The Potty Project

Researching sanitation in low-income urban India.


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Key Takeaway 17 is “the design and planning of the built environment of a toilet establishes the rules of use.” When users clearly distinguish the toilet as a space being one that is indoors, they use it more responsibly. When users walk into a facility, there is a clear demarcation between the street outside and the space indoors. Since a clear distinction is established, users are less likely to litter indoors or defecate outside the toilet doors as they do in toilets that open directly onto an open courtyard.

Toilets are seen merely as a space for defecation. Sanitation facilities serve to mark out a space that different members of the community use to defecate - either inside or outside. Peer supervision discourages irresponsible use. Enclosed, unsupervised spaces provide cover for activities that are socially disapproved of. For example, not having toilet doors ensures that people won’t waste time and that others waiting in line for the toilet automatically know who is flushing and who isn’t

Key Takeaway 16 is “by disaggregating the tasks involved in using a sanitation facility, users’ sense of waiting time is altered.” For example, three queues of five minutes each are perceived to be less tiresome than one queue of fifteen minutes. In some toilet facilities, users are required to first queue up for collecting containers, then for filling water and finally for using the toilet booth. While the total waiting time for the users may be marginally less if all these facilities were available inside the toilet, having to go to different spaces and thereby breaking up the tasks creates a level of socialization that mitigates the frustration of waiting.

Key Takeaway 15 is “as caretakers of sanitation facilities, women have an upper hand in inter-gender negotiations.” In the context of toilet use, women are able to shame men into adhering to rules with regards to payment, proper use and cleanliness. In one toilet we visited, a mother sits with son because he would get bullied by people who don’t want to pay. With her around, she can force them to pay and they don’t quarrel with her.

Key Takeaway 14 is “efforts required for toilet care-taking are disproportionate to the incentives offered.” Terms on which the caretakers are employed are usually lop-sided. One caretaker we met is required to give Rs.475 per day to the contractor. Any amount in excess of that is his incentive, along with a set Rs. 2000 per month salary. However, to ensure higher use (and hence collect higher incentives), he is required to enforce payment by users, take care of law and order at the facility, run the facility smoothly (taking care of cleanliness, repair, maintenance) - most of which he is ill equipped to do, making the effort and incentives highly disproportionate.

Sharing responsibility amongst close family helps tide over the financial inadequacy of the role and responsibilities of a caretaker. One caretaker makes his son fill in for his absence when he visits from their village. The sharing of responsibility amongst close family or friend allows for supplemental income by creating additional time for other jobs.

Key Takeaway 13 is “toilet facilities are gender and age specific but not gender and age sensitive.” There are many gender and age-related considerations which toilet designs fail to make. For example, for women, menstrual waste is a bigger shame than feces. Even though the toilet facilities are free for use by women, they contribute money once a week to pay the cleaner for cleaning all their sanitary waste . And even though Saraswati Ben, a resident of Mirzapur, has built her own toilet, she uses the public toilet to dispose her own sanitary waste and pays the caretaker a random sum of Rs.5-10 per month along with other women.

Toilets that segregate entrance based on gender/ age also fail to address other more pertinent sensitivity issues that users’ might face. For example, adolescent girls stop using children toilets much earlier than the boys their age. Also, pregnant women and older people have to wait in the same lines and climb slippery stairs to get to the toilet booths.

There is also a “dead-zone” in which children are too young (that is, physically small) to use community sanitation facilities and are too old to continue with sanitation behavior considered acceptable for kids. Kids below the age of 3-4 years old end up defecating at open spots near their house, either in open drains or in the open space near the community toilet. However, kids that are 5-6 years old typically still haven’t grown large enough physically to use the community’s sanitation facilities properly, though they’re usually considered too old to continue defecating in open areas within the community.

Key Takeaway 12 is “in a marginalized and an insecure community, an anchor helps mobilize collective action.” Organizations give anchor and vision around which action can be mobilized. For example, Saraswati Ben in Mirazapur, Ahmedabad has been working with SEWA for the last 35 years. Through SEWA she has been able to inform residents of the slum networking project and mobilize support and patronage.

Fear of standing out is a deterrent for individual action and responsibility. Individuals are generally reluctant to stand out proactively and demand better civic service delivery for themselves or their community. To illustrate, Saraswati Ben in Mirzapur said “no one was willing to take the permit in their name for conducting the festival. I took the permit in my name because I have no fear.”

However, there are individuals within communities who are more progressive and civic minded than others. They are willing to be  part of change initiatives. Dhanraj is an island of progressiveness at GP Block, Pitampura in Delhi. He is a tailor by profession, sells insurance policies to earn extra money and volunteers at an education focused NGO that teaches kids in his community. Over the past few years he has invested Rs. 3000 of his own money to build two public urinals and has participated in shaming drives to prevent open defecation. Individuals such as Dhanraj and Saraswati Ben can be catalysts in their communities when it comes to implementing sanitation facilities and initiatives.

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.

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