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NITI Ayog & CPR seminar: “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat”

Do attend if you can

CPR Urban blog

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), India’s national-level mission on sanitation was arguably born from the realisation that open defecation figures in India remain high in both rural and urban areas. A large push to  construct individual household latrines, and convert insanitary (including pit latrines) into sanitary latrines is underway and the target is for India to be Open Defecation Free (ODF) by 2019.

NITI Ayog, the Government of India’s policy think tank and Centre for Policy Research partner to put the spotlight on this issue, which lies at the core of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s success. The seminar titled “Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat” will debate the definition of ODF communities and the evolution of a suitable matrix to measure the achievement of this status under the mission.

Seminar: Open Defecation Free (ODF) Communities: A key step towards Swachh Bharat

Date: Friday, 22 May 2015
Time: 3:00…

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Slums have dwindled in India! Pondering on fresh NSSO data

The latest NSSO data (Surveys done between July and December 2012) shows that slums have actually reduced in Indian cities! Liable to be missed in all the hullabaloo of politics, this is a huge achievement for India. If it is true… For one, comparing the Census, which is an actual count of the people who live in the country, with sample survey data seems a bit strange. How do you explain these differences? Nine million households live in slums in 2012 as per the NSSO as compared to 14 million as identified by the Census 2011. The NSSO counts 13,761 slums while the Census found 37,000! I would take these numbers with many pinches of salt!

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The good points

Only 41% of the slums are notified by the local authorities. I am glad the data points this out. Not being recognized or notified often means the denial of services and living in perpetual fear of eviction, as is pointed out repeatedly by the work of several organizations across the country. Transparent Chennai in particular has been vocal about this point (Read their excellent editorial in The Hindu on the India’s invisible population). So while the media is seeing the drop in the number of slums as indicative of the political mainstreaming of India’s urban poor, much remains to be done for those who reside in slums and other unserviced areas in our cities.

It is also heartening to see the improvements in services. The report says that 93.5% of slums have power supply and 71% have access to drinking water. There has also been improvement in drainage, sewerage, garbage disposal, primary education and medical facilities ranges between 15% and 45% compared to the data from five years ago. This does indicate the de-linking of the service provisioning from legality and more integration of the slum into the urban fabric. And perhaps the ability of slum populations to access services outside the slum. We know that slum dwellers are not always poor, but sometime middle class people living in slums owing to negligible affordable housing stock in the formal sector.

One strange point

The majority of survey respondents (70.8%) cites better accommodation as the reason to move out from a slum. The initial analysis seems to point to the success of government schemes like JNNURM and RAY. However, the total number of homes added to the housing stock under these would probably not add up to 5 million, methinks though I have to check on this!

One question

Those of us who work in the sector will wonder about what specific improvements in the attitudes and policies of local and State governments towards existing slums could have brought about such a decrease in number. Evidence from the ground seems to show an ever increasing diversity in the types of squatter settlements and only marginal and isolated instances of positive governmental or collaborative interventions.

More analysis needed

Sure, these are off-the-cuff comments and someone (not me though) would need to analyze the results more thoroughly. It is encouraging to see more data being generated about urban informal habitats though. Slowly, it looks like many gaps in our understanding are getting filled. It is up to us, those who live and breathe this stuff, to overlay the data and the anecdotal evidence and come out with a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Not a mean task, but important and fun too!

How can renters demand improved sanitation? #migration #rentalhousing

It’s World Toilet Day again. My twitter timeline is abuzz today with statistics, video links, article links, all painting a scary picture of how many people in the world live in conditions of poor sanitation, how much this costs us in economic terms, health terms, etc. (other hilarious tweets about people being conceived in and born in toilets, locked inside them, etc are also doing the rounds as is expected in the jamboree called twitter!)

I’ve seen plenty of toilets up close, recently in my fieldwork among migrant workers in Gurgaon’s urban villages and unauthorized colonies as well as over the last few years of working with micro Home Solutions in low-income areas across Delhi. Adequacy as well as maintenance of toilets is a huge issue in slums and other informal areas . Various experiences have shown that shared toilets are very hard to maintain (see post on the pathetic state of toilets in a Delhi slum); yet, it can be nearly impossible to retrofit communities to provide toilets for every household. One thing is clear though. Household toilets are the Number 1 aspiration for low-income families across India, whether urban or rural. Deeply connected with dignity and security, especially for women, and also now implying status, households seek to install toilets as soon as they have sewage connections and funding in place.

But what about those without any secure tenure? Renters, for instance. In Gurgaon, I find migrant workers living in semi-permanent shacks or relatively permanent tenements sharing a toilet between 10 or even upto 20 households! Toilets with broken doors, inadequate water supply and barely any maintenance are common in these jhuggis and tenements. However, contrary to the perception that it is single male migrants that live here and accord low priority to sanitation, I found at least half of these homes occupied by families, with women and children suffering acutely because of the poor sanitation facilities. Unfortunately, a relationship of deference and almost fear with the landlord coupled with the peculiar migrant mindset of transition combine to make demanding better toilets a difficult proposition.

All of the families on this floor share 1 toilet! Men go first, then the schoolgoing kids, women wait their turn...

All of the families on this floor share 1 toilet! Men go first, then the schoolgoing kids, women wait their turn…

Terrible maintenance levels, usually blamed on disinterested landlords, is the normal in rental tenements

Yes, this toilet! Terrible maintenance levels, usually blamed on disinterested landlords, is the norm in rental tenements

Jhuggis and other semi-permanent rentals often have bare minimum sanitation facilities and open defecation is not uncommon and very dangerous for women

Jhuggis and other semi-permanent rentals often have bare minimum sanitation facilities and open defecation is not uncommon and very dangerous for women

Migrant workers who live in more upgraded rooms that offer more privacy share their amenities among 8-10 families and are better able to negotiate better maintained toilets and baths with their landlords. Often, improved sanitation combined with a perception of improved security (very linked, those two) become the reason for families to opt for moving to a better rental accommodation.

Families living in slightly upgraded rental rooms share amenities among fewer households are able to negotiate better maintenance

Families living in slightly upgraded rental rooms share amenities among fewer households are able to negotiate better maintenance

However, as a researcher, what strikes me most is that, despite the whining about sanitation, renters consider poor amenities as part of the deal. They live in the hope that improved income and better circumstances will given them more negotiating power to change these aspects of their lives. But for the present, many women told me that they are fine with the sharing of toilets with strangers, with the waiting for their turn as per their time of work, even with the poor maintenance! They said that conditions in their village were often worse; others said they lived in better conditions back ‘home’ but understood that poor sanitation was the price to pay for the opportunity to live and work in the city.

Access to sanitation, and its strong relationship with dignity and safety, is an important lens through which to understand the integration of the urban poor in our cities. In the context of internal migration, the denial of the basic aspects of citizenship to migrants creates a psyche of helplessness and illicits that shrug, that sense of resignation that I find so frustrating. Because the government buckets private informal rental housing as illegal and no standards and bye-laws are implemented in this context, it is easy for landlords to turn a blind eye to this issue. A dialogue that involves civil society (representing migrants), private landlords as well as government is important to arrive at ways and means by which an increased awareness of the importance of sanitation is created, where the migrant is given a human dimension as opposed to a sub-human one (yes, this is often the case!), big infrastructure to make improvements possible are put in place and new efficient means for operations and maintenance (best practices) are shared and implemented.

Shit happens,it matters and is a serious business! – Sanitation experience from Kumbh Mela

I posted something that started witht he same words, but was entirely different in content. This post tackles shit literally and very analytically in the context of the Kumbh. If there is no dignity when you go to experience God, what hope do we have?

The Meta Narratives

It is a very essential subject but a most people feel repulsive about. It is our own solid waste/feces and liquid refuse/urine, especially in a country like India with a high population density. I have been working on water and sanitation for over 5 years now. But I have  never had such close quarter encounter with sanitation, its management and issues like I did at Kumbh Mela.

Think about 30 million people visiting a place as small as 58.3 Km2 on few auspicious days. And a floating population of 2-3 million people on a daily basis. This for a period of not few days but 2 months. In such situation to ensure proper sanitation and maintaining the environment becomes very critical for the health of pilgrims and smooth running of the Mela. During my time at the Mela ( 7 days ), I rode through the all the sectors looking at varied facilities…

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We have to listen! Solutions most often come from the community

There are many interesting ways to work with communities. A wide variety of social researchers across the world are learning that there is tremendous knowledge vested within communities and the outside-in, often high-handed, approach used by academicians and policy makers alike can be disastrous, not only because analysis and solutions may be far removed from reality and therefore unsuccessful when applied, but also and more importantly because this sort of approach loses out on the rich understanding that communities have of their environment, the networks that exist among them, their strenghts and weaknesses. Critical knowledge that can make or break their future and that, in turn, can teach those of us from the ‘outside’ that work with them, so much!

Today’s The Hindu carries a piece by Janaki Lenin about Erika Cuellar, a Bolivian biologist who empowered tribals to use their inherent knowledge in mainstream research and be recognized and compensated for it. This is a critical change and an evolving approach in research.

In my experiences with slum communities, I have often had the opportunity of learning from community members. Often, not the leaders, but ordinary members of the community can make astute observations that put us on a path to better design and more appropriate solutions. In the Sundernagari slum redevelopment project that mHS did in association with Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), the frequent mention of community life as enacted in the streets outside their homes led us to a pathbreaking design that focused on the street (at two levels, on the ground and two floors above the ground) as a space for interaction, work and play, a tool for safety and social cohesion and much more.

In our workshop at the Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri earlier this month, I got the chance to see another type of knowledge at work. The issue that stood out in all our conversations here was the low sanitation conditions in the slum. Most homes had no toilets and the community toilets are filthy and poorly maintained; many of the 35 toilets on the male side and the female side were not even functional. I had to see them to corroborate that absolute horror stories we heard. Not a pretty sight!

After the complaining had been done, I engaged the community members in a discussion in an attempt to find the reasons behind the problem and seek possible solutions. Apparently, the toilets used to be maintained by a private operator (charge Rs 1 per use) and were relatively clean, until the current Councillor (a good person, independent candidate, did other really good things for the area) declared them to be free. The maintenance became non-existent; women especially are in a bad shape, complaining of stomach aches and infections, a really pathetic situation. The Councillor is depending on the MLA for funds to remedy the situation, but the MLA is disinterested because he knows he won’t be re-elected when the elections come around. The community, which has represented numerous times on this matter, is caught in the crossfire and they are currently disheartened by the status quo.

I probed into the issue of self-regulation and the awareness of improved sanitation habits, like cleaning up after each use, etc. One gentleman happened to make the remark that ‘renters’ are the ones who leave the toilets dirty, which of course sent me into a whole tirade on how personal hygiene is not related to economic wealth, caste, status or tenure! I was so upset and insisted on knowing why the community isn’t organizing itself to address this issue if it is indeed such a huge issue! I should have expected the reply.

I was told that anyone who takes the lead runs a huge risk of being the object of ridicule and contempt if they fail, and subsequently they also lose whatever social equity they currently have, an important aspect of slum life and one that is traded for money, debt, favors and the like…. and the toilets are an issue that even the local politician has failed to crack! And then, the solution came too. If an NGO or any external organization were to take the lead and outline a strategy, the community members we spoke to felt confident that people would support them wholeheartedly, work for the cause, do whatever it takes to get this done. They desperately need a facilitator, that’s what they were telling me.

And their observation ties up with experiences of development practitioners in a myriad circumstances.They know the solution, they are simply not equipped to take the lead in roping the right people. They have little confidence in their own knowledge or bargaining power, and have been disheartened by recent and persistent failure in negotiation for their needs. Of course, it seems like they just passed the ball into my court and won a battle of words and it’s easy to walk away in scorn, wondering why “these people don’t want to help themselves”! The thought did cross my mind, but I hung my head in shame immediately. Of course they wanted to help themselves. After all, it is they and not me who have to use those filthy toilets every day.

If you have the stomach for it, take a look….

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The absolute importance of a toilet- Imagine living without one!

It is sort of amusing, but not entirely far fetched that Rahul’s birthday coincides with World Toilet Day. That’s because he is super tickled by toilet-centric jokes, something he shares with four and a half year old Aadyaa, who thinks the kid in her class who says ‘potty’ five times in a sentence is absolutely the coolest right now! I wonder why I never noticed the connection before, but now that I have, I see a zillion possibilities!

Some of the statistics that have led to the need for something as bizarre as a World Toilet Day are not amusing at all though. The World Toilet Day website informs me that a third of people in the world do not have access to a toilet. Also, that 1.1 billion people in the world practice open defecation, that toilet facilities can be the incentive to keep girls in school and that every dollar invested in sanitation yields a return of five dollars for the economy……chew on that!

I was made aware of the enormous significance of sanitation early in life because of my dad’s profession. He was a gastroenterologist and a person who saw the interconnectedness in everything. He believed strongly that many of the health problems we face are psychosomatic and emotional in nature. The inability to access a private, clean and secure space to relieve yourself poses many challenges and can traumatize people. He spoke of patients who had stomach conditions born out of such issues. As a young girl, he constantly taught me that the right to access a toilet was one of the most fundamental rights we need to fight for. He repeatedly told me that it is such a pity that in our culture girls are taught from a very young age to “hold” because there were such few places where they could relieve themselves in conditions of safety and cleanliness. As an onlooker at workshops that my parents held with village people taught me, at a very impressionable age, that rural women venture into the fields before dawn in groups to defecate and each morning they went in real fear of being assaulted and raped.

It is perhaps then no coincidence that I feel drawn to community work and especially that related to housing and living conditions of the urban poor, who I feel really have a raw deal. Wherever I have had the opportunity to talk to slum dwellers, their primary need has been toilets inside their homes. For various reasons, community toilets have not been a success in India. However, retrofitting homes to add a toilet, has been widely taken up but can only be successful if a decent sewage system is put in place in informal settlements.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been had I been born poor. Of all the indignities I would have suffered, I am absolutely certain that the inability to attend the call of nature would have been the ultimate indignity for me to suffer. I am pinning my hopes on the Total Sanitation Campaign. If this basic dignity can be achieved for poor people across the nation, they could seriously be hopeful about being able to better their lives in many significant ways.

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