is the financial capital of India with
some of the highest property values in the world. Half of its ten
million people pay incredible prices for homes. The other half live
in informal settlements; more than a million of them on pavements
in makeshift structures of bamboo, plastic, cloth, wood and tin. These
people pay a high price too, though the currency they hand over is
not rupees but their own health, living as they often do without water
or sanitation of any kind.
Yet the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) is ambivalent: `We can't
give toilets to slum dwellers; this will encourage people to migrate
to the city!' they say, or: `The slums along the highway should
have sanitation so foreign visitors don't have to see this embarrassing
sight of squatting people with umbrellas along the road.' As if
people were flocking to Bombay to enjoy the luxury of public toilet
blocks, or the psychological comfort of tourists should be the primary
motivation of municipal sanitation programmes!
Or else they say: `Don't the poor deserve the same as everyone
else -- an individual toilet?' or: `Since poor communities don't
maintain public toilets, let's give them toilets in their own home
so they will be forced to keep things clean.'
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how to solve the problem
of sanitation in informal settlements. But what do the residents
who live there, the people on the footpaths and in the slums, believe
is a workable solution?
In 1984, I and 12 other people formed the Society for the Promotion
of Area Resource Centres (SPARC). We sought to create an organization
which would make space for poor communities to focus on issues which
concern them, to understand why they face certain problems and then
to reflect on the solutions. Over the last ten years, through our
alliance with Mahila Milan -- a national network of women's collectives
-- and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), we have used
this approach to address many issues, including land tenure, shelter,
employment and credit.
The way women living on pavements in the Byculla area of
Bombay formulated their opinion on toilets
illustrates our approach. We visited slums both with and without
public toilets, and the few government-constructed tenement blocks
in which each dwelling has an individual toilet. Through these site
visits and numerous discussions the women arrived at an assessment
of the status quo.
Less than half of Bombay
is linked to sewers. In most slums the residents either
defecate in the open or -- in the few locations where they exist
-- use community latrines. Municipal maintenance is infrequent and
poor, and the number of users per toilet is far too high. The toilets
are dirty, uncared-for, overflowing and often unusable.
In slums without toilets people created makeshift arrangements
which emphasized privacy, but not the disposal of faeces. In slums
with toilets the number of users could be as high as 500 people
per seat. Little children never got a chance to use the facilities
when adult men were lined up waiting. In the government-constructed,
multi-storey tenements, women were very unhappy to have an individual
toilet inside their homes. In all the areas visited women had taken
the drastic step of blocking it up. Many slums have low water pressure;
toilets begin to stink, and since the tenement is only one room
a dirty toilet next to the cooking area presents a serious health
hazard. `If we have to cope with a dirty toilet,' the women said,
`it is better that it is outside the house -- we have other uses
for that space'.
Having completed the rounds of other informal settlements, SPARC,
Mahila Milan and NSDF began to develop their own views. They agreed
a preference for community toilets with a ratio of one toilet for
every 25 people -- a toilet block of four or five seats could be
shared by 20-25 households who would jointly manage them. The blocks
would include separate seats for men and women, an outside open
channel over which the children could squat and a flushing mechanism
which would draw their waste into the main collection pit.
When we enter into dialogue with the authorities this is now the
basic formula we present to them as the people's solution. It is
not perfect. It is not ideal. And it is not permanent. But it represents
a pragmatic solution which will make basic sanitation available
to all the poor people in the city and establish a partnership between
city authorities and communities.
The collective, hard-earned experience of SPARC, Mahila Milan and
NSDF suggests that proactive dialogue must be properly prepared
for by the participants. Each group must make a substantial investment
so that it can come to the negotiating table with a clear sense
of what is important to them and what is not, what contribution
they can make towards the solution and what concessions would be
In 1989-90 we surveyed slums in ten cities. We helped local city
federations identify a core team of community leaders (men and women)
who visited all their informal settlements. Almost invariably sanitation
was identified as one of the most persistent and serious problems
they faced. For example, in Kanpur , a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the north
, the slum dwellers surveyed their area and
found they needed 500 toilets. They suggested that municipal officials
study their proposal and, if it were acceptable, construct a number
of toilet blocks which the communities would then maintain.
We began training slum dwellers in other cities to organize themselves
and to enter into dialogue with the municipal administrations. We
also ensured that federations were able to visit each other's settlements
to gain ideas and confidence. These types of support provided both
capacity-building experience and tangible evidence -- assets which
helped their participation in the city's decision-making process.
We are now participating in a project in Bombay which will provide 20,000 toilet seats
for one million people living in the city's slums. According to
our data collection there are at present just 3,000 toilet seats
for these people; 80 per cent of the toilets are not fully operational
and need to be torn down or repaired. Negotiations to explore how
communities can be assisted to take on construction, maintenance
and management of toilets are in progress.
We and the communities with which we work have come a long way
in the ten years since women pavement dwellers first began to discuss
the problem of toilets in their ideal settlement. As more and more
communities, women and city officials co-operate they become more
capable of refining the solution, adding new dimensions and adapting
to different contexts. This improves the material condition of people
living in informal urban settlements. But, more importantly, it
is a process of empowerment and involvement. Once people start talking
about toilets other things follow.
Mahila Milan is the name a group of women pavement dwellers from
the Byculla area of Bombay
gave to themselves in 1986. As these women began to
share their views and ideas with women in other settlements, additional
groups gathered together and adopted the same name. Now this network
of collectives extends to 14 cities. Its main focus is to train
women to participate centrally in community decision-making.
The National Slum Dwellers Federation started in 1974. It sought
an alliance with SPARC in 1986 and has actively supported the development
of Mahila Milan's network. NSDF was originally 100-per-cent male;
today 50 per cent of its committee members are women trained by
SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF believe in the following problem-solving
* Start with the poorest, worst-off group. If a solution can be
made to work for them, then it can be adapted to work for the better
* Those whose lives are affected are the best judges. They may
not contribute all the elements, but they can identify the essential
* Women remain the managers of communities at the daily level,
yet when outside agencies come in, women are often sidelined as
male leaders take over. Ensuring that women's collectives participate
in the entire process is crucial for the development and sustainability
of a workable solution.