Toilets for all: a big challenge for India's government

by Johan Kuylenstierna and Prakash Kumar | Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)
Tuesday, 17 June 2014 15:16 GMT

A groom leaves a toilet as brides stand ready for a mass wedding ceremony for 92 couples at Ramlila ground in New Delhi. Picture June 15, 2014, REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Building toilets will be only part of India's sanitation challenge. Even more important is getting people to use them.

Narendra Modi’s new government has promised that every Indian home will have an indoor toilet. This is a courageous and welcome commitment, and a huge, daunting task. But if it is done right, the benefits for India’s poor, its environment – and the safety of its girls and women - could be truly revolutionary.

Building the toilets will be only part of the challenge. Even more important is getting people to use them, now and in the future. Hundreds of abandoned sanitation projects across the developing world testify to the fact that this is no easy feat, and that simply assuming that it will happen is a recipe for failure.

No-one has all the answers. But Stockholm Environment Institute and the WASH Institute can respectfully offer some lessons we learned in a joint initiative in Bihar State. 

Build demand; then build toilets                                                                   

It’s vital to understand that every community, every household, every user has different priorities: cutting daily costs, moving up in the world, keeping up with the Joneses … To sell sanitation, you need to show how it meets their particular needs and desires. For example, if the very real health benefits of abandoning open defecation aren’t persuasive in themselves, you can put them in financial terms: less waterborne disease equals fewer lost work days and fewer doctors’ bills. Even this might not be enough to tip the balance. SEI has developed some robust research techniques to find out what approaches work to change household behaviour. 

Get smart: get productive

Luckily, the right toilets offer lots of extra benefits. Safety for girls and women is paramount. In rural locations, toilets can help boost livelihoods and household budgets too, by recycling all the valuable nutrients that end up in the toilet and putting them back into the soil as fertilizer. Productive (or ecological) sanitation treats and stores excreta so they can be used safely on crops – raising food yields, saving money (chemical fertilizers aren’t free) and dealing with the “waste disposal” problem in one environmentally friendly go. Why waste waste? 

Match the toilet to the user

India is a big, diverse place. Attractive as a one-size-fits-all sanitation system might be for a national campaign, it simply doesn’t exist. Water-flush toilets might be suitable in some urban areas, but sewerage and water supply infrastructure or septic tank emptying services are not going to extend across the countryside. Furthermore, there are far more critical uses for limited water supplies. Environmentally friendly, productive sanitation can take many forms. Most are dry (meaning they don’t require extra water to move the excreta). In Bihar, flood-proofing was another challenge: systems that don’t break down or overflow when the floodwaters rise can slash the risks of cholera and other disease epidemics in the aftermath. The raised, enclosed systems developed with the residents of Burmi Tola, a small rural community in West Champaran District, could be steps in the right direction.

Ecological sanitation isn’t a second-class option

In many people’s minds, nothing says “I’ve arrived” like a flush toilet. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just visit the new ecological sanitation (ecosan) facilities built by the Tarumitra Society at its Bio-reserve in Patna. Clean, modern and even high-tech, they show that a desirable toilet doesn’t need to have a flush. The flood-proofed composting toilets installed in Mohaddipur hamlet, Nalanda District, are based on a model that has been successfully marketed in Europe and North America.

Split the cost to double success 

How do you know when a household is really ready for a toilet? One good indication is that they are willing to invest time and effort in building it. In Burmi Tola, the SEI-WASHi project provided a flood-proofed concrete toilet infrastructure free of charge, but only after the household had committed to provide some materials, accommodate the specially trained professional masons and construct their own toilet building (in whichever way they wanted). It took a little longer, but it’s also meant that the toilets have stayed in use – and cut the project’s financial investment. 

Seeing is believing

However good productive sanitation sounds in practice, there’s nothing like seeing it in action. Momentum in Burmi Tola built and built as villagers saw their neighbours’ new toilets. Requests have even started coming in from surrounding communities. Another success story has been the agricultural trials in Bind Block, Nalanda District, where treated urine and commercial chemical fertilizers are applied to separate plots growing popular local crops. So far, urine has matched or outperformed commercial fertilizers every time. Open to the public and rigorously implemented and documented (with support from the new Shree Krishna Gyan Mandir water and nutrient-testing laboratory in Patna, which was started with SEI-WASHi help), the trials have gone a long way to convince farmers and agricultural experts that productive sanitation makes sense and is safe. 

Make friends and influence people

To reach a goal as big and as important as the new government has set for itself, partnerships and champions are invaluable. India abounds in local organizations that have easy access to poorer communities, know them well and have their trust. These organizations can spend the time needed to build demand, develop relationships and follow up, ensuring that sanitation projects flourish in the long term. The SEI-WASHi project would never have been possible without its many inspiring and hard-working local partners. 

It pays to have friends in high places too. Local leaders, respected scientists, opinion formers – time and again in Bihar we found just how much difference their endorsement and enthusiasm could make, changing how people see ecosan and giving the project momentum. 

Look ahead

Toilets fill up, they break down, and they get dirty. They need maintenance, or they won’t be used long. When building toilets, especially community or institutional facilities, you need to think about how this is going to happen. Local management committees, user fees, training local technicians are a few possibilities that might work in a particular setting. But the main lesson is: don’t leave it to chance.

Think about girls and women

The horrific risks girls and women run when they don’t have access to a nearby, private toilet are all too apparent. And this is not the only way that sanitation can enhance their lives and help fulfil their rights. Importantly, school latrines extend that safety and convenience to the school grounds. They can do even more to protect girls’ right to health and education when they are combined with training on menstrual hygiene management and practical support like the sanitary padding incinerator installed in the girls’ latrines at Prakash Elementary School in Maner District.

As Mr Modi seeks to make good on his promise, he should bear in mind that the real measure of success will be if the new toilets are still usable, and being used, five years down the line. A creative, adaptable programme is ideal, one that takes time to build demand and realizes the many ways that sanitation can contribute to human well-being. That will be the best way to ensure that an awful lot of money, potentially billions of dollars, doesn’t end up down the toilet.

The project in Bihar was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). 

Johan Kuylenstierna is executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute. Prakash Kumar is executive director of India's WASH Institute.