Why is the Toilet Project in India Clogged?

By Scotty Davids

Over 50 percent of homes in India lack toilets. For hundreds of years, the Indian population has gone to the fields to relieve themselves. So when Rameshwar Natholi from Mukhrai walked out his front door to see a donated toilet, he reacted with, “We never asked for a toilet. Now we are stuck with it.”

A recent article published by the Washington Post highlights the difficulties governments and humanitarian aid organizations are having when trying to provide toilets for people who lack proper sanitation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a hard push for more toilets in India, campaigning for 60 million homes to receive new sanitary toilets by 2019. Already, in the past year, his government has constructed more than 5.8 million toilets across India. But the Washington Post reports that “many of them have gone unused or that they are being used to store grain or clothes or to tether goats.”

Not only did the locals not ask for a toilet first, but there is a cultural boundary as well that was overlooked. Prior to 1950, those who were in the profession of clearing human waste were members of the lowest group in India’s caste system, the “untouchables.” Sangita Vyas, the managing director at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), which studies sanitation issues in India, explains to the Washington Post that “people fear a situation when their pit fills up and there is nobody willing to clean it because of the social stigma. That fear discourages sustained use of toilets.”

The push for toilets is not unwarranted. Rather, there is a desperate need for toilets in most rural communities. The Washington Post says that “poor sanitation and contaminated water cause 80 percent of the diseases afflicting rural India.” UNICEF compliments the need for proper sanitation by reporting that 609,000 children under the age of 5 died in 2010 due to pneumonia or diarrhea, the most of any country. However, there needs to be a change in thought on how toilets are introduced into India.

I recently spoke with Jason Kass, the President and Founder of Toilets for People, a member of the TIDES network that supplies composting toilets to areas in the developing world that are prone to floods. Jason was not surprised with the lack of success of donated toilets, and he says that it shows our inability to learn from what has been tried and failed in the past. A process that gives a toilet to each individual house is likely to fail if the community did not ask for the service first. Changing the lifestyle of an individual is the hardest part about the implementation process. The key to any introduction of a new technology is for the community to need it, to ask for it, and then to take ownership of it.

For the 7th year, the National Defense University (NDU) showcased a variety of innovative technologies for disaster assistance and development. From 1-4 October, more than 70 nonprofit organizations, citizen associations, and specialized vendors, using no water, power, or shelter, showcased their most inventive ideas and tools to help people in the aftermath of a natural disaster, conflict, or for those who live in extreme poverty. The demonstration will continue at the Pentagon in Center Court from 7-9 October where more than 20 civilian groups and businesses will be present. The exposition, held outdoors at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington, DC, is an offshoot of the TIDES (Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support) research project at the National Defense University. TIDES focuses on cross-cutting emerging technologies and sustainable solutions to support a variety of DOD missions. More than just static exhibits, different inventors and field operators exchanged insights and experiences, promoting public-private cooperation through speakers, workshops, and other interactions.  Speakers discussed a number of cross-cutting issues, including logistics, soft power, info-sharing, and community-based solutions. Notable presenters included Hon. Dennis McGinn, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment and Mr. Sheldon Himelfarb, Director, Center of Innovation: Science, Technology and Peacebuilding at United State Institute of Peace. Throughout the demonstration there were discussion groups open to the public that addressed pertinent issues centered around this year's theme:

Jason Kass at 2013 TIDES Demo

One way to handle this challenge, Jason said, is to invest time into the community that needs the toilets before any implementation, and to consider the alternatives and to adapt to what the people want. The Indian public needs sanitary toilets. But there was not enough conversation in the beginning to incite the community to ask for the service. Toilets for People attempts to address this issue by partnering with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The NGOs can educate the population on proper sanitation practices which, in time, could lead to a demand for toilets. Another strategy is to use the preexisting market. Even if subsidies are needed, having people spend their own money for a product will make them more likely to use it rather than a donation. Regardless of how the toilet is introduced, it will not be used unless the recipient asks for it.

There is an implementation issue in India, rather than a supply issue. Humanitarian aid organizations need to first educate the community on why there is a need for sanitary toilets. Later, the community is able to critique and take ownership of the proposed product. The challenges with introducing have been part of an ongoing discussion. See our blog post from December, 2014 on how this mentality relates to technologies in all humanitarian areas. The product will have a better chance of being accepted and integrated into the society when the customer is the one describing the need, rather than the humanitarian aid organization.

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About startides

TIDES Research Assistant Intern
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