Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address had placed the spotlight on the public toilet system in the country, creating a keen interest among the civil society, corporate social responsibility missions and the media. Over the last few months, some leading corporate houses have evinced interest in taking up construction of toilets in schools across India. Prime Minister Modi has also indicated a time-bound approach, with clear targets. These developments suggest that considerable public and private investments in monetary terms along with the time and energy of a varied set of stakeholders are to be spent in this effort across the nation over the next few years.
This is an opportune moment to also consider the issues in understanding the sanitation sector more comprehensively and the reasons behind the large-scale failure in achieving complete sanitation over the last 60 years. One of the key issues in managing public sanitation facilities is the lack of a demand-driven system for developing and managing public toilet facilities.
In terms of sheer numbers, the task of achieving “open-defecation free” India is staggering. Currently, India is estimated to have about 47% of the world’s population practising open defecation. According to Census 2011, about 12% of the urban population resorts to open defecation. In urban areas with population less than 1 lakh, about 22% of the population resorts to open defecation. Now, this does not include the population that is mobile on a daily basis. Invariably, towns—small and large—attract people from the nearby villages for livelihood and this includes women. Very few of the market places in Indian towns have adequate public toilets for this floating population. This too adds to the volume of people resorting to open defecation in towns.
All these factors have forced the government to increase the volume of public toilets available in cities. While the classifications are different based on usage, such as community toilets or shared toilets, the character and challenges of management remain. Given the imperative of public toilets, an important aspect that needs focus is a systems-based approach that can enable the entire process of sanitation management, starting from locations where demand is felt, preparation of an inventory of existing toilet facilities, extent of reach of water, sewerage and other associated networks, inventory of facilities in each public toilet, status of the approach, availability of male and female caretakers, contractual obligations of the caretakers and special needs of women. In fact, more importantly, the system has to be built with facilities for citizens to interact with the administration either as complaints or suggestions. In addition, the system should be used as a comprehensive tool of monitoring and complaint management and escalation mechanism when complaints are not addressed.
It is common knowledge that public toilets lack adequate maintenance—wherever they are located, and whichever is the entity that manages. It is also true that, at many locations, existing sanitation facilities are unused and are either defunct or used for other purposes such as local godowns. On the other side of the spectrum, many locations with high public footfall have very little or no public toilet facility, leading to persistent open defecation. The challenge is also in terms of adequacy of toilet infrastructure in the locations in relation to the daily usage. It is more important to understand that the issue of sanitation is not just about providing toilet facilities, but also includes sewerage network, treatment, disposal, solid waste management and associated environmental management issues.
Another crucial issue missed out is the availability of toilets for women. During our work in understanding existing public toilets in Tirupathi and in Shimla, we noted that the infrastructure is highly skewed against women, though the number of floating women population was almost equal to men in all categories: tourists, migrant workers as well as small shopkeepers.
Further, the system should be able to empower the administration at different levels of governance, including the mayor, municipal commissioner as well as the safai karamchari, to take informed decisions.
It should support real-time monitoring and evaluation of both the individual toilets as well as the overall public toilet system in the urban local body. The system, apart from helping the safai karamchari to report data on a real time through an Android app, should empower authorities to act immediately on issues raised by the safai karamchari.
Emerging technologies in the open-source software in GIS space with data interoperability from different hardware tools can help build such systems, at considerably low cost and, more importantly, help develop user-friendly interfaces that need very little investment in capacity building. It is crucial to realise that data—such as the locations of toilets, the demand, slum locations and the capacity of infrastructure—keeps changing as the city evolves and expands. The system has to be built to enable the administration to improve the geographical knowledge in a real-time digital platform for both decision-making as well as monitoring.
We present one such case with data taken from the ground.
Using a web-interface, in Tirupathi, we have found that the distance travelled by a slum dweller from the slum location to reach the nearest public toilet can be measured. A similar map developed for Shimla, with layers of toilets and significant landmarks, shows a noticeable demand gap in areas where there is high intensity of people movement. Essentially, such maps give a geographical view of areas of gap in public service benchmark. The question we seek to answer is, what should be the infrastructure layout of public sanitation if there is a policy outline of “a public toilet within citizen’s reach in 10 minutes by walk”, at least in locations where there is higher demand?
Ideally, such a system helps as a tool for the management of public sanitation in the towns. In addition, crowd sourcing of data is facilitated into the system, particularly for monitoring & evaluation and complaint management and redressal system. Most public sector projects today have a monitoring & evaluation component, which are undertaken through sample surveys. Systems with real-time data, coupled with citizen-generated data, when viewed on maps, is a powerful way of understanding impacts.
Given the huge investments the government and corporates (through their CSR activities) are making in constructing public toilets, it is imperative that they invest a fraction of the money in preparing the system for a real-time monitoring of the usage of the system. Such a system would also be a tool to evaluate the efficacy of policy guidelines on sanitation and throw light on geographies within the municipalities which have been excluded from reach of services. This would be real empowerment of the urban local bodies to showcase the progress of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.
The author is director (Research), Akara Research & Technologies, based out of Chennai