To be or not to be a toilet: Moving away from a one size fits all approach to sanitation

WaterAid/Adam Ferguson

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.

11 Comments on “To be or not to be a toilet: Moving away from a one size fits all approach to sanitation”

  1. Puneet Srivastava

    We need to reflect seriously where ODF factories working round the clock on one size fits all toilet programme is leading us. Nice article to have some reflection on this issue.

    1. Uday Shankar Prasad

      India’s rural sanitation programme continues to emphasize the construction of low cost toilets. This ignores the consumer’s preferences, delaying their decisions to invest in personal toilets. Though there have been some innovations in toilet design but still away from the reach of the people. Thus the challenge for the government, NGOs, research institution to come with a range of options which meets the expectations of largest segment of buyers.

  2. Santosh Ramgire

    Very valid points Uday. While it is a good initiative by PM & govt of India, like many other good initiatives, the local & ground level factors & implementatiin issues are missed thereby losing on benefiting from such good schemes. Rightly said one size doesn’t fit all…. hope we see some corrective actions soon so that people are benefited.

    1. Archana

      Very informative article Uday. It’s an insight on the real issues and reasons for absence of toilets in majority of homes in the rural areas. Despite major efforts of the Modi, Swachch Bharat Programme, it is difficult to have a cent percent implementation unless the policy makers realise and make note of these observations.

      1. Uday Shankar Prasad

        Thanks Archana!
        Advocacy and influencing on WASH (water, sanitation and Hygiene) issues being the major agenda for WaterAid India while we continue to support the State governments and district authorities with capacity development activities in the programme implementation. Recently there have been increased awareness on WASH issues, thanks to the role of other sector players and media.
        Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now make explicit reference to ensure drinking water and sanitation facilities are available to everyone in a limited time period, we look forward a greater attention by the every stakeholder.

    2. Uday Shankar Prasad

      Santosh, you observed rightly that people miss out the benefits of good schemes because of poor implementation and also for the reason that local issues have been overlooked. In case of Swachh Bharat programme, there are flexibility which should be made best use by the State governments and secondly sanitation being a State Subject in Indian Constitution offers a great scope for the local initiatives.
      WaterAid India works on WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) related issues, however public opinion are important to influence the policy decisions.
      Thanks for writing comments!

  3. Indranil De

    Wonderful insights Uday. ECOSAN is talked about a lot these days. As you rightly mentioned that technological expertise and maintenance of the system is a questionable issue.

  4. Jack Sim

    19 Nov UN World Toilet Day this year is dedicated to all Unsung Heroes on Toilets: The Cleaners, Sanitation Workers, Designers, Promoters, NGOS etc to thank them for their daily contribution both in poverty and cities toilets.
    I hope WaterAid can take this opportunity to celebrate these Unsung Heroes this year.
    Please start planning now.
    Talk to me if you’d like to.

    1. Uday Shankar Prasad

      Thanks Jack! I would be happy to take it forward. Let me speak to my colleagues.
      I would like to talk to you.

  5. Neeraj S

    Apt – Sustainability = Quality = Cost and abysmally small amounts provided for toilet construction do not facilitate efficient disposal systems…..a monster of untreated sewage is in the making and
    opportunities will abound in the near future for waste management….

    1. Uday Shankar Prasad

      Thanks Neeraj !
      I agree, waste management is the future to make “Swachh” campaign a success! The government resources should start moving away from incentives to investments in infrastructure development for managing waste. Toilets are the domains of individuals barring the cases of ultra-poor and persons with special need.

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