In the lush green environs of Itekhedi village in Madhya Pradesh, most homes have inbuilt toilets. The Sarpanch informs that save for 20—30 out of a 100 families, everyone has completed construction. This is not surprising, under the push given to the current rural sanitation programme. Contrary to the common notion that this might be due to the availability of low-cost leach pit toilet technology, local preference here leans towards durable ‘pucca’ structures, which cost more than the government incentive. In Itekhedi, for instance, signalling their financial comfort, most families own a motor cycle, or a tractor, and bore wells to meet their water requirements.
Over the past two decades, the on-site disposal technique of leach pits has been favoured by non-profits and in promotional efforts by the government. They have made gradual inroads into rural sanitation markets, especially where septic tanks are expensive. In its favour are low costs, ease of waste disposal, and low water usage. But, in Itekhedi, defunct structures of leach-pits can be seen around as people inform that pits were filled or damaged by mice.
In the many villages I visited, I have been asked, “Do you have a low quality toilet in your home? Then why would you ask me to use the same kind of toilet?” As average incomes and aspirations rise, a growing number of people are opting out for leach-pit toilets. In 2011, 14.7 per cent rural homes had access to toilets with septic tanks, while only 8.2 percent chose options with slab/ventilated improved pits.
Progress in eliminating open defecation in India has been slow, even though results on sanitation awareness are encouraging. The barriers are several, among the most important being an additional burden on women to fetch extra water for toilets. At Dwarika Chak in Bihar, Anu Manjhi has almost forgotten if anyone in the community owns a toilet. With motivation from the village headman, construction began two years ago. But most structures were left incomplete in the tiny settlement of 60 homes. When asked if a personal toilet at home would be a good idea, her response smacked of disdain. Manjhi pointed out that it was not the small size of toilets, but that they had to ferry water from hand pumps located at two ends of the village. Another lady quipped, “How do you expect us to use the toilets when we have to carry water for drinking and cooking?”
But the most overlooked, yet significant factor, is toilet design. Robert Chambers, a noted authority on community led total sanitation, writes, “the stories of missing and badly constructed toilets, of toilets not being used or used as stores, and some only being used by some in the family or some of the time, of people preferring open defecation and considering it healthier, are endless. Political priority, increased subsidy and dedicated efforts by senior officials have not unstuck the logjam.” He goes on to say, “recent research has shown two critical elements: ideas of purity and pollution, and not wanting pits or septic tanks to fill because then they have to be emptied.” Fear is rampant among those moving from open defecation to constructing toilets. The questions of space in low income areas, and emptying the sludge pits ride big.
Most low income homes are built in low-lying areas prone to flooding during monsoons, or around water resources where the water table is high. Leach pits in such areas are inconceivable. ECOSAN toilets for instance work best in dry areas, but composting rates vary in areas with greater precipitation or dry weather. Handling human faecal matter safely and sustainably requires high technological expertise, something we relegate to either handling by manual scavengers or dumping (mostly untreated) into our water bodies, which also raises health concerns. Access to sanitation does not mean use of toilets. And the presence of a toilet does not ensure hygiene or safe disposal of sewage. Bio-toilets which convert sludge into gas solve the issue in more inaccessible areas, and reduce the hassle of emptying pits.
A SQUAT survey by RICE institute that in 40 per cent of Indian homes with working toilets, one person still defecates in the open. Building inclusive toilets has to account for multiple factors, including geography, terrain, and division of classes across an area, climate, as well as demographic profiles of inhabitants. The last, for instance, is visible in rural areas, where most inhabitants are middle aged or elderly, as the youth would have moved into towns or cities seeking employment.
The success of the Swachh Bharat Mission, non-profits, and stakeholders depends on assisting people in making sanitation choices that suit their specific local needs and aspirations the best. Toilet designs need to be good enough to make them compelling over all the reasons for open defecation, enough for every family member to convert. Considering user friendliness, comfort, value while achieving national sanitation goals sustainably is in the best interest of everyone working to make India open defecation free.
(With inputs from Puneet Srivastava: Manager of Policy-Urban WASH Climate Change at WaterAid India)Uday Shankar Prasad is Planning and Monitoring Evaluation-Systems Coordinator at WaterAid India.