Why public toilets get clogged

The best-designed plans for the building and maintenance of public toilets in India seem to come undone. But the argument that the pay-per-use model popularised by Sulabh is the only workable one is superficial and unrealistic in a country where millions are denied their right to basic services like clean water and sanitation, says Kalpana Sharma


On November 19, the front page of a leading Mumbai daily ran an advertisement that announced that it was World Toilet Day. The ad was blatantly selling a toilet-cleaning agent manufactured by a leading multinational company. Interesting, nonetheless, that an organisation calling itself the ‘World Toilet Organisation’ should have decided to choose November 19, the birthday of Indira Gandhi, as a day to remember toilets.

                What we should be remembering on that day is the absence of toilets in large parts of India. Our record on sanitation is still well below par for a country that believes it has already arrived on the world stage as an economic power. While some strides have been made in rural sanitation through campaigns like the Nirmal Gram Abhiyan, the urban situation remains problematic.

                With liberalisation has come the belief that many social services like providing sanitation and water can be delivered through public-private partnerships, and that the onus for these services need not be borne by the government alone. The private sector has discovered that there might even be profits in this sector. And NGOs working on sanitation have realised that they can intervene in the design and delivery of sanitation services.

                For Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the inventor of the Sulabh Shauchalaya, profit was not the motive that led him to devise the simple “twin-pit pour-flush toilet” that brought about a minor revolution in the availability of toilet facilities in many parts of India. Dr Pathak began in Bihar in the early-1970s, and now heads an organisation that has spread to other countries. Indeed, ‘Sulabh’ has almost become a generic term for a particular kind of toilet.

                While the Sulabh model has been greatly applauded and has generated substantial revenue for the organisation, not everyone is sold on the idea. Yet, even if there is disagreement on the details, the pay-per-use idea introduced by Dr Pathak has caught on.

                Every city has tried variations on this theme. The main issue here is how a toilet block can pay for itself so that its operations and maintenance costs can be covered. On paper, this seems workable. Municipalities give the land for such public toilets, including where Sulabhs are built, free, and more often than not, even water and electricity are free or heavily subsidised. While the Sulabh model does not need to be linked to the sewerage network, as it uses septic tanks, similar toilet blocks in other cities, particularly larger ones, are connected to the main sewer lines.

                So if Sulabh continues to make profits out of its toilets, how is it that other such efforts have not worked quite as well?

                One reason Sulabh makes profits is because its toilet blocks are usually built in areas with a heavy footfall such as train stations or bus stations or important city junctions. The toilets are heavily used and generate considerable daily revenue. It is estimated that they can cover their construction costs in less than a year. This surplus can then cross-subsidise toilets built in slums where people cannot pay as much and the use is not so heavy.

                There should have been similar success stories to report in cities where the private sector was initially invited to participate in providing public toilets. But the outcome has been mixed.

                Take Bengaluru for instance. The Karnataka government set up the Bengaluru Agenda Task Force (BATF) in 2000 to help garner private involvement in transforming the city. Sudha Murthy, wife of Infosys founder Narayan Murthy, offered Rs 8 crore from her personal funds to construct 100 public toilets in Bengaluru. The toilets blocks were called Nirmala toilets and followed Sulabh’s pay-per-use model. The Corporation would provide the land free; electricity and water too would be free or subsidised. Private companies were contracted to build, run and operate the toilets and hand them over to the municipality after a fixed number of years.

                The location of the toilets included public places, such as major out-station bus stops, and also slums where the charges would be Rs 20 per family per month rather than pay-per-use.

                In the initial stages, 27 Nirmala toilets were built with this money at a cost of roughly Rs 10 lakh per toilet block. However, even as the toilets were being built, it was evident that operations and maintenance would be a challenge.

                In the following four or five years, the Bengaluru Corporation constructed another 50-60 Nirmala toilets. But according to someone involved with the initial concept, the real problem arose when the Corporation decided to drop the user charges and make the toilets free.

                Within a short time, the inevitable happened. Operators running the toilets lost interest as profits fell. Little was invested in keeping the toilets clean and carrying out timely repairs. As a result, dozens of such toilet blocks are now reportedly virtually unusable.

                The Corporation has tried to hand over operations and maintenance to private companies again. But in the interim there has been no real evaluation of why the effort failed and what can be learnt from it. There is no system in place, for instance, for third-party inspection of the toilet blocks. Without regular scrutiny, it is inevitable that standards will slip.

                Some argue that if the Corporation had allowed private contractors to continue running the toilets by collecting user fees, the public would have been better served. The profits from such a venture are now well established, as is evident from the Sulabh experience. The revenue is virtually tax-free as it is a cash transaction. And ultimately, both the entrepreneur and user benefit. For women, in particular, who have minimal access to safe, clean toilet facilities in most cities, even paying is better than having no toilet at all.

                There is, however, a class angle. Those with money have secure housing and therefore do not need to worry about public toilets. They can walk with confidence into hotels or shopping malls when they are out, and otherwise have toilets in their homes. For the poor living in informal housing without individual toilets, public toilets are a necessity. If, on top of that, they have to pay each time they use it, the burden becomes heavy.

                Even if one concludes from the Bengaluru experience, and similar ones in other cities, that it is best to keep public facilities on a pay-per-use basis, what do you do about slums where the only toilets available are communal ones usually built by the municipality? The ratio of people to toilets in many slums can be as high as 1:2, 500 per toilet seat.

                User charges in slum toilets—Rs 20 per family per month—are clearly not going to generate adequate revenue to cover operations and maintenance. Hence, here, either a cross-subsidy or a direct subsidy is unavoidable.

                In cities like Mumbai and Pune, the municipality has roped in NGOs working with the urban poor to design, construct and maintain public toilets in slum areas. The funds for these projects are with the municipality, usually lying unused. The private part of the partnership is therefore not in funds, but in execution. Here again the story has been a mixed one.

                In Pune, for instance, an enthusiastic municipal commissioner encouraged several NGOs, including Shelter Associates and SPARC (Society for Area Resource Centres) to bid for contracts to construct toilets. At first, the outcome was encouraging as these groups consulted communities where the toilets would be built, discussed the design and the location, and encouraged people from the community to be part of the construction process.

                These consultations spawned several design innovations. For instance, children would continue to defecate in the open even where a toilet was available because the toilet pan was too wide for the child to straddle. As a result, mothers would let their children defecate just outside the toilet block making the approach to the toilet filthy. The groups decided to design a separate children’s toilet.

                In some slums in Mumbai, where SPARC undertook the work, a community centre was built on top of the toilet block. And the caretaker and his family lived in a room above the block. This ensured that it was kept clean.

                But even these enthusiastic interventions have not been trouble-free. Some of the problems had to do with the system that operates on the ground. For instance, even if a municipal corporation allows NGOs to bid for the construction of toilets, control of the money lies in the hands of petty bureaucrats. An honest and efficient man at the top does not eliminate the need to grease the palms of middlemen. So, getting funds in time to continue construction, and meeting deadlines, is the first big hurdle that many NGOs face.

                The other issue is the NGOs’ approach to these contracts; they see them as not just a way of meeting a community need but also of building capacity within the community to carry out such tasks in the future. But in the process of encouraging community-based contractors, there is always the risk of inexperience leading to basic construction flaws that show up within a few years of construction.

                Ultimately, it is the issue of operations and maintenance that seems to clog even the best-designed toilets. Community management of slum toilets has had its share of problems. In some cases where the group is cohesive and has been engaged in other issues such as savings, for instance, management is better. In others, where a group has been formed to manage the toilet, the results have not been entirely satisfactory. In several places, toilets have been taken over by the local thug or moneylender who charges whatever he pleases and virtually makes the toilet his adda.

                The story of public and community toilets in India can be told in several theses and books. In each city, the experiences are specific to the politics and needs of that place. But there are also common experiences from which lessons can be drawn for the future.

                It would be easy to conclude that just as there is no free lunch, there should be no free toilet facility. That is a superficial and unrealistic conclusion in the Indian context where millions are denied their right to basic services like clean water and sanitation. Ultimately, the only solution to the toilet crisis is the provision of secure housing in which sanitation is an integral part. But until that can be achieved (and currently it seems an almost insurmountable problem), facilities for the poor will have to be subsidised so that they may be spared the indignity that accompanies the lack of sanitation.


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