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Sense And Sanitation


Workable solutions: hard-earned experience finds its way into the design of new toilet blocks.
courtesy of SHEELA PATEL
Sense and sanitation
To create a home you must start with the basics. Sheela Patel reports on
‘pavement people’ who refuse to be walked over and are getting involved.

Bombay is the financial capital of India with some of the highest property values in the world. Half of its ten million people pay incredible prices for homes. The other half live in informal settlements; more than a million of them on pavements in makeshift structures of bamboo, plastic, cloth, wood and tin. These people pay a high price too, though the currency they hand over is not rupees but their own health, living as they often do without water or sanitation of any kind.

Yet the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) is ambivalent: ‘We can’t give toilets to slum dwellers; this will encourage people to migrate to the city!’ they say, or: ‘The slums along the highway should have sanitation so foreign visitors don’t have to see this embarrassing sight of squatting people with umbrellas along the road.’ As if people were flocking to Bombay to enjoy the luxury of public toilet blocks, or the psychological comfort of tourists should be the primary motivation of municipal sanitation programmes!

Or else they say: ‘Don’t the poor deserve the same as everyone else – an individual toilet?’ or: ‘Since poor communities don’t maintain public toilets, let’s give them toilets in their own home so they will be forced to keep things clean.’

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how to solve the problem of sanitation in informal settlements. But what do the residents who live there, the people on the footpaths and in the slums, believe is a workable solution?

In 1984, I and 12 other people formed the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC). We sought to create an organization which would make space for poor communities to focus on issues which concern them, to understand why they face certain problems and then to reflect on the solutions. Over the last ten years, through our alliance with Mahila Milan – a national network of women’s collectives – and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), we have used this approach to address many issues, including land tenure, shelter, employment and credit.

The way women living on pavements in the Byculla area of Bombay formulated their opinion on toilets illustrates our approach. We visited slums both with and without public toilets, and the few government-constructed tenement blocks in which each dwelling has an individual toilet. Through these site visits and numerous discussions the women arrived at an assessment of the status quo.

Less than half of Bombay is linked to sewers. In most slums the residents either defecate in the open or – in the few locations where they exist – use community latrines. Municipal maintenance is infrequent and poor, and the number of users per toilet is far too high. The toilets are dirty, uncared-for, overflowing and often unusable.

In slums without toilets people created makeshift arrangements which emphasized privacy, but not the disposal of faeces. In slums with toilets the number of users could be as high as 500 people per seat. Little children never got a chance to use the facilities when adult men were lined up waiting. In the government-constructed, multi-storey tenements, women were very unhappy to have an individual toilet inside their homes. In all the areas visited women had taken the drastic step of blocking it up. Many slums have low water pressure; toilets begin to stink, and since the tenement is only one room a dirty toilet next to the cooking area presents a serious health hazard. ‘If we have to cope with a dirty toilet,’ the women said, ‘it is better that it is outside the house – we have other uses for that space’.

Having completed the rounds of other informal settlements, SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF began to develop their own views. They agreed a preference for community toilets with a ratio of one toilet for every 25 people – a toilet block of four or five seats could be shared by 20-25 households who would jointly manage them. The blocks would include separate seats for men and women, an outside open channel over which the children could squat and a flushing mechanism which would draw their waste into the main collection pit.

When we enter into dialogue with the authorities this is now the basic formula we present to them as the people’s solution. It is not perfect. It is not ideal. And it is not permanent. But it represents a pragmatic solution which will make basic sanitation available to all the poor people in the city and establish a partnership between city authorities and communities.

The collective, hard-earned experience of SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF suggests that proactive dialogue must be properly prepared for by the participants. Each group must make a substantial investment so that it can come to the negotiating table with a clear sense of what is important to them and what is not, what contribution they can make towards the solution and what concessions would be acceptable.

In 1989-90 we surveyed slums in ten cities. We helped local city federations identify a core team of community leaders (men and women) who visited all their informal settlements. Almost invariably sanitation was identified as one of the most persistent and serious problems they faced. For example, in Kanpur, a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the north of India, the slum dwellers surveyed their area and found they needed 500 toilets. They suggested that municipal officials study their proposal and, if it were acceptable, construct a number of toilet blocks which the communities would then maintain.

We began training slum dwellers in other cities to organize themselves and to enter into dialogue with the municipal administrations. We also ensured that federations were able to visit each other’s settlements to gain ideas and confidence. These types of support provided both capacity-building experience and tangible evidence – assets which helped their participation in the city’s decision-making process.

We are now participating in a project in Bombay which will provide 20,000 toilet seats for one million people living in the city’s slums. According to our data collection there are at present just 3,000 toilet seats for these people; 80 per cent of the toilets are not fully operational and need to be torn down or repaired. Negotiations to explore how communities can be assisted to take on construction, maintenance and management of toilets are in progress.

We and the communities with which we work have come a long way in the ten years since women pavement dwellers first began to discuss the problem of toilets in their ideal settlement. As more and more communities, women and city officials co-operate they become more capable of refining the solution, adding new dimensions and adapting to different contexts. This improves the material condition of people living in informal urban settlements. But, more importantly, it is a process of empowerment and involvement. Once people start talking about toilets other things follow.

Sheela Patel is one of the founders and the current director of SPARC, which has available a number of publications about its work. Write to PO Box 9389, Bombay 400 026, India.

Mahila Milan is the name a group of women pavement dwellers from the Byculla area of Bombay gave to themselves in 1986. As these women began to share their views and ideas with women in other settlements, additional groups gathered together and adopted the same name. Now this network of collectives extends to 14 cities. Its main focus is to train women to participate centrally in community decision-making.

The National Slum Dwellers Federation started in 1974. It sought an alliance with SPARC in 1986 and has actively supported the development of Mahila Milan’s network. NSDF was originally 100-per-cent male; today 50 per cent of its committee members are women trained by Mahila Milan.

SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF believe in the following problem-solving process:

  • Start with the poorest, worst-off group. If a solution can be made to work for them, then it can be adapted to work for the better off.

  • Those whose lives are affected are the best judges. They may not contribute all the elements, but they can identify the essential ingredients.

  • Women remain the managers of communities at the daily level, yet when outside agencies come in, women are often sidelined as male leaders take over. Ensuring that women’s collectives participate in the entire process is crucial for the development and sustainability of a workable solution


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