The Rispana River
By Lalita Arya
The Rispana River borders Shiv Puri Colony where Lakshmi Devi Academy (LDA), KHEL’s school for under served children, is located. During the monsoon season the Rispana breaks her banks and floods the Colony causing loss of livelihood and homes, and flooding this beleaguered community with water borne illnesses. Despite having a secure boundary wall LDA has been flooded twice, filling the school’s ground floor with two feet of filthy water and mud which has to be cleaned out by hand – and quickly, or the mud dries and then is impossible to remove. Everything in the ground floor classrooms was badly damaged.
Local laws allow for some construction along the banks of ‘barsati’ rivers – rivers that only fill with water during monsoons – like the Rispana. Although this helps to limit illegal building, many are still built and occasionally the city demolishes these homes and businesses, which is, of course, met with protest; it’s distressing when you lose your home, even if you put it there illegally. For impoverished communities, building illegally isn’t a choice – it’s the only land available if you can’t afford to buy or rent a legally built home for your family, or if you’re a migrant worker, refugee or have been displaced for any number of reasons. Many years ago, Shiv Puri Colony was made up solely of people of this socio-economic class.
A river bank home ranges from a piece of tarpaulin held down with bricks and held up inside with a tall stick scavenged from the surrounding forests to a one room brick hut held together with mud from the river. More sophisticated construction would be a small shop front with an area in the back to sleep. The shops are usually the only buildings with any kind of security such as proper doors or locks; women and girls live in a state of constant vulnerability. There are no bathroom facilities and if there’s a city water source it will be a pump or a tap that serves many families. Utilities aren’t provided and it can take decades of lobbying from the residents to get basic services.
(Shiv Puri Colony children playing in a rubbish)
It can take decades but eventually, these areas can become recognised as legal settlements and will then have elected officials like Kamli, KHEL’s former Librarian. She’s done a great job advocating for the community to improve roads and other services. Luckily for Shiv Puri Colony the immigrants and refugees of 30 years ago now have legal rights. That’s not the case for the many squatters who built their homes more recently along the banks of the Rispana.
The Rispana River is used as a dumping ground for garbage because the municipality doesn’t have the infrastructure to provide trash removal facilities. It’s also used as a toilet. On any given day, you can see small children running barefoot through mountainous piles of garbage, squatting anywhere to go to the bathroom, playing cricket with scavenged bits of wood and balls made of dried mud. These children share space with pigs rooting through the garbage for food and the occasional cow who somehow managed to find her way down the riverbank.
At LDA, we teach our kids to clean up after themselves. We teach them about the environmental causes of illness and water borne diseases. We vaccinate them, provide a safe space for them to play and learn, and give them clean drinking water. We hope that, when they grow up, they’ll remember the lessons they learned and will help to make their community safer and cleaner.
Born and raised in Guyana, South America, Lalita Arya is a life-long community leader who has been involved with education and nonprofit work on four continents. After moving to India in 1981, she founded KHEL Charities, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to helping impoverished children and their families with basic needs, health concerns, education and housing. At age 80+, Lalita is enjoying her ‘retirement’ by editing numerous publications for other organisations, working on her second book of poetry, painting and traveling. She holds a BA (Honours) from the University of London.