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A problem we can’t flush away (hindu)

The BMC wants to make the city open-defecation-free, and has committed to providing mobile toilets and clean-up marshals to police those defecating in the open. Is this enough? In the first of a two-part series, we look at the how the city deals with human waste.

For nearly two decades, the residents of Hanuman Nagar in Bhandup attended nature’s call in the thicket adjoining their slum colony, sometimes walking half an hour to get to a spot where they could go about their business uninterrupted. Post sundown, they made the trek in the dark, as there were no street lights there. “There were just two or three toilets for the 300-odd huts,” says Deepa Bhadarge, a long-time resident, “and we used to take our cans [of water, to clean themselves] there. The toilet soon became unusable, after its septic tank burst.”

The women of the slum were the hardest-hit: they would have to be accompanied by someone every time they needed to go to the ‘jungle’ as it was not very safe. A year ago, about 15 of them asked the local municipal corporator to help them build a toilet; when action wasn’t taken, they persevered. Soon, their persistence paid off: the corporator asked them to identify a spot where they could build the toilet which did not infringe on Naval land. “In a month, he helped us build two toilets, apart from a road,” Ms. Bhadarge says “He also got street lights installed.” The best part, she says with a hint of pride in her voice, is that the slum community maintains the toilet themselves. “We had hired a bai [cleaning lady] to clean them, but there were too many fights. Now we keep our toilets spotlessly clean.”

Not everyone in Mumbai is as enterprising or committed as the women of Hanuman Nagar. Nearly 20 per cent of slum-dwellers in a city where 60 per cent of the population lives in slums, have no access to toilets at all, according to a study by the Observer Research Foundation done two years ago. While the Swachh Bharat Mission guidelines say there should be a toilet seat for every 30 users, in Mumbai, there is just one toilet seat for 1,200 slum residents, according to the study. For most of their them, defecating in the open — typically along railway tracks — is the only available option. The BMC has committed to providing mobile toilets, and clean-up marshals who will police those defecating in the open. But, says Dinesh Mehta, Professor Emeritus at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, “In the full-service charter of sanitation, toilets are just the beginning.” Three of the main components, he says, are servicing toilets in a meaningful way, carrying waste water through a conveyance system and treatment and re-use of treated water. CEPT has given suggestions to the State Government as part of its Swachh Maharashtra Mission.

“It’s a compulsion. No one likes to use what I call ‘air-conditioned toilets’ — squatting along the railway tracks — which is still a common sight on the Western and Central Railway,” says Jockin Arputham, President of the National Slum Dwellers Federation.

“The paradox,” says Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman, ORF, is “people deprived of sanitation are not poor. They are forced to live in poor and insanitary conditions because of the artificial shortage of housing and an even more artificial shortage of toilets.”

The state of community toilets

In March 2015, a 45-year-old woman fell into a 20-foot-deep septic tank filled to capacity, when the floor of the toilet she was using in the Maharashtra Nagar slum in Deonar collapsed. Firefighters extricated her body hours later. “The toilet was poorly built,” Mr. Kulkarni says. “We protested the incident, and wrote to the Municipal Commissioner and Assistant Municipal Commissioner. Till date, work on the community toilet has not been completed in the area.”

The sanitation needs of the city’s slums are essentially met by such shared free-to-use community toilets, most of them built by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA). They are not reinforced cement concrete (RCC) structures. And they are usually filthy. Mr. Kulkarni points to the “assault on people’s dignity”: A year ago, a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) survey showed 58 per cent of community toilets in slums had no electricity, while 78 per cent had no water. Many have no doors either.

A much smaller number of toilets — relatively better maintained — have been built by the BMC under the World Bank-funded Slum Sanitation Programme (SSP), part of the Mumbai Sewage Disposal Project. Under Phase 3 of the programme, which began in 2013-14, 173 large toilet blocks will be constructed, giving an additional 15,480 seats to slum residents. Seema Redkar, former Officer on Special Duty at the BMC, who was involved in constructing community and individual toilets all over the city, says for the first time, a sense of ownership was created through the involvement of community-based organisations (CBOs). This is a model that can work best with community toilets. (See ‘How a toilet can transform a neighbourhood,’ alongside.)

Across most community toilets in the city, though, issues persist: women, senior citizens and people with disabilities find it difficult to use them. Women hold their urge to use the toilet for hours, face harassment on their way to toilets, and have no designated area to dispose of sanitary napkins. Senior citizens and disabled people are often forced to relieve themselves in plastic bags, which are emptied into the community toilet, clogging them further.

The case for individual toilets

Wherever possible, the Corporation must build individual toilets, says Ms. Redkar.

In September 2015, the BMC announced a One-Home-One-Toilet policy, but an implementation plan is still not in place. For this to happen, says Ms. Redkar, “political and administrative will” is needed. In the city’s hilly areas, it is not easy to implement, she admits, which is why no civil contractor takes up such work. “But if you do the most complicated site once, lay a main sewage line running from the top all the way down, people will connect to it or to the septic tank. I’m not an engineer, but I believe up to 40 per cent of toilets can be connected to septic tanks or the sewage system.” Once there are toilets inside, the house automatically gets upgraded, and hygiene is no longer an issue.

Sabah Khan, coordinator of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Transforming M-Ward project, suggests having smaller toilet units closer to homes, while continuing with community toilets, especially since Mumbai has a huge migrant population. “We submitted 250 applications for individual toilets in M Ward and received a fairly good response from MCGM. At times, the issue is that people don’t want demolition of their spaces for construction of the septic tank outlet. This is where you need to work with the community, identify feasible spots.”

For Mumbai to eliminate open defecation, it needs to ensure there are toilets at the household level and that community toilets function well, says CEPT’s Mehta. “They can work around the lack of space by what we call ‘group toilets,’ where two to three neighbours get together and build a toilet for their use.” Globally, he says, research has shown that health benefits from improved sanitation do not accrue from community toilets. A WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme considers community toilets as an “unimproved” sanitation source. “This is not something public policy should be promoting.” Local governments spend an enormous amount on construction and management of community toilets. From a 10-year perspective, the same outlay can be used for partial subsidy of individual or household toilets, he says.

Ms. Redkar says the space freed up by community toilets can be used for community activities, a small playground, or even a community hall. “The government needs to appoint not one, but maybe five to six contractors in each ward, give them a task and an incentive for doing good work. People have to, and will, contribute to something like this.”

A long-term sanitation solution, therefore, cannot be ‘official’. No engineer can resolve the issue, says Mr. Arputham. “You need social engineering. Wherever mobile toilets do exist in the city, they are either broken or leaking. Who is going to maintain these toilets? A Salman Khan is not going to do that. Neither will people say, ‘I’m not going to spoil this one as it’s donated by him.’ No toilet project will be a success unless you involve the community.”

What the BMC says

Speaking to The Hindu, Assistant Municipal Commissioner (Solid Waste Management) Kiran Dighavkar said, “Mumbai is the first city in India that is attempting to be open defecation-free; at least we’re taking up this challenge. This is not a joke.”

The BMC has reduced open defecation spots to 78 locations in the city over two years, from among 118 such spots across the city. There are two obstacles to reducing this further, he says: One, “Mumbaikars have a very large expectation from city services but are unwilling to contribute”; two, there are multiple agencies in Mumbai that own public land. The BMC has tried to construct pay-and-use community toilets at open-defecation spots, but this has proved to be difficult as the land comes under various authorities. In many places, no-objection certificates were not available; in many others, there were no sewage networks, nor place to build toilets. “In the case of the railways, they don’t even think it’s their job to get into this.” The railways demolished a toilet block that the BMC constructed in H Ward (East), he said.

Aside from providing mobile toilets — “To hire, buy or install mobile toilets, we do not require anyone’s permission” — and provide monitoring mechanisms like clean-up marshals, it is critical to raise awareness, change mind-sets, because, he says, “if people choose to continue with their old ways, what can the corporation do? These are habits acquired over 20 to 30 years, that won’t change overnight. We have to make it a social taboo.” Apart from roping in celebrities — the BMC recently roped in actor Salman Khan as brand ambassador of the campaign — the corporation is organising street plays in open defecation areas in an attempt to make it a movement. As for individual toilets, Mr. Dighavkar said while the Central government has allotted funds for Individual Household Latrine (IHHL) construction, slum conditions in Mumbai are “very different”, with space being the major issue. In hilly or congested areas, which were unplanned colonies, sewerage lines cannot be built. “We tried our best till January this year; ultimately we requested IHHL for giving us the funds to build community toilets. The best option would be to transfer these toilets to CBOs and get them to maintain them. Other than the pay-and-use toilets, these are models that work.”

How a toilet can transform a neighbourhood

The public toilet in Khotwadi slum, Santacruz, is an example of a community-led initiative that, over a decade, has yielded socio-economic and environmental rewards.

In 2001, a community-based organisation (CBO), Triratna Prerana Mandal, took over the management and maintenance of the toilet, which, says Seema Redkar who spearheaded its transformation as the BMC’s Officer on Special Duty at the time, “was in bad shape.”

The toilet was refurbished using civic and World Bank funds. Women were organised into self-help groups, and some of them regularly cooked for 900 school children on the toilet complex’s terrace of the. The CBO even ran a computer class. The area was kept clean, trees were planted, and a composting pit created for used flowers. The manure was used to start a plant nursery. Even today, women use the complex to pack snacks for local garment unit workers.

In 2007, the Mandal won Deutsche Bank’s Urban Age Award. The money from the award was used to recharge ground water and go in for a solar project, which reduced their overall costs. Today, the toilet, maintained by the CBO, has 22 seats and a bathroom and is open 24x7. The water — nearly 8,000 litres a day — comes from rainwater harvesting. The toilet for women has a bin for disposing sanitary napkins. “We removed windows in women’s toilets, where they would typically stuff sanitary napkins. We would check the toilet every time someone used it, and if people spat there, we would ask them to wash it, else they wouldn’t be allowed to use it again. We installed security cameras too.” Once habits changed, design of the toilets too was changed. The squatting platform was converted into a bathroom. “Someday, we will have a biogas plant here,” she says.

Ms. Redkar says the central point of this experiment was sanitation. “It soon branched out to other things.” The CBO is now an NGO partner to the BMC to form similar organisations in other slums. It trained ragpickers, who serviced 16 community bins in the area, to segregate waste and started a dry waste centre in 2005. Today, there are no community bins, and all garbage collection is centralised.

Importantly, it has linkages to other areas. Societies in Juhu, for instance, send them their dry waste to be recycled. The CBO is given electronic goods like computers in donation, which is passed on to other organisations and even to rural areas.

It was not easy getting to this point, Ms. Redkar says. “When we decided to do waste segregation, people dropped out after our initial calculation of ₹13 a day. Today, we’re making up to ₹1,500 a day. They (the community) couldn’t visualise themselves in this position as they’d never seen something so big.”

A spatial perspective

A toilet for everyone in three years? Rahul Mehrotra, architect and Professor and Chair of Urban Design and Planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design thinks that’s unrealistic. “Politically, we’re trying to construct silver bullets to solve problems in absolute terms. In planning, we call it ‘end-state planning.’ You can’t even think of solving the problem of housing in three years, leave alone sanitation.” Prof. Mehrotra believes it is important to factor in a transition. “Maybe in an autocracy you can pull off that kind of thinking. In a democracy, it’s about consensus-building, culture-shifting and designing a path to something.”

One problem, Prof. Mehrotra says, is that we think about infrastructure in mono-functional terms: So a high-rise is only a high-rise, and a public toilet is only a public toilet. “How do you embed these pieces of infrastructure in the fabric of lived experience in the city? Can community toilets have a community centre above them?” Through these kinds of imaginations, one begins to build a sense of community, and shift culture.

To work around the space crunch in the city, the government needs to go to the communities and say, for instance, that four houses will be relocated within a slum, maybe by building two extra floors in another spot. A community centre, which also has a community toilet, can be built in the space created by the relocation. This is what Patrick Geddes, the Scottish architect, planner and biologist called, ‘conservative surgery’. “You don’t demolish the whole slum; rather, you go with a fine-grained approach to these problems.”

Cities, therefore, need to be talked about not merely in terms of economies, but also in terms of space. “The government is actually interested in statistical architecture, not place-making. We have stopped imagining how places can be made and remade. We have to spend much more time designing transitions.” If he was tasked with building community toilets, he would do them in steel, which can be dismantled. “These are solutions of optimism, not pessimism where these toilets are concrete bunkers.”


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