Om Prakash

Photo Slideshow and Q&A: Om Prakash Singh Documents the Perception and Harsh Realities of Water and Sanitation in Delhi, India

Delhi reportedly has a high percentage of coverage for sanitation and water supply. But one photographer has 74,000 images spanning the last 10 years that challenge the perception of progress.

Om Prakash

Photo courtesy of Om Prakash Singh
With no water at home, some Delhi residents bathe in the heavily polluted waters of the Yamuna River.

Om Prakash Singh, a Stockholm-based visual anthropologist and director of WaterZoom, has spent the past decade documenting water and sanitation challenges in India. Through his work, mostly in the poorest areas of Delhi, he has captured more than 74,000 images of private, everyday moments of life with limited water and without a proper toilet to use. His exhibit of photographs, “Urban Right to Water & Sanitation,” was on display at World Water Week 2011 in Stockholm. It was produced with his wife, Nandita Singh.

J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue: Tell us about the show; what are you finding through your work?
Om Prakash Singh: It exposes imagery of real situations. In the reports that we see, [we hear that a particular] area is covered for water facility, as well as for sanitation. But, when I visited, I found a different story. And this is where we depict the realities.

For example, these pictures come from Delhi. Half of these pictures are only seven days old. But, according to reports and other places, Delhi is 100 percent covered for water supply, as well as for sanitation. This absolutely is not [consistent with] my observation. Through these photographs, I am trying to expose the reality. And, also, through this exhibition, we are sensitizing the different stakeholders, big actors, to get back to the real situation and organize a realistic action plan. And, thirdly, with this exhibition, I am trying to convince and push a lobby for the use of documentary photography as a means of effective communication in water resources management. It’s emotion, and you get involved immediately, and you get sensitized. And you help your own intelligence to understand that and get involved immediately. We have covered 15 states in India – that are huge, it’s like 50 countries – and depicted different issues on water resources management and sanitation.

You are finding disparities between official reports and what’s happening in the neighborhoods. People who stand in line to use the toilet or to get a drop of water when, you say that, on paper, the problems don’t exist. Give me an example of a recent experience photographing in the streets of Delhi. Take us there. What is it like to be that bridge between the perception and the reality, between the numbers, and, literally, on the ground?
Om Prakash Singh: When you go in the field, and, especially I want to cover border situations – the successful, as well, where things have happened — and I want to see it. And at the same time I want to see the problems; where the problems are. For example, [in theory] this area has been covered by the government or maybe by some development agency. But I would like to see what the reality is. So, in many places, in most of the places, in 90 percent of the cases, I have found that the area is [in theory] totally covered; it is a successful story [according to official information]. But, [in fact], it’s contradictory – nothing is there. And the photographs are speaking about this situation. And in such situations, I really feel it’s very pathetic.

So in books, in records, Delhi is 100 percent covered, but this is [not the real] situation. You feel very emotional that, “Oh my God, for such a basic need, they have to queue for hours and hours, and they can’t even be sure that [water] will turn up. They have to wait for hours and hours, even just to have it fail.” I’ve waited for hours and hours with the people. Just seven days ago, I was in Delhi, and I was there at 6:00 in the morning. It’s a daily activity, you know – the tanker is supposed to go there to deliver the water supply. But many people have been waiting much before then. I started at 6 o’clock, and I waited until 9:30. The tanker didn’t [come], and people had to return without water, even after waiting so many hours. See, you can now imagine the hardship. The statements of the people are so touching sometimes: “We are here to own a glass of water.” So most of their productive time goes for waiting for water or for procuring the water for their domestic use.

What will happen to these people now? No agencies, no NGOs, nobody will be bothered about them because “that area is covered. So let’s go to a new area!” Because they [the agencies and NGOs] have limited resources and funding, and they want to go to new areas to make things work.

And, on the other side of this, is the sanitation piece. You have pictures of people going to the bathroom in the open, in fields, along railroad tracks. Your pictures are of very private moments.
Om Prakash Singh
Om Prakash Singh India Delhi WASH water sanitation hygiene defecation photograph image photo photographer

Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Om Prakash Signh, a documentary photographer, at Stockholm World Water Week 2011, where a sample of his collection of 74,000 images were on display.
Om Prakash Singh: We have made it public; it is very public now. They also don’t mind, because this is the realistic situation – anywhere else, anybody would have objected, “Why are you taking this photograph?” But they want to highlight their situation. I have never been objected; rather they have helped me, “Ok, sir, you are here for something very good. Let this thing go to somebody. Show our situation – how pathetic our condition is, in what condition we are living here.” Going out to defecate; it is early in the morning, at 5 o’clock, and they have to queue for hours, and most of them sleep while standing in the queue. The photographs are there, depicting that.

And [it is] such an unhygienic condition – you can’t stand it for even a moment. Yet, they are standing there for hours and hours. And we are talking about hygiene – what is this? So the most private thing has become a public thing.

So what’s the response of the authorities when they see something that’s so frank and so revealing, and that in most of society, it would be far too open?
Om Prakash Singh: Yes, when they see a situation like this, they don’t have any words to say. But, of course ,they want to cover it and blame each other. “I was responsible for that, and I was cheated.” So all kinds of blame games and shifting the situation. But the picture speaks – if this had been words and statistics, they would have said, “We doubt your integrity, we doubt the authenticity of this information or this statistic. What was your sample size?” But with pictures, you can’t do this. So they have to accept that this is a problem. But they say, “Oh my God, I didn’t know about it, but I’ll take care of it.” So, at least you get some response, you get some response. My thing is that I will genuinely take the issue and bring it to the right forum, the right platform, and put it before the right authorities, the responsible authorities. And this is what I am doing, and I am proud of it.
Let’s take a walk over to your booth here at World Water Week, and maybe you can describe some of the images here. Pick a couple of pictures and walk me through the situation here.
Om Prakash Singh: Let’s talk about the first picture. You see small children queuing up, and you can see the source of water – basically, they are collecting from the leaks of the pipe that is going to the elite colonies. This entire area doesn’t have safe drinking water. So they are collecting from these drops. And you can imagine the amount of time it must be taking. [The children] are also missing school, because it’s their responsibility [to bring water]… And that is why the drop-out rate for girls is higher in schools.

And that’s such a small child, carrying such a big load of water. That means, at the same time, he doesn’t have time for recreation, which will certainly undermine his whole development. It’s not just a question of rich-poor colonies or slums.

And they are holding up signs that say, “We want water, give us water”?
Om Prakash Singh: Yes, so it’s not just the situation in the slums, poorer areas, or unsettled colonies. But even the best colonies want water, and that’s why they have to get the water in a very democratic way. It’s the reality.

And in this photograph you see [leaking pipes with hoses collecting every drop]. Normally people say that there’s wastage of water to leaks, but, just imagine if this water were not there — there would be no water, in fact. So, the people are basically utilizing the water. Thousands of people are collecting from the leaks of the pipeline. And see the amount of water they are carrying? Because they have to walk on this pipe, with this heavy load of water in their hand, they always get injured.

And about the sanitation, look at this picture along the Yamuna River: is this water – physically or visually – is there anything that tells you that you can use this water for any purpose?

What we see here is a man basically bathing in sewage.
Om Prakash Singh: But, of course, that’s what I am trying to show. But, for him, this is the only source of water, so he has to do it.

Similarly, in the case of sanitation, this is a mobile van [with bathrooms]. You can practically see that the ladies are asleep. They are completing their sleep here, because they have to come early in the morning to get chances first. If they don’t turn up, they will be far behind in the queue, if the pressure comes. They have to go out; they are forced to go out [early in the morning]. And that is why they are defecating openly — some of them are defecating in storm water drains. And how safe are storm water drains? They are destined to go to fresh water, maybe ponds, lakes.

So it all becomes an open sewer?
Om Prakash Singh: Yes.
3 replies
  1. vijay kedia says:

    Situation is not very different from New Delhi, in other parts of the country. Leaking water from pipes is only source of life for some people in many cities of India. Scenario is equqlly worse in rural areas. Villagers dont have drinking water. Half the villages in Maharashtra are facing water scarcity. Manyy villages are tanker-fed, even in monsoon season. I stay at Aurangabad, and I’m an engineer from BITS, Pilani , working in the field of water conservation for the last 17 years. I have invented a low cost method for harvesting 80% pf rainwater, which can solve drinking water problems of villages. Anyone facing water scarcity can contact me on my email for free advice on rainwater harvesting. My email is .

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