Courtesy Quicksand Potty Project

A look at the politics behind India's massive toilet shortage

It's easy for Americans to take the wide availability of public restrooms for granted, but open defecation is one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world’s developing cities. The excellent Mammoth recently published a great story looking extensively at the problem, which has social, political, physical, and infrastructural aspects.

Writer Peter Nunns explains that a lack of sewage systems and public toilets are common issues in informal settlements, or slums, where running water and pipes are incredibly rare. Citing World Bank research from 2008, Nunns notes that 46 percent of India’s urban population lacks basic sewage and access to toilets. The result is that residents of informal settlements in cities like Mumbai often leave their feces right in the street. Even in places where there are public toilets, facilities serve far more people than they were intended to, and money to service and clean them is practically nonexistent. Raw sewage running in the streets and into water sources creates a significant health risk. The problem isn’t unknown, but as Nunns writes, there are many reasons it’s not addressed:

“There is no obvious solution to this particular infrastructural shortcoming. Because many slum settlements are illegal or informal, occupying the margins of railway lines and airports and other undeveloped land, city governments are not keen to extend sewers and other utilities into them. Funding and building public toilets is often problematic for the same reason. When the Indian government allocated money for toilet block construction in the 1990s, most of it went unspent due to city governments’ disinterest in upgrading slums.”

But there have been some efforts to improve sewage systems in India’s settlements. Nunns points to the city of Pune, where a municipal commissioner spearheaded an effort to lure non-governmental organizations to bid for a contract to construct public toilet facilities. The winning bid was drawn up by a coalition made up of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, the National Slum-Dwellers Federation, and a women’s group called Mahila Milan. Made up largely of residents of informal settlements, this group brought local expertise and an understanding of what residents would need. The resulting contract added 320 toilets blocks with 6,400 seats across the city in just 3 years.

The problem, though, remains vast. And as the world’s slum dwelling population edges close to 1 billion, the problems associated with substandard toilet and sewage systems will just become harder to compartmentalize.

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