India Matters: Demanding Toilets


Our journey takes us to five villages in Sehore district, Madhya Pradesh, to meet families that do not have a toilet at home.

Nearly 65 per cent of households in rural areas of the state are without toilets.

Prema and Tanu belong to a Scheduled Caste family of daily wagers in  Ahlada Kheda. Students of Class 9 and 10, they are exposed to children from different socioeconomic backgrounds at the government school where they study. They tell us they want to see changes in their lives.

“Every household needs a toilet. Now to defecate, we have to go very far, out into the open,” say Prema and Tanu.

Adds Tanu, “Our parents wanted a toilet but did not have the money. The sarpanch did not provide any help.”

Ram Kunwar Bai and Bhawani Singh of Raipur Nayakheda are waiting for the construction of their toilet to be completed. “We need a toilet desperately. Where is the space available for open defecation? It’s much harder during the rains,” says Ram Kunwar Bai.

Kokal Bai in Ahlada Kheda is not so fortunate. Her family uses a toilet that is incomplete. It has no walls, no roof, just a pan and a pit. Kokal is an agricultural worker who earns Rs. 1500 a month. “I got Rs. 1,200 two years ago, but we could only dig the pit,” she says.

The popular notion that villagers like to defecate in the open is dismissed by Kokal Bai as not being based on reality.

Another family in Ahlada Kheda shows us a toilet they began building two years ago, after receiving a government subsidy of Rs. 2,500. The construction stopped midway when money ran out.

The family had other pressing demands and could not build the superstructure.

Gisiya Bai explains,” We tried to build it, but were unable to complete it. We spent about Rs. 800 for the toilet seat, then the pipes. In all I spent about Rs. 2000.”

Gisiya’s husband, Bulaki Singh, is emphatic, “Of course, we need a toilet. Why else would we build those pits? Surely, not to build a fire to warm our hands. One child’s marriage has cost us a minimum of about Rs. 2 lakh. We are in debt.”

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Centre has now increased the subsidy from Rs. 2500 to Rs. 12,000 for a toilet. But the irony is that a family that has received a susbsidy once is no longer eligible to claim money a second time.

The sanitation policy does not address this problem that affects the poorest. Studies show that nearly 77 per cent of Scheduled Castes and 84 per cent of Scheduled Tribes across the country do not have toilets at home. A major reason is the lack of resources due to underemployment.

There is a discrepancy in what the administration tells us and what we hear from the people on the ground. Poor informal labourers and agricultural workers in these villages have not received any work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) and the issues of poverty leave an impact on the toilet construction programme.

Another toilet in Ahlada Kheda has not been completed because the family has made an extra-large 10 feet deep pit and used up all the money.

Experts recommend a low cost option – two honey comb pits of 5 feet height, depth and width that are used alternately. One pit can be made initially in case of limited resources. The second pit is required only when the first is filled up, which can take up to five years.

Few villagers have a proper understanding of toilet technology and of the fact that costs can range from 10,000 rupees to 30,000 rupees and upwards.

Everywhere we went men, women and children told us that they would rather use a toilet than resort to open defecation. What they seem to lack is the technical know-how to build a functional toilet at a cost affordable to them.

Sudam Khande, Collector and District Magistrate, Sehore, said, “Some people were unable to complete the construction of their toilets. We will conduct a survey and deploy a technical team and motivators to help them complete it.”

To some extent, the aspiration to have a toilet has not touched the marginalised population groups in the villages. In Imlikheda, we meet some families belonging to Scheduled Tribe communities, who live on subsistence wages and migrate seasonally for work. Survival, not sanitation, is their priority. A toilet was constructed for them, but was never used. They have not been sensitized to the benefits of using a private toilet. Add to that the fact is the toilet is of poor quality, typical of a government target-driven approach.

However, there are success stories like the villages of Rajukhedi and Didakhedi, where very household has a toilet. They are open-defecation-free.

Nathu Ram, a resident, Rajukhedi village, said, “We constructed our toilets with our own money. We used to face a lot of problems when we defecated in the open. We had to walk long distances as there are no open spaces left nearby. We made the pits by just digging 5 feet.”

Dharam Prakash Mewada recalls, “Villagers were skeptical about the soak pits. They thought the faecal sludge would come above the surface. In the beginning only 40 toilets were constructed. During the rains, those without toilets faced a lot of problems because of waterlogging around the village. But the 40 households with toilets did not face any problem and the soak pits too worked well. We also became aware of the risks to our health. How disease spreads when flies sit on faecal matter and then sit on our food and contaminate it. A mason was specially trained in constructing toilets by the NGO in 2006. He has constructed toilets in other villages. A water tank was built and the water was used for the toilets.”

According to Geeta Mevada, “Now, we would not let our daughter get married in a household without a toilet.”

In Rajukhedi and Didakhedi, an intensive sanitation drive was conducted by the NGO, Samarthan. As part of the drive, schoolboys like Pradeep are roped in to draw attention to villagers who continue to defecate in the open. They literally blow the whistle on them. Says Pradeep, “I used to beat a drum and whistle my way through different areas used for open defecation which shamed them.”

Where NGOs are not present, a swachhata dhoot or sanitation campaign volunteer is appointed by the government. There has to be one dhoot for every 150 families, to trigger behavioural change, to counsel and to do follow-ups. A dhoot is paid Rs. 1000 a month, which they feel is inadequate. A swachhata dhoot was meant to identify households for toilet construction, and to create a demand where there was no demand. A dhoot was meant to be a link between the Panchayat and the community. But this idea of a field level facilitator was never treated seriously.

Madhya Pradesh needs 85 lakh toilets to achieve its goal of being open-defecation-free by 2019, a target set under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swacch Bharat Mission.

Yogesh Kumar, Executive Director, Samarthan, said, “We have to come to a consensus that every human being requires a dignified, clean, usable and functional space and technology. There has to be a component of subsidy for the poorest of the poor. And they also need handholding in the terms of giving them the right technology and giving them options which are cheaper but not making them feel insecure when they use the toilets. Currently we have realised that the supply of material is a big challenge. There are private players. How can they be involved in the whole process? Also, what kind of incentives can be given to swachhata dhoots? What should be the monitoring mechanisms where people are not using toilets? The resources related to community mobilization and information dissemination have to be properly used. So, those are some of the areas where I think that the supply-side has to work very hard because there is demand.”

There is a demand for toilets, yet, as the UN points out, more people have access to mobiles than toilets. The reason is, unlike toilets, mobiles are cheap and user-ready, with back end infrastructure. Toilets demand a lot of work on the ground by the government on a number of issues.
The urban experience is similar. Take the resettlement colony in Delhi, known as Savda Ghevra. Eight years ago, nearly 8,500 families were given tiny housing plots, but were not provided a sewerage system or potable water lines. There is no provisioning of these services in the master plan for the city till 2021.

The Savda Ghevra colony was set up by the Government on the city’s margins in rural northwest Delhi. The families came from slums that were cleared out of the city to build the Commonwealth Games and the Delhi Metro infrastructure. But Savda Ghevra proved to be like any slum, lacking basic civic services.

The plots, of 12.5 sq mts each, do not allow for more than one room. Tankers are the only source of drinking water. Bore wells supply water for other needs. Commuting to work from the colony is difficult and expensive.

Each block has a community toilet complex which is poorly maintained and filthy. Residents are forced to defecate in the open as the complex is closed at night.

Sanju Devi, a resident of Savda Ghevra, said, “It is difficult for me to use the community toilet as it takes a lot of time. There are queues in the morning. I have to finish my cooking at that time since my husband has to get to work and my children to school. I also don’t like the fact that I see a number of men at the community toilet.”

For those who can afford to have built toilets in their homes, there is an absence of a sewerage system. These toilets are connected to small underground pits to collect the faecal sludge. The twin-pit technology adopted in rural areas, where families have more outdoor space is not suitable here because the small room is their only living space.

Saeeda, another resident, said, “I can’t defecate in the open, either with my children or without my children. We have built a toilet in our home. But it is difficult to maintain the toilet. When it fills up, we have to get it cleaned. Just a month and a half ago, I had got it cleaned and I had to get it cleaned again today.”

The cost of cleaning is high. Saeeda spends Rs. 600 every two months for a suction machine. In some houses the water from the fecal sludge was seeping into their walls, and the already unstable walls were being further corroded.

“Creating a toilet is easy but it is the engineering under the ground that is important. Due to lack of proper technology, a small square pit is built to drain the fecal sludge that ends up polluting the groundwater. When the pit gets full, the fecal sludge flows into these narrow drains, which get clogged, polluting the environment,” says Siddharth Pandey, Project Manager, Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE).

CURE has begun a pilot project to provide a simplified sewerage in one block. Simplified sewerage uses small diameter pipes to transport human waste. The pipes are laid under the street at a shallow depth. There is no need for large and expensive manholes. The sewage is carried to a decentralized cluster septic tank to treat the effluents. The tank, which has a capacity of 4 lakh litres, has been built under the community park.

The project has cost Rs. 40 lakh and it is estimated that investment costs are reduced by nearly 50 per cent compared to conventional sewerage.

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board has partnered the project, by allotting funds for rebuilding the road after sewer lines are laid.

Residents whose toilets are connected through this system will pay Rs. 30 a month for maintenance costs.  A management team of residents is also being trained. Families are now building their own toilets. About 70 of the 320 households have connected their toilets to the system.

CURE says community toilets are expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain.
The Government must work on facilitating personal toilets for poor families, particularly in planned colonies.

Renu Khosla, Director, CURE, said, “Having a personal toilet is the most dignified solution. It provides people with privacy, it provides people with dignity, it is empowering and it is healthier. At the same time, people are responsible for spending the money on making the toilets. People are also responsible for spending the money on cleaning their toilets. So the city does not have any post-construction costs.”

Simplified sewerage is an innovative and affordable option, particularly for high density settlements. It is a sanitation solution for populations that remain unserved.