Sanitation for all in India's slums

Dharavi Pipe Walk IV, Meena Kadri, 2010, Unmodified

Published March 16, 2017

According to reports from the 2014 United Nations Data, India has an “urban slum population” of 98.4 million people (i.e., people living in urban informal settlements that do not have legal recognition of tenure of the land they live on). In parallel, according to the 2011 Census of India, the total urban population with some form of disability was over 8 million. 

Increasing the number of public toilets has been a primary strategy for solving the sanitation problem...but to build 100,000 toilets is to multiply this problem a hundred fold
Suketa Mehta, Author
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Slum inhabitants are living in spaces that are overcrowded, unplanned, and without equitable access to transportation, water, and sanitation. Without the infrastructure or the resources for household toilets, increasing the number of public toilets has been a primary strategy for solving the sanitation problem, but poor maintenance and other issues have hindered their use.

As Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, has written about The World Bank’s efforts to solve Bombay’s sanitation crisis: “The bank’s solution was to propose building 100,000 public toilets. It was an absurd idea. I have seen public latrines in the slums. None of them work.” Mehta goes on to state that “to build 100,000 public toilets is to multiply this problem a hundred fold.”

Having grown up in Bombay, I have seen this problem first hand, and cannot help but agree with Mehta. Adding more toilets is not the solution where the effort to maintain even the current facilities are insincere and sporadic. But the problem is much bigger.

Similar to informal settlements in other cities, people living in improvised housing and neighborhoods in Kolkata rely, instead, on public buildings like railway stations or use open drains, the banks of the river, or other “open” spaces, like the side of a road. Society has accepted these practices, though reluctantly so as nose-holding and sidestepping behaviors suggest. The functional and public health challenges are even greater for people with disabilities, who often rely on even more unsafe, unsanitary, and degrading means, as public toilets are seldom designed to be accessible to people with disabilities.

The Persons with Disability Act in India, underlines the lack of inclusion and support for disabled people by the government. The Act holds the government responsible for creating awareness of people with disabilities, but does not hold the government accountable for providing safe and accessible sanitation for people with disabilities. This simple example highlights the stark difference between the cultures, policies, and practices seen in the U.S. and those in India regarding disability. In India, one seldom sees accessible public toilets, not to mention accessible scholars, civic buildings, and public transportation. A clear argument can be made that the comparison is unfair as economic resources underpin the differences between countries. The larger point, however, is an ideological one – disability is seen and people with disabilities are treated differently in various countries across the world; and, even in low-resource settings, the inclusion of people with disabilities into sanitation planning, design, and implementation is a choice.