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.

The High Cost of Being Poor


The Smelly Facts about Public Toilets in Bombay
The National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Manila surveyed 151 settlements with a population of 1,022,016 to compare the actual and target situation of toilet availability for residents.
Municipal Target Ratio: 50 persons per seat
Actual Ratio: 1,488 persons per seat
Number of toilets required:
Total number of toilets built by Municipality: 3,433 seats
Number of non-working toilets: 2,746 seats (80%)
Actual Number of working toilets: 687 seats (20%)
Toilet Deficit: 19,753 seat


Over a decade ago, when the Bombay Mahila Milan first began gathering information about the toilet situation in Bombay’s poorest communities, they came upon a strange paradox, which repeats itself across urban India.

Middle class people, urban planners and city administrators all tend to see the poor as free-loaders, complain about the poor getting free amenities which everybody else has to pay for, and deplore this drain on the city’s resources with great righteousness.

But when women in pavement settlements spoke about their daily expenses, a very different picture emerged. Without ration cards, they couldn’t buy the cheap government-subsidized cooking fuels wealthier households take for granted, and had to pay inflated black-market rates for the same kerosene. Without their own water taps, every drop their families drank or washed with had to be paid for, at a premium, and carried bucket by bucket, from far-flung sources.

And without toilets, they had to queue for hours and pay dearly for the privilege of using the smelly loo of some shop-keeper or building watchman who saw a profit in nature’s most basic need. For a family of five or six members, each with the ordinary human digestive patterns, the daily toilet budget could go up to 12 rupees, which is pretty close to the daily wages of a head-loader or a vegetable seller.

Conditions like these are behind an ironic joke still making the rounds of Bombay’s pavement settlements, which quips that the poor are the only ones who can’t AFFORD to get diarrhoea.

Sagira, one of the senior members of the Byculla Mahila Milan and veteran trainer of dozens of community toilet and house-construction projects all over India, makes an analogy with the process of making salt from seawater. You stir and stir and stir and stir, she says, until you’re so tired of stirring. Just when you think nothing will ever happen, and there’s no use carrying on with this infernal stirring, the salt crystals begin to form. They won’t form without all that stirring. In the same way, solutions to complex problems don’t happen overnight, but need the same sustained, faithful nurturing and push. 

The Fine Points of Community Toilet Design

Small design details make a big difference in how shared toilets are used and maintained by communities. Here are some of the significant design features of one of the Federation Toilet blocks in Kanpur. We compare it with a conventional State-built toilet block to give you an idea how great a difference these subtle features can make.

In the NSDF model, community toilets are not isolated "dirty places", but intentionally built in central, "nodal" locations and combined with community gathering spaces, so use is automatically monitored, and upkeep is tied to the usability of these spaces.

In the Government model, the toilets face each other across a central space, without any separation of men's and women's toilets. This leads to hassling of women, lack of privacy, arguments about cleanliness. The NSDF/MM model is organized with two separate, back-to-back lines, one clearly for women and one for men.

The standard-issue government "Aqua-Privy" model is about 4-feet above street level since it sits on top of its own septic tank, and is accessible from both ends. When the doors to the stalls deteriorate, as they inevitably do, from the bottom-up, passers-by can look right up into the stalls. In the NSDF model, even if the doors deteriorate, the 5-foot walls outside the stalls block the possibility of any peeking.

The 10 stalls in the government block are ranged around a large central space, accessible from both ends. In the morning hours, when competition for use of the toilets is heaviest, there is much acrimonious jostling and queue-breaking in the competition for toilets. The NSDF/MM block's layout, with its 2-lines and narrow passages is an effective "crowd-organizer" and strife-avoider. Two lines form and lead right out of the enclosure, while at the toilets end, one person waits outside of each stall. When that person goes in, the next person in the queue takes his place.

The stalls of both models are pretty small. To make it easier to move in and out of the stall, when you're carrying a bucket of water, the NSDF model has doors which swing both ways. The government model has inward-swinging doors which force you to press against the not-so-clean inside walls to open the door and get out.

When queues for toilets are long, children often get shunted aside, and end up being forced to squat outside, where they soil the drains and periphery. There are also real dangers of very small children falling into trap-less aqua-privy toilets and drowning. The federations take the needs of kids seriously and have designed special, shallow children’s latrines, but so far, these have only been tested in the one toilet at Dharavi.

The stalls in the NSDF toilet block are ventilated on all four sides, with ventilating grilles placed high-up on the wall between the back-to-back stalls, one-foot gaps at the top of the side walls, and gaps above the 6-foot doors, so the stalls are ventilated on all four sides and bad smells have four means of escape.

In the NSDF Toilet block, the toilets are inside an enclosure. The exterior walls of the enclosure have no plumbing and are therefore "clean", so the toilet block has a clean public face. These clean outside walls work better in crowded conditions, where other buildings might directly abut the toilet block. This also allows toilets to be built up against existing compound walls without befouling them. This cuts the compound wall-building bill. Compare with the government blocks, whose exterior walls are the dirty backsides of toilet stalls and rusty, leaky plumbing.