3-4 minutes. Sometimes, goods trains stop for long stretches, and people who are stuck on the other side have to wait till the train moves, or go around the train which is risky, especially if another train is approaching from the opposite track,” she says.
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At their small one-room house, the family of the 12-year-old victim says they would never let her or her siblings go alone to the tracks. The girl lived in the slum with her mother, who works as a helper at a steel company for Rs 7,000 a month, and two siblings. Her father died of hepatitis in February.
“My daughter always went to the tracks as part of a group. I don’t know why she went alone that day. If only we had a toilet, this would not have happened,” says the mother.
Outside the room, a three-foot-high brick wall, covered by tarpaulin, works as a makeshift bathroom. “I had told the landlord to build a toilet. He had agreed but asked for more rent,” says the girl’s mother.
Says the girl’s sister, “We will now leave this place… move to some place far from the railway tracks.”