A survey of public conveniences in Chennai has lessons for planners in other Indian cities.

Like many cities in India, the need for toilets in Chennai is great. For example, a survey of 3.2 lakh residents of undeclared slums in Chennai — published by the Slum Clearance Board in 2005 — revealed that only 29 per cent of them had access to individual toilets or pit latrines, while the rest depended on public toilets or had no access at all.

But when Transparent Chennai — an action research project on urban governance — surveyed and mapped 49 public toilets in one zone of north Chennai, we found that more than half the toilets there were barely used by residents, including women and children. How could this be the case in a city where the need for sanitation is so great?

Our mapping of the zone revealed that toilets were not located in areas of greatest need. They were found in areas with very little foot-traffic, away from bus stops, market areas and informal sector workplaces. Toilets were also poorly maintained, had frequent blockages, and lacked water and electricity. Our map of toilets shows how they are unequally distributed throughout the zone — some wards had multiple toilets, while many had none. When we compared our toilets map with a map of undeclared slums — areas where the need for toilets would be the greatest — it showed that very few of these slum areas had a toilet nearby.

How could toilets have been built in this manner? Our research showed that decisions about building toilets in the city are not based on data about needs and existing resources. Building toilets in the absence of such data has led to the misallocation of scarce resources.

Poor record keeping

Collecting the most basic data on public toilets revealed the shoddy state of record keeping. We wanted to know the number and locations of public toilets in the city, but the Buildings Department at the Chennai Corporation, responsible for the toilet structures, did not have a centralised record. We were told to ask each zonal office for this information. We visited the offices, sometimes multiple times, and also filed a Right to Information (RTI) application. The data given to us voluntarily by the engineers listed a total of 572 toilets in the city, but the RTI response showed 714. Every single zone listed a different number of toilets in the RTI than they had reported to us voluntarily. Mapping the toilets in the zone we studied, a zone with a considerable population of slum-dwellers and informal sector workers who rely on public toilets, uncovered further problems; the government's database often lacked specific location information, and sometimes misidentified locations entirely.

Interviews with the different agencies charged with providing sanitation for the poor in the city indicated that they do not make any efforts to share data with one another, data that could be used to build resources effectively and target them to areas of greatest need.

The construction and maintenance of public toilets in the city is the primary responsibility of the Corporation of Chennai, while other agencies act as support. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB), better known as Metro Water, is supposed to provide water and sewer lines to these toilets. The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board is responsible for providing hygienic conditions for slum dwellers in the city. Ideally, the location of a toilet should be based on an assessment of need and the availability of sewerage networks. However the Corporation does not seek Metro Water's advice before choosing locations for new construction. Sewer lines are instead connected to the toilet at a much later stage, in locations that are often not suitable for easy maintenance. The result is frequent sewer blockages, leaving the toilets unusable. Further, our study revealed that the Slum Clearance Board does not share its data about declared and undeclared slums with the Corporation, which means that toilets are often built with no relationship to existing settlements of the poor.

None of this comes as a surprise to those familiar with city services, especially those focused on the poor. But familiarity should not blind us to the very real impact of these processes: toilets are underutilised because they are not built in the places where they are most urgently needed, and then the lack of users at existing toilets is used as evidence that more public toilets are not needed in the city. But public toilets are a vital and necessary stopgap measure to increase access to sanitation, while the government undertakes the complex process of ensuring that every individual household has a toilet.

The poor quality of existing city level data, and the unwillingness of city agencies to use this data to allocate resources, means that even the limited existing public services fail to reach the needy. The lesson for Indian cities from our research in Chennai is that if city managers are serious about improving equity, efficiency and accountability in service provision, a prerequisite is that infrastructure decisions be based on rich public data that captures ground realities.

(Somya Sethuraman is a researcher with Transparent Chennai, housed at the Centre for Development Finance, IFMR. She was recently appointed a member of the Steering Committee on “Urban Water Supply and Sanitation” for the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission's 12th Five-Year Plan. E-mail: somya.sethuraman@ifmr.ac.in)

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