Providing the urban poor with toilets that work must become a priority for Indian policymakers

In South Mumbai's upscale Malabar Hill, a neighbourhood of 6,000 people share 52 toilets, 26 for men and 26 for women. That works out to around 115 people per toilet. Nearby live some of the oldest and richest families of the city with homes where one person may have a choice of many toilets.

But this is Simla Nagar, where 720 households are precariously perched on a not so wealthy slope of Malabar Hill. The path to the two-storey toilet block in the slum is like an obstacle race that only the able can undertake. Depending on which part of the slum you live in, it can take you anything from five to 20 minutes to reach the toilets. On the way you climb steep, uneven steps, walk uphill through narrow lanes barely four feet wide that are slippery with soapy water as scores of women wash clothes and utensils, then downhill through equally treacherous lanes to finally reach the destination.

If you get there before 10 a.m., you are lucky. There is water in the taps; hence the toilets are reasonably clean. If you wait longer, the water stops; you carry your own mug of water, just enough for your personal needs but not enough to flush the toilet. By mid-afternoon, all 52 toilets are rendered unusable. People wait in resignation till the evening when the toilets are cleaned. At night, although the toilets are lit, the path leading to them is not.

Some enterprising people have built their own toilets inside their tiny homes. But there is no sewerage. So the waste pipe dumps the human waste in the open drain outside. If you are the unfortunate neighbour of one of these inventive souls, you live with the stench and the flies and mosquitoes. No one complains. You just curse your luck that you do not have the resources, or the space, to copy your neighbour.

For old people, especially old women, getting to the toilet is virtually impossible unless your jhopdi is next door. And children? Mothers say they use the open drain. Who has the time to drop everything and run with the child to the toilet?

So Bill Gates' idea to launch a global quest to “reinvent the toilet” is certainly timely. India has been given the singular honour of hosting the “Reinventing the toilet” summit in 2013. Very appropriate given over 60 per cent of Indians are forced to defecate in the open because they have no access to toilets. If nothing else, the conference will draw necessary global attention to a problem that is often relegated to the bottom of the endless list of challenges poor countries face.

Innovations needed

Technological innovations are needed as in rural areas, and even in some towns, where capital-intensive underground sewerage systems might not be feasible. Also flush toilets waste too much water and are unsustainable given the growing scarcity of water. But coming up with new ideas for toilets should not be rocket science. As Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh stated recently, “We can launch missiles like Agni and satellites but we cannot provide sanitation to our women.”

The real challenge for India is dealing with the sanitation needs of cities and towns, particularly the areas where the urban poor live. Having failed spectacularly all these years to provide affordable housing in cities — Mumbai is now constantly referred to as “Slumbai” — the least governments can do is to put the sanitation challenge within slum settlements top of their list of priorities.

In cities like Mumbai, the problem is partly compounded by the carrot of redevelopment that is dangled before many notified or regularised slums such as Simla Nagar. Because they are designated for redevelopment at some future date, not much attention is paid to their immediate needs. As a result, you have toilets that are nowhere near enough for the colony, yet new toilets will not be built. And you have a water supply that comes for just four hours every evening thereby making the hand-flush toilets unusable for a significant part of the day. Appeals to augment the supply fall on deaf ears. In the end, not out of choice but out of compulsion, many residents of such slums are compelled to defecate in the open at the cost of their own sense of dignity.

There have been efforts, often half-hearted. Funds are allocated but lie unused for years because no one really cares. And the majority of toilet schemes in slums fail for precisely the same reasons: not enough water, zero maintenance and an unresponsive administration.

Even if people come up with innovative ideas, there is little encouragement. Many people from outside government who have tried to intervene in the sanitation sector end up hitting their heads against a brick wall: the unwillingness of much of the bureaucracy to be flexible and open to new ideas, to design adaptations and to the beneficiary community's views. To meet the toilet challenge, it is this mindset that has to be reinvented.