THE hand carts being pushed up the narrow street at 6.30 in the morning are loaded with straight-sided buckets. One of the men handling the carts is mentally retarded, speaking lists of words which make no sense. His workmate, and friend, is a much older man, though physically strong.
A little further down the road, the carts are rested on their shafts and the older man, whose name is Mr. K. Munyandi, stoops into a narrow alley in between a small tea boutique and the brick wall of someone’s house. Inside is a yard around which four wooden shacks are huddled together out of sight of the road. By the side of one of the houses, a small boy unlatches a broken-hinged and rusty-edged corrugated iron door which leads to the communal toilet. Sharing the same doorway is the entrance to a house where breakfast is about to be eaten.
Reaching under the wooden seat of the toilet, the older man pulls out the tin bucket and pours in a little water. A few flies settle at the open neck of his khaki shirt. Using his eakel, a stiff and narrow brush made from the hard veins of the coconut leaf and tied at the end with fibre, he expertly scrapes the excrement from the tin into his own larger bucket.
It’s the end of the month and he smiles his acknowledgement of the five rupees ‘santhosam’ (meaning ‘pleasing gift’) which a young woman has ready for him as he struggles with the bucket at the sharp-edged door.
Here also, Mr. Munyandi usually finds some refreshment waiting for him in the early mornings. He puts the bucket down while he quickly drinks the hot, sweet tea. Grey stubble shows at his chin and at his throat hangs a simple gold chain. The cup is rinsed and replaced on the wooden ledge outside the house. No-one else but Mr. Munyandi ever uses it.
Like all other "coolies", K. Munyandi is of course an Indian Tamil. He has been doing this job seven days a week for the last 28 years. "You’ve got to be conscientious about it," he explains," if you leave the buckets even a day or two they start to sing out I’ve applied for leave at weekends, but usually they can’t spare me. And the overtime comes in.
"I know some people look down on me for the job, and I’ m never invited into anyone’s house. But it’s been a good job for me. Five hundred rupees a month and regular work. Then there’s another 75 or 100 rupees a month ‘santhosam’ that’s as regular as my pay. So I have been able to see my children right through secondary education. And I’ve never had to go without my two pints of toddy in the evening,"
He joins his companion on the road, loads up the bucket, and hangs his sandles and brush from a nail on the side of the cart. Together they move on, two of the 150 "coolies" whose job it is to empty Colombo’s 5000 bucket latrines every day of the year.
THERE are three reasons why bucket latrines will have to become part of Colombo’ s past. The first is that they are a health hazard. The second is that the municipality has decided it cannot afford to pay the wages of 150 coolies. And the third is that whatever Mr. Munyandi says about his job, his sons say that they are not prepared to do it.
Connecting up the bucket latrines to mains sewage is not an option being considered. The city’s sewerage system, as history records, was built by the British in 1915 (though rumour persists that it was the Ceylonese who actually dug the trenches and installed the pipes). Since then, the population of Colombo has increased from 200,000 to 600,000 and the original sewers are, to put it politely, overloaded.
"To extend or rebuild the city’s mains sewerage system is financially out of the question," says the city’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Trevor Pieris, "so for the foreseeable future there is no possibility of connecting up the individual bucket latrines or the communal Garden toilets to the mains."
Septic tanks have also been ruled out by the narrowness of the entrances to most of the Gardens. It would be impossible for gully-emptiers or sewage disposal lorries to get to them. . .even if the city possessed a fleet of such vehicles, which it does not.
So between an overloaded sewage system and thousands of insanitary buckets, there appears to be only one option — the ‘water-sealed’ pit latrine, which in all its different versions, is now coming into use across the developing world. The one chosen for Colombo, for example, is the Sulabh Shauchalaya system pioneered in Patna, India.
Such latrines usually consist of an enclosed porcelain squatting pan which is flushed by pouring water down it after use. The water and waste then run into one of two chambers in an underground pit When one chamber is full, a metal plate has to be removed from the pipe under the latrine and re-inserted at a different angle, so sealing off the first chamber and diverting the effluent into the second. Each chamber has spaces in the walls and floor to allow liquid to seep away deep into the earth. A few months after being sealed off it can be opened and its contents, by now dry and theoretically odourless, can be emptied and used or sold as fertiliser.
In the shanties, which are often built on marshy ground where the water table is high, such pit latrines have caused problems which everyone is able to imagine but which no-one, so far, has been able to solve.
But for the communal toilets in the slum Gardens, the pit latrine system seems to work well though none has really been installed for long enough to know whether the system of filling and emptying the two tanks in strict rotation will turn out to be a trouble-free solution.
AS with any amenity used by many and owned by none, the question obviously arises of who should pay for the installation of water seal toilets or standpipes and be responsible for their maintenance.
In the Gardens, the sewage and water problem used to be the responsibility of the slum landlord. He it was who owned the Garden and was obliged by law to maintain the common amenities required to make life liveable for those from whom he collected rents.
In theory, Colombo’s Public Health Inspectors were supposed to see to it that the landlord had the buckets emptied, the latrines cleaned, the garbage collected, the drains kept open and the taps kept working. In practice, according to the slum-dwellers, some of the Public Health Inspectors visited the Gardens rather less than frequently. It was also common knowledge that some of the landlords considered the Public Health Inspectors to be grossly underpaid and took it upon themselves to correct this oversight.
Too poor and too unorganised to do anything themselves about the growing squalor of the Gardens, and cut off from all means of making the landlord fulfil his responsibilities, the people of the slums commonly expressed their grievances against both Town Hall and landlord in the only way left open to them. "Many of them kept their Gardens as filthy as they could," says the present Health Education Officer for Colombo, Stephen Perera. "They saw no point in making any effort as it would only mean that the landlord wouldn’t do anything at all for his rent. And they didn’t have enough education to know that the filthy latrines, blocked drains and accumulated garbage cause greater pain to themselves than it did to their landlords."
In 1974, all this changed. Parliament passed the Housing Ceilings Act, banning any individual from owning more than one house. Overnight, thousands of dwellings in the slum Gardens of Colombo became public property. And in the months that followed, the majority of those who lived there were relieved of the burden of rent.
But with the landlords gone who was responsible for maintaining the common amenities like water and sanitation? To undertake the task, and incidentally to save the Municipality from the potential embarrassment of having to sue itself for non-maintenance of its own property, the Common Amenities Board was set up.
The Board soon found that it hardly had enough funds to maintain the existing amenities of the slum Gardens let alone begin the process of upgrading which was necessary to improve the health of half Colombo. Similarly, the under-staffed Health Department in Colombo’s Town Hall could not sustain a health education effort in the slums on the scale required to maximise the benefits of any improvements in water supply or sanitation.
UNICEF — which had been helping the Municipality with these problems on a small scale for several years — now became more deeply involved in discussions on the city’s slums. And by 1978, a formal request for larger-scale UNICEF help was being prepared.
Two-thirds of those who live in the slums and shanties are mothers and young children. UNICEF therefore considered that the task of improving health in the Gardens of Colombo fell into the mainstream of its concerns. And the request was carried.
When UNICEF sat down with the representatives of the city of Colombo to discuss how to go about improving conditions in the slums, there was experience as well as money on the table. And it was that experience which eventually transformed a proposal to build new taps and toilets at the end of each slum Garden into an idea which might install hope on the horizons of those who live there. In the process, the Colombo Project was born.
APART from being cumbersome, the official title of the Colombo Project — Environmental Health and Community Development in the Slums and Shanties of Colombo — is also misleading. First of all, the scope of the project barely touches upon the shanty towns which are home for Colombo’s poorest people but which are mostly illegal and unrecognised communities, and therefore beyond the pale of Municipal services. Secondly, the project is limited — initially — to 300 slum Gardens housing approximately 15 per cent of Colombo’s total slum and shanty population. Whether or not it will eventually be extended to the majority of the slum dwellers depends on the effectiveness of the present approach as well as on the availability of future funds.
For the first five years, the tangible aims of the Colombo Project are the installation or upgrading of 1,400 latrines, 875 washrooms, and 700 clean water standpipes, plus the conversion of 3,200 bucket latrines to water-sealed toilets. Undoubtedly there will be some health benefits built into the very bricks and mortar of this plan. But experience suggests that the health benefits of such services depend as much on a community’s knowledge of how to use them as on the availability of the services themselves.
To act as a catalyst in the reception between improved amenities and healthier lives, it was decided to train a hundred Primary Health Care workers to work in the slum Gardens covered by the Colombo Project. For this small addition to the original cost, it was argued, would come a large multiplication of the eventual benefits.
Recruited mainly from the ranks of the less well off, 56 male and 42 female Primary Health Care workers were chosen on the basis of idealism plus high school certificates and given forty days training in the dingy book-lined lecture room on the second floor of Colombo’s town hall. The man who trained them was the city’s Health Education Officer, 50-year old Stephen Perera.
TODAY, the Health Wardens of Colombo embody two major strands of the basic services strategy which now guides UNICEF’s work throughout the Third World. The first is that the different aspects of development — in this case improved water supply, sanitation, and health education — liberate each other’s potential. Therefore the combination of the two can bring much greater benefits than either could individually. The second is that only through the use of large numbers of para-professional development workers — such as Health Wardens — can basic services be brought directly to the majority of the world’s poor. Trained by, and able to refer to, more highly qualified layers of development services, such paraprofessionals can eventually be the means by which people’s needs — from sticking plaster to major surgery — can be met by the appropriate level of skills and facilities.
But there is a third and even more important principle which has been extracted from UNICEF’s past experience and applied to its present projects: the potential benefits of any external assistance will only be fully realised if the poor organise themselves to become involved in the process of their own development. In the Colombo Project, that meant that the first job was to put the proposition to the people of each Garden that they should elect their own Community Development Councils. The aim was the creation of a counterpart organization in each slum Garden — an organised force, under the people’s own control, which would provide a two-way channel between slum dwellers and the Health Wardens, the Health department, the various municipal services, the Common Amenities Board, the Youth Training Services Council, the Women’s Bureau, and any of the non-governmental organisations which have now begun working in the slums of Colombo.
UNICEF committed $900,000 to the project. The government of Sri Lanka committed a further $500,000. But from now on the Colombo Project was no longer a calm blueprint in an office, it was a hectic day-today operation launched, like any development project, into the complexities of people’s lives.
And when, after eight week’s training, the first batch of Health Wardens passed down the wide staircase of the town hall to go out into the slums, it was not the stern colonial portraits of be-wigged British judges which made them nervous.
The first problem had been foreseen. How were the young and inexperienced Health Wardens upon whom so much depended, to be established with a toe-hold of credibility in the communities they were supposed to serve?
Disease prevention may be the area where Primary Health Care workers can make their biggest contribution, but experience has frequently shown that it is the ability to cure which establishes the credibility to teach. In Colombo, the Health Wardens have almost no curative function. They are expected to go out into the Gardens literally empty-handed — no drugs, no antibiotics, no syringes, no vaccines, no first aid kits, no vitamin tablets, not even an aspirin.
With no need of the satchel or shoulder bag which has almost become the badge of the Primary Health Care worker in the Third World, these 100 young men and women were armed only with their own enthusiasm and some rather hastily acquired advice.
This problem of initial credibility was in fact solved in an unusual and slightly disingenuous way. For on first going into the slum Gardens, the Health Wardens did in fact have something to offer. If the residents organised themselves into a Community Development Council with elected officials; if those elected officials then made a request for increased or improved toilets, washrooms and taps on forms provided by the Health Warden, filled in with his advice and delivered by him to the Common Amenities Board; then the said amenities were more likely to be installed.
From the slum dweller’s point of view, they had nothing to lose but the smell.
Two years later, almost 300 Community development.
Councils have been formed in Colombo’s communities; just under 100 Health Wardens are trained and in action; new latrines, washrooms and standpipes have been provided for over 20,000 people; and 1,719 bucket latrines have been converted to Sulabh Shanchalaya water-sealed toilets.
In other words, the Colombo Project is on course to reach its tangible targets within five years of its planned lifespan. These achievements, brought about by a great deal of hard work and in the face of real problems, should not be minimised. But neither are those who are closely involved naive enough to measure development only by adding the total number of bricks used to the combined length of pipes laid.