The heat in Chennai has been merciless. With the tank and lake beds in and around the city parching and cracking, the city is reeling under a severe water shortage. And the situation, the reflection of this manmade catastrophe, has put in jeopardy hundreds of women and children undergoing treatment at the Institute of Child Health and Hospital for Children at Halls Road in Chennai’s Egmore.
The strong smell of urine as you near the public toilets next to the entrance, in this facility locally known as the Egmore Children’s Hospital, is unmissable. This toilet for public use has not a drop of water, with feces on the toilets and a mini sump that is empty and dry.
When we ask the guard outside if there’s a water problem he asks us to try to use toilets on the other end of the hospital.
Down that path there’s a water point, again empty. If the lack of water in the hospital isn't already evident, one has to look no further than at the people who walk in and out every minute. Without any different almost everybody at the hospital are carrying at least one water bottle/can in hand. Days are a constant back and forth between stalls that sell water for a price and their wards. The toilets are a nightmare.
52-year-old Amudha is seated on the pavement with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson a few feet away from the cancer patients ward, under the shade of a tree. Amudha tells us that she has been in the hospital for over a month and today, being her chemo day, her family decided to visit her. But in a minute she stands up with an empty water can in her hand, the one that has the green IV cannula, and smiles to be excused since she needs to fill some water before she runs out.
Refilling the 5 litre can cost about Rs 10 and for this she’ll have to walk quite a distance within the hospital campus. There are also tea stalls just outside its gates that sell water bottles. “In the mornings from 7.00 am they provide water inside wards for about two hours. During this time patients clean themselves and also store sufficient water to get by for the rest of the day.”
And if they had to use the toilets? “We’ll have to carry water in buckets,” she says pointing to a smaller, deep blue plastic bucket on the platform.
Jaya who is taking care of her daughter and her one week old grandson is unbundling freshly laundered, semi-dry baby clothes and towels and lining them up on a bright red tube that runs around the platform. “I had to go to my samandhi’s house (daughter’s in-laws) to wash the baby’s clothes. My house in Chrompet also has water problem,” she tells us as she places a flat stone to keep the clothes from flying.
Is there no water at all? “They provide water inside the wards if you ask for it but sometimes you don’t get. Can’t keep bundling baby’s clothes right? We’ll be needing more and you cannot use soiled ones,” she adds.
Murugan* who runs a tea and snack stall inside the hospital campus is careful to not let his supply of water run dry. “I got a load of 50 water cans this morning. It's only afternoon and I have only 7 cans left. If I don’t stay careful I will have to tell no to the others who come asking for water. I have kept aside a small portion for my tea.”
He throws a look around and lowers his voice, “We are not supposed to talk about all this. But the situation was not as bad just two months ago. Now the water tankers have also reduced.”
This hospital that has been around for 175 years, having been started in the summer of 1844, has probably heard the first cries of millions of babies to this date. One cannot stress enough upon how important cleanliness is to a hospital that welcomes a child into this world.
Yet, this government establishment’s environs seems be the last place one would want to expose a child to. The clogged toilets and taps with no water make cleanliness seem like the last basic requirement.
As per official records, this hospital has over 837 beds with 200% admission rates and that would mean that the hospital requires enough water in its wards for at least 3348 people (mother and child) every day. The hospital consumes 1.6 lakh litres of water daily, all of it sourced from tankers. When it rains the supply from outside might reduce marginally.
Are we not prioritising over children?
Just a few kilometres away, the Government Rajiv Gandhi Hospital on Periyar EVR Salai fares much better when compared to the Children’s and Women Hospital. When we visited the toilets and water points in this hospital we found that enough and sufficient water was available within its premises. In fact, inside one patient waiting room, a water fountain was still functional.
Dr R Jayanthi, its Dean, offers that fortunately, they still have adequate ground water supply. “We still draw water from our bore wells. We source water from tankers through the year but this summer the need has spiked a little and that’s understandable given our water situation,” she explains.
For an establishment covering the Government General Hospital, Madras Medical College, Men’s and Women’s UG and PG hostels, Nursing hostel, and the paramedics hostel, Dr Jayanthi says their tanker supply from 10-15 per day has gone up to 30 tankers per day. The hospital alone consumes one lakh litre per day on an average.
While this hospital has managed to stay afloat, Dr Jayanthi also explains that they’ve got a few measures in place to manage increasing needs. “We suggest patient carers to carry their own water and we’ve also closed a few unnecessary water points. So far we don’t have any problems,” she says. When we ask if the hospital rations its water Dr Jayanthi rejects saying, “A hospital can never ration its water.”
Edwin Joe Director of Medical Education tells TNM that the Corporation gives preference to hospitals when it comes to water supply. But how is there a severe lack of it one when compared to the other? “Rajiv Gandhi is one of the prime, number one hospitals in TN. So they will definitely supply water. Water is supplied for a cost. It is not free. There’s concession when Government hospitals request for it. There are smaller private hospitals who buy water at exorbitant costs. When Egmore hospital does not have water they will have to buy,” he explains. This could possibly mean that the hospital’s funds play a major role this water starved season.
Asserting that all hospitals in Chennai are facing water problems Dr Ravindranath, general secretary of Doctors Association for Social Equality, says, “Chennai hospitals alone need one crore litre water every day. But that is not fulfilled. Government does not have a foresight nor a good perspective on the future. As a result Chennai hospitals struggle. Patient attenders are asked to carry their own water. But this is a situation we should prevent in future.”
On the dangers of exposing a new born baby to such unhygienic conditions he says, “Infectious disease spread quickly when it comes to children and the Government should rectify its mistakes in the future.”
Dr Jayachandran Director/Superintendent of Egmore Children’s Hospital, however, denies that there’s a water problem in the hospital, insisting that supply from water tankers are meeting requirements. “We get 10 to 12 16,000 litre water tankers per day and so far the supply has been consistent. Water is being supplied to all wards without any problem.”
When we pointed out that TNM’s reporter visited the facility to find clogged toilets and no water in taps the Director’s answers were a clear deviation from ground reality. “People usually tend to flush toilets with baby’s diapers and this is the reason for the clogging. We have 8 sumps and 13 overhead tanks and daily we are pumping water. Very rarely what you said might happen. Almost all water points are being supplied with water,” he said.