The Potty Project

Researching sanitation in low-income urban India.


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Key Takeaway 11 is “behavior shifts are highly reactive and are reset by a resource constrained environment.” Temporary stimuli such as disease force users to consider a holistic shift in sanitation practice only for the duration of the illness. Essentially, the sanitation and hygiene habits of households are an equilibrium caused by opposing forces. Behavior changes can be instigated, but not are sustained until seen as an absolute necessity.

To illustrate, in slums, toilets are used under special circumstances in absence of which people revert to open defecation. People who are accustomed to open defecating may use the toilet only during rainy seasons when access to open fields becomes an issue. Many realize that continued use of a pit toilet will cause it to fill up more quickly which will be impossible/expensive to excavate. This knowledge and the realization that there are other alternatives to toilets makes it difficult to encourage individuals to use facilities even when they are available to them.

Key Takeaway 10 is “rituals and practices get established by emulating peers and are emergent as opposed to ‘top-down.’” Users of a shared community toilet passively co-create and adopt a “fair” system that gets established over time. Homogenous systems start falling into place when people begin imitating each other. For instance, many communities have a system of place-holding in lines, by setting down their water buckets to indicate their place in the queue. Another practice that has emerged in Janta Chawl in Mumbai is the practice of key-mapping, that is, distributing keys to families in the immediate area, in order to keep the toilets semi-private, and to give responsibility to those families to keep them clean.

Key Takeaway 09 is “caste lines and religious beliefs are a hindrance to participatory sanitation.” Users are apathetic towards the condition of shared sanitation facilities as they ascribe the responsibility of keeping it clean to a designated section of society. Religious beliefs are a strong hinderance to participate in maintenance or cleaning of community or even private toilets. Savita, resident of Ahmedabad, illustrates this issue, saying “we are followers of Goddess Laxmi and will not clean a toilet even if you pay Rs.100,000. The goddess just doesn’t allow it.”

Because of the stigma that comes with the maintenance of toilets and cleaning of human waste, decoupling managerial and cleaning responsibilities may make the community take the caretaker more seriously. If the community views the caretaker as a cleaner, they may ostracize him/her and not want to deal with them directly, because of perceptions around pollution due to exposure to and the handling of feces. Having the caretaker handle more of a managerial role, instead of a cleaning role, may encourage better relations between him and other community members.

Key Takeaway 08 is “close-knit and self-contained sub-communities exist where the ties are simultaneously social, cultural, economic and religious.” Sub-communities share private infrastructure within themselves and may also restrict access to other sub-communities. They are also reluctant to access facilities and amenities placed within other sub-communities.

Because of the fractioning of facilities, many improvement opportunities are lost because the community does not mobilize around them. The lack of involvement of residents in the process of selecting a location for a toilet as well as providing inputs and opinions for how the facility should be structured means that the toilet facility often does not meet all the needs of the community.

Large income disparities within a small geography can also make it difficult for benefits to be equitably distributed. A discharge drain built by one household could easily have been used by others but because of cost issues, only one house did it while others have built small tanks that collects household waste water.

Key Takeaway 07 is “slum communities manifest multiple levels of transience that constrain people’s agency over their sanitary environment.” Residents of a slum are in a permanent state of transience regardless of the time they have spent in the community. The prospect of moving to a better place of residence, however remote, might stall action to improve one’s current situation, and keep people from investing in amenities related to sanitation.

Migrant workers sending money home view their situation simply as a way of earning money and are not concerned about their own hardships. A large proportion of migrant population in search of employment entails men living without their families. Recent migrants are also often blamed as the root cause of the problems. For example, a resident of Zamrudhpur, a vertical slum area in Delhi, said “I used to live in a different building which consisted of a large number of migrants. That building was much dirtier than my current one: there was lots of garbage left around and the toilets were very unclean.” This may be an indication of the way in which transience manifests itself in the quality of an individual’s living situation.

Key Takeaway 06 is “ownership and accountability is strongest within limited boundaries.” This implies that there are different rules for cleanliness within and outside the home. Existing community sanitation facilities lie outside the realm of household boundaries, therefore situating community sanitation facilities within users’ boundaries and control leads to their exhibiting the same behaviors they express in their households.

Having a clear identity around who owns the toilet drives responsible use. As long as the identity of ownership is clear and well established - whether it belongs to an individual or to an organization - people seem to comply with rules and treat it with respect. It is the instances in which it does not belong to any identifiable person that the facility suffers neglect.

Key Takeaway 05 is “consumption of sanitation as a “product” gets undermined by other priorities.” On the aspirational ladder, sanitation is only a subset of better housing. That is, as other lifestyle variables can be improved gradually over time, they are seen as easier to manage, whereas shifting to private sanitation (i.e. a household toilet) is perceived to require a high monetary investment, which is a hurdle for most households.

Generally, spending patterns are dependent on maintaining a balance between capacity for expenditure and an individual’s aspirations. The bulk of household expenditures are typically practical, and tend to include things that are deemed to be essentials. Occasionally, when finances allow, people will purchase products at a level above those deemed as necessary. However, adoption of products and brands relating to sanitation happens without understanding the value of “complete” hygiene, and hence their purchase might not be constant.

Individuals don’t understand that a single weak link in the chain of hygiene can cancel out the value of the sanitation-related products they purchase, potentially leading to disease. For example, using Dettol brand soap for it’s germ-killing properties, but not using it immediately after defecating, can compromise its effectiveness. Hand in hand with creating toilet facilities needs to be education and consciousness-raising about the need for proper hygiene practices, in order to insure that sanitation and health initiatives are fully effective.

Key Takeaway 04 is “personal hygiene rituals, activities, and behaviors are approached as discrete events, not a coherent cluster.” Activities such as defecation, bathing, teeth brushing, and clothes washing all happen at different points because of the availability of alternative facilities. For example, open drains provide a “safe” passage for urine and children’s feces. Because of the presence of these drains where people can urinate and brush their teeth, children defecate, and household waste is dumped, the demand for spaces for these activities at community toilets is reduced.

Other activities such as bathing or washing clothes and utensils, happen outside the home or at shared water pumps where availability and drainage of water is less of an issue than it might be at toilets. Users store water at home and hence water intensive activities do not require additional labor. Drainage outside homes also provides an easy passage for the waste water. Therefore, there is a reduced need for bathing stalls at community toilets due the presence of handpumps and other water points located at different places in the community.

However, in semi-private toilet facilities where individuals have more control to the space (i.e. in communities where the residents can control access to the facilities), clothes and utensils are also washed at the toilet. Therefore, this tendency to divide activities based on the available facilities should be considered in the design of new toilet blocks and community sanitation approaches.

Key Takeaway 03 is “cleanliness has a common denominator but hygiene does not.” To gauge the cleanliness of their surroundings, people typically rely on visual and olfactory cues. People perceive the potential source/cause of illnesses as visible dirtiness and smelly garbage, while invisible sources such as untreated water or germs spread through body to body contact are not readily identified. For instance, water needs to be visibly contaminated for people to perceive it as dirty Thus, individuals may keep themselves or their homes clean and feel that they are free of any risk of illness, despite drinking potentially contaminated water and having daily exposure to surrounding vectors of disease.

As the state of cleanliness of the shared toilets are well below the standards users have for their own homes, the challenge found in this key takeaway is how to transform users’ perspectives so that they apply the same standards of cleanliness they have in their own homes and immediate surroundings to share facilities and community toilets.

Key Takeaway 02 is “defecation in open fields is the idealized reference for toilet experience.” Defecation in open fields is the common denominator for most slum residents, and hence has social approval. Often there is a sense of permissibility towards open defecation because a majority of urban slum residents come from villages where the practice is common and not taboo. Thus, they continue the habit after they have shifted to urban locations.

Defecation in fields is also often preferred to using any available community toilet facilities, as it allows for users to determine their own time and space within which the act of defecation gets completed. Those who use the toilets for multiple activities tend to set their routines so that they make only one trip to the community toilet in which they defecate, brush teeth, bathe, wash clothes etc. - therefore, using toilets tends to be more clinical compared to open field defecation.

Many individuals also prefer open defecating to using community toilets as an open environment facilitates a more pleasant experience than enclosed toilet facilities. Dark and dirty community toilets are viewed as a source of disease. However, in open fields the feces disintegrates quickly, providing a space that is perceived as cleaner and which has more options of spots to defecate.

This insight illustrates the challenge to overcome when considering sanitation approaches and initiatives in urban areas, as even in areas with limited open space, the act of open defecation continues. Not only do adults engage in open defecation in fields, but children will often defecate in public drains and streets outside of their homes. The pervasive act of open defecation and the preference many people have for it is one of the key challenges to overcome in the sanitation arena.

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