The State’s ‘Namma Toilet’ model shows public involvement is crucial in building user-friendly sanitation facilities

In December 2011, the Government of Tamil Nadu declared that it would take steps to provide safe sanitation to all its residents by 2015. This ambitious goal led to sanitation being recognised as a priority “State” issue. In pursuit of improving sanitation services, a multidisciplinary team was formed to look into various aspects of urban sanitation. The lessons learnt in the early stages of this exercise can help in better planning and implementation of sanitation services in other States as well.

Observations from field visits indicated that while sanitation facilities were insufficient, a bigger problem was the condition of existing facilities. Public and community toilets could have been designed better. Problems such as unplanned spaces, selection of construction material, leaking taps, broken toilet pans, inaccessible toilets, lack of ventilation, clogged networks and insufficient water and electricity, figured prominently. Most facilities were found to be unfit for use by the dependent population like children, the elderly and the differently-abled. It was clear that the expansion of facilities could not take place with the existing design of toilets.

Overcoming resistance

However, the striking observation during these visits was the lack of public responsibility towards existing sanitation facilities. After several public meetings, it was apparent that sanitation problems were further complicated by disunited communities, vandalism of public utilities, and lack of public ownership. Communities were divided when it came to deciding a location for public toilets. Families with toilets at home resisted the construction of community toilets, even if the majority in their locality did not have access to toilets at home. Once built, the facilities were subjected to vandalism and theft of fittings and fixtures. While residents kept the toilets within their household clean, the responsibility to take care of public utilities as their own was completely missing. This behaviour suggested that the current facilities did not meet user needs, leading to frustration among users and abandonment or misuse of these facilities.

Reflecting on these findings, a decision was taken to change the overall look and feel of city toilets. In order to encourage usage and ownership, it was recognised that the toilet facility had to meet people’s needs and aspirations. A collective effort was required to create a user-friendly, universal design, which would cater to the needs of all kinds of users — men and women, children, the elderly, and residents with special needs.

A redesign

As a first step, a study of cultural appropriateness in Tamil Nadu was undertaken by the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. The study highlighted preferences of urban residents and also shed light on how existing designs have failed to meet user needs. This was followed by six months of brainstorming sessions with a team of sanitation experts, architects, industrial designers, branding and communication specialists, and material experts.

The result was a universal toilet, where every element was designed keeping in mind the user. It was named “Namma Toilet” to inculcate a feeling of ownership and pride in users. “Namma Toilets” are prefabricated modular stalls and can be assembled at the site within a short period. Based on local needs and availability of space, the toilet can be put up as a standalone unit shared by a family, assembled together to form a row of toilets serving a group of families or the floating population, and even an entire complex for the community. The toilets have louvres on all four sides and a sunroof to allow for optimal ventilation, natural light and a feeling of openness without compromising user privacy. The fittings and fixtures are vandal resistant, durable and user-friendly. Each toilet stall is powered by a solar panel installed on the roof. During the day, the toilets get sunlight while the solar panels charge the battery, and when it is dark, the stalls are lit with motion sensor lighting. Most importantly, the toilet stalls do not have sharp corners that often accumulate dust and dirt. The interiors are seamless and can be easily cleaned with the help of a water jet. For treating the waste water, it has been proposed to provide a range of options to suit site specific conditions. The usage of recycled flush water is also being emphasised.

Pilot project

After design validation by IIT Bombay’s Industrial Design Centre, the first set was installed at the Tambaram bus station, Chennai, as a pilot in February 2013. The three free-to-use toilets stalls installed at the site get an average of 600-700 users daily. In addition to the unique design of these toilets, their success has also depended on the involvement of the local municipality and toilet caretakers. Communication has played a key role as well. Before the formal opening, a public meeting with the local self-help groups (SHG) was held to familiarise them with the features of these new toilets. Post-inauguration, a walk was organised with the SHGs to the toilet stalls to gather user inputs. Alterations to the design take place periodically based on user inputs.

“Namma Toilets” will be provided on a need-based approach after consultation with the local stakeholders. Community-based organisations will be encouraged to create their own “Namma Toilets” through locally available materials. The success will, however, depend on the collective effort of authorities as well as communities who will have to eventually own these toilets.

At a time when several efforts to improve sanitation are not yielding the desired results, it is imperative for States to adopt a bottom-up approach, particularly in lower income pockets. An equal emphasis on hardware and user awareness is needed in the planning stages. In each location where a new toilet is planned, solutions will have to be customised keeping in mind local conditions, needs and preferences. Most importantly, the effort has to be collective, involving everyone who has a stake in improving access to sanitation services.

(Somya Sethuraman is the sanitation specialist for the Commissionerate of Municipal Administration, Government of Tamil Nadu. The opinions expressed are personal. E-mail: somyase@gmail.com)

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