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Looking for a Simple Place to Sit

A man urinating on the roadside due to a lack of public toilets in India. (Pranav Singh/Flickr)

A man urinating on the roadside due to a lack of public toilets in India. (Pranav Singh/Flickr)

The following are excerpts from Toilet Talk, a publication of the National Slum Dwellers Federation Mahila Milan and Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) in India.

Looking for a Simple Place to Sit

Men, women and children in Indian cities are sitting by the millions, not in toilets at all, but along roadsides and railway tracks, on footpaths, in empty lots, between buildings, over drainage nalas, in make-shift privies of sticks and gunny sacking and in the dark in-between places which great cities are full of, in the early morning, late night or at high noon. They are shouted at, molested, exposed to indignities, dumped-on, insulted. Nobody would endure these things if they had a choice.

For most, the choice of where to relieve themselves is not a choice at all, but a total lack of other options. Either no toilets are available, or if there are, they are in such bad shape that squatting in public becomes preferable. Indian slums are littered with broken-down, badly-planned, ill-sited, unmaintained toilets which even dogs won’t go near, much less people.

Many people in slums have never even seen or used a decent toilet. On the other hand, many state officials who make big decisions about sanitation in informal settlements have never seen a viable, community-managed toilet themselves. With all these poorly-stocked imaginations, it’s no wonder things are so slow to change. There is a poverty of examples, of models for how to make toilets that are affordable, replicable and work.


Problems in Indian Cities: Larger Agendas and Interconnectedness

Cities in India have a long history of mixed development. All kinds of land uses and incomes have mixed together in a cheerful jumble for as long as there have been cities at all in India. This has always been convenient for both the city’s haves and have-nots. The city, which depends for its prosperity on a vast supply of cheap labor, gets a workforce, and the poor, who depend on the city for their livelihood, get jobs. A poor settlement in your back yard provides a built-in support system - servants, carpenters, masons, porters, weavers, factory workers, waiters, drivers.

But it is one of the strange birds of Indian life that while the very poor and the very rich often live right next to each other, they can also manage to remain perfectly oblivious of each other’s existence. It is as though the lives of the poor and the settlements they live in were invisible. The capacity to not see how your neighbor is living has been the leitmotif of Indian urban planning until now.

But things are changing. This passive coexistence is being exploded by the growth taking place in cities, by new economic and environmental agendas, which force Indian cities to compete for investment in a global economy, with all the world’s other cities. Cities are the “engines of growth”, the unit of India’s economic development, and are being forced to spiffy up their image to make themselves attractive in this global market.

And cities are beginning, slowly and reluctantly, to peel off the cloak of invisibility and acknowledge the problems of poor settlements as being problems of the whole city. Cities can no longer afford to ignore the large portion of their populations forced to live in degraded and unhealthy environments, without access to basic services. If those people, who’s cheap labour is so necessary to the city’s economic vitality, are denied access to the most basic services, it’s bad news for everyone, for the city as a whole.

This is nowhere so clear as in urban infrastructure. The lion’s share of India’s budget for developing infrastructure is being poured into cities. Even still, the grim statistics affirm that half of urban Indians do not have access to a functioning toilet. This circumstance makes big ripples: a health crisis, degradation of living environments, harassment of women, pollution of water bodies, you name it. But toilets are only part of the much larger story of inequities and shortfalls in the distribution of basic services in Indian cities, including water supply, solid waste disposal, storm water drainage, sewerage and sanitation, electricity, paved roads and walkways.

There’s no point spending big money to improve the city’s sewerage grids and waste-disposal systems, though, if those improvements reach only half the city’s population, while waste from the other half continues to go into the rivers untreated. And even if communities could build lovely toilets in ALL the slums, they’re doomed to the rats if the city can’t deliver sewer lines and water supply to them. If you plan infrastructure for the poor, the whole city benefits, and if you leave them out, the whole city hurts.