Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

India: Toilet Technology for Human Dignity
April 2008

By Cezar Tigno Web Writer If dignity is denied to people without toilets, what is left for people who clean up human excrement? This is what scavengers in India, born into the unfortunate “untouchables” caste, had to contend with everyday. To liberate these scavengers from the filthy task, a nongovernment organization lent a compassionate hand by providing a new toilet technology. But can this organization also change their lives? SANITATION WITH COMPASSION Providing toilets to millions of people is not a walk in the park; especially not in the country that ranks second in the world’s most populated, and certainly not in the one with the most densely populated cities. The task is even doubly difficult in a country where the introduction of new technology challenges people’s most cherished traditions and beliefs. This, the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation (Sulabh), a nongovernment organization in India, knows only too well. Since 1970, the New Delhi-based Sulabh has installed toilets all across India to replace dry latrines, encouraged people to discontinue open defecation, and in the process, got rid of one of the oldest, dirtiest, and lowliest occupations in the country—the manual collection and disposal of human feces. This unhealthy job falls unto unfortunate scavengers or “night soil workers,” most of whom are women and “untouchables”—the lowest of society’s low according to India’s complex caste system. Sushila Chauhan, a woman of 30 from Rajasthan who used to clean 15-20 latrines a day for US$0.25 per toilet per month, narrated, “The people would throw the money on the floor so they would not have to touch me.” Everyday, with eyes on the ground, she carried a bucket of fresh human feces on her head. Born into an “untouchable” family, Sushila was destined to handle excreta the rest of her life. Sulabh took on the task of liberating scavengers like Sushila from their social bondage and restoring their dignity as human beings. Besides providing toilets, Sulabh also began educating people on sanitation’s benefits and changing society’s views on untouchables. “Our painstaking efforts in about four decades have been able to change the thoughts and behavior patterns of the people and also the politicians and officials of the Central and State Governments. It has also changed the mindset of the people and now people are willing to have toilets in their homes,” Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak explained. Today, Sulabh has made 240 towns scavenging-free and has relieved about 120,000 scavengers from collecting the country’s excrement. SEWERS AND SCAVENGERS History tells us that India was once the site of the Indus Valley Civilization, an ancient but sophisticated society with knowledge of modern urban planning and believed to have built the world’s first urban sanitation system. In the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohen-jo-Daro, evidences of complex water, sewerage, and drainage systems imply that all houses had access to water and drainage facilities. But when this ancient society declined, open defecation became common practice. In the late 19th century, India’s British colonizers attempted to build the first modern sewerage system in the country. But after 138 years of colonial rule, only about 232 out of 5,161 towns or cities had partially functioning sewers. High construction and maintenance costs could not be sustained. Today, with mega-cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi, and Kolkata and more than 20 cities that have a population of more than 1 million people, it is not difficult to understand why these ancient systems did not last. They simply could not handle India’s ever-increasing population. In New Delhi alone, existing sewers originally built to service a population of only 3 million could definitely not manage the wastewater produced daily by the city’s present inhabitants, now close to a massive 14 million. India has neither enough water to flush-out city effluents nor enough money to set up sewage treatment plants. But sewerage is not the only problem. About 70 percent of India’s entire population still lacks improved sanitation facilities. According to the 2001 census, 13.6 percent of India’s urban population and 78.4 percent of the rural population practiced open defecation. In the absence of toilets and a sewerage system, the bucket latrines along with the services of scavengers became the easy choice, until Sulabh began its campaign.

TWIN-PIT TOILET TECHNOLOGY Although 70 percent of India’s citizens have yet to enjoy toilets, this is not to say that the country is not doing anything. In fact, India’s efforts to provide toilets to its millions of citizens have been fast-paced compared with other Asian countries. From 1990 to 2002, 88.5 million people in India’s urban areas and a staggering 237 million people in rural areas gained access to improved sanitation— posting for the country one of Asia’s highest sanitation growth rates within the 12-year period, this according to the multi-agency study Asia Water Watch 2015. India is actually on-track to achieve the sanitation target of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Evidently, Sulabh’s passion for sanitation has contributed greatly to India’s MDG efforts. Its reputation rests on a pioneering and innovative selfcomposting two-pit, pour-flush toilet called Sulabh Shauchalaya. “The Sulabh Shauchalaya is scientifically appropriate, economically affordable, and culturally acceptable,” said Pathak, who developed the technology. “It is eco-friendly and meets all the standards prescribed by the World Health Organization,” Pathak added. The Sulabh toilet has a pour-flush mechanism that requires only 1.5 to 2 liters of water for flushing and can function even when not enough water is available. It has two pits that are used alternately as septic storage and compost pit. When the first pit is full, composting begins and excreta is diverted to the second pit. Composting takes about two years, and by that time, the sludge becomes almost dry, odorless, and pathogen-free, ready to be used as soilconditioner. The toilet can also be easily connected to sewers when introduced in the area. More importantly, the Sulabh toilet does not require the service of scavengers, and can be cleaned and easily maintained by the owners themselves. To date, they are now being enjoyed by more than 1.2 million households. A NEW LIFE FOR SCAVENGERS Freed from their dirty work, India’s scavengers are now finding a new life of their own, with Sulabh’s help. Sulabh established the first training institute exclusively for scavengers, where training programs on various vocations such as driving, audio and television assembly, tailoring, typing, canework, carpentry, leatherwork, cosmetology, fashion design, and masonry are held, to help scavengers get more decent jobs. Scavengers have also been supported in building their houses away from slums. They are also educated on health, sanitation, and personal hygiene.

Sulabh has also established the Sulabh Centre for Action Sociology, which runs an English medium school in Delhi for the scavengers' children. The organization has also diversified in terms of putting up vocational schools for women and young people, community clinics, mobile hospitals, blood donation drives, herbal medicine propagation, yoga training and a lot more. Sushila’s life, for one, has drastically changed. She now has a business—selling pickles. “Now I am not an untouchable, I am also a person, a good person,” Sushila said. She has also attended the World Toilet Summit in New Delhi in 2007 and shared the dais with the Summit’s guest of honor, The Netherland’s Willem Alexander, the Prince of Orange, Chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation and with Former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Sushila can now hold her head high and look at people in the eye. She no longer carries a bucket of human feces on her head. RELATED LINK Water Champion: Bindeshwar Pathak on Crusading for Human and Environmental Dignity

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in April 2008: The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.