Sometimes it seems as though everything in India becomes ancient the moment it steps into the sun. Worn, leathery skin ages women decades beyond their years. Paved roads take unbearable beatings daily and look more like people drive sledgehammers instead of autos and motorbikes. I’m always astounded by the number of abandoned skeletons of apartment buildings or by the infrastructure that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the British ruled (which, in all likelihood, some of it probably hasn’t). We drove past the construction site for a new concrete and steel bridge every day for a week and never once saw any machines assisting the manual laborers. Instead, barefooted men wearing blue checkered lungis and dark women wrapped in dusty saris build everything in this part of India by mixing small lumps of concrete by hand and carrying heavy piles of materials on their heads. India is an amazing place.
I ended my community-based fieldwork with perhaps my favorite case study so far. My favorite people are still the women from the first community I visited last June, but the sanitation system we visited this week is by far the most exciting and interesting. I returned to Trichy, a small city in the middle of Tamil Nadu, known for the municipal corporation’s work on sanitation, bolstered by NGO support. April/May in Trichy is the hottest time of year, so I had to mentally prepare myself for the heat. Days where temperatures topped 110 degrees meant that I finally acquiesced to the International SOS heat-related warnings and began scheduling our days in the field to begin early, break for long periods in the afternoon heat, and resume for a few hours in the “cool” of the evening. I think it’s important for my followers to know that it’s officially been two full months since my last sunburn, and the grease on my face in my pictures serves as proof that sunscreen and I are regular companions. The heat eventually became so intense that my brain cells were affected and I found myself, not once, but THREE TIMES, going on two mile runs in 110 degree heat. I. Do. Not. Run. and I don’t do heat. But here we are, proof that even the best of us can go completely insane sometimes.
I had a coupon from my loyal support of a hotel booking app, so I reserved rooms at “The Nicest Hotel in Trichy”, which actually resembled a hotel that perhaps was the nicest in Trichy in the 1970s and hasn’t had a facility or decoration upgrade since. An exciting benefit of this hotel is the outdoor swimming pool, until I realized that the heat was so pervasive that the water was a few degrees above lukewarm and many degrees above refreshing. Instead, I got to watch scores of little Indian kids swim in the pool as part of a summer swim camp. A lot of Indians don’t know how to swim and don’t dabble in water beyond going fully clothed into the first few feet of ocean. These kids were hilarious. They boldly jumped into the water and proceeded to spend the next two hours scissoring their arms and legs up and down as if the strength of force used to pound the water and the size of splash created directly correlate to survival ability. Maybe the tactic is to remove enough water from the pool that you can just touch the ground and no longer need to swim.
I gave myself the gift of finishing the bulk of the community data collection with a successful system, something that I think was important mentally and emotionally for me to be able to finish the data collection strong. In the early 2000s, WaterAid, a UK-based NGO provided extensive funding to three NGOs in Trichy to rehabilitate old government community toilets and construct new toilets in over 125 slums in the city. The funding enabled these NGOs to develop and refine participatory project approaches, focused largely on empowering groups of women from these slums to manage the toilets and use the revenue for micro-loans. Most of the toilets are connected to the UGD (underground drainage—which means underground sewerage system), which supposedly leads to Trichy’s one and only large STP (sewage treatment plant), although with the abysmal statistics on the percent of wastewater treated in treatment plants and the poor quality of the treated effluent for many STPs in India, I always wonder if the UGD system really is the great solution that people long for and governments push. One of the projects we visited was a community toilet that was originally connected to a septic tank that had to be desludged frequently (as often as twice a week) due to the high demand from the local and public population. Recently, the treatment system was upgraded to include a biogas digester (a form of anaerobic wastewater treatment that converts the organic carbon in human waste to methane gas) and a community kitchen. The digester codigests organic waste from the nearby vegetable market, and a woman in the community is assigned to run the machine that grinds up to 500 kg of vegetable peelings every evening to add to the digester. The codigestion process greatly improves the biogas production and helps the city corporation manage local solid waste better. The community kitchen has thirteen biogas stove burners and is free for anyone from the nearby slum to use for 14 hours a day. The women eventually started openly laughing at me because I was so fascinated by the system and excited to see people using actually gas from human waste to cook actual food and I came by the community kitchen at least four or five times each day just to gawk at something that has been so inherently normal to them for years.
The community toilets are cleaned and managed by a well-supported network of local women, most of whom have participated in the management group for over fifteen years. The Trichy-based NGO entered into the communities and built rapport by first starting women’s self-help groups, each twenty members who would pay a small fee to join the group and in exchange gained access to micro-loans to start small idly hotels, tailoring shops, and bicycle rental businesses. The self-help groups attended monthly meetings, where they slowly gained exposure to basic personal and community health and hygiene principles. The NGO expanded their health awareness programs to the whole community. Strikingly, the community genuinely values health and hygiene. In many of the places I’ve visited, people will tell me that health is important or that they’ve learned basic hygiene principles such as safe water storage, but the implementation of such practices is questionable and these communities still struggle with general cleanliness and health issues and rarely take ownership of or the initiative for solving these problems. In contrast, this community actually pays the salary of one of the government employees to ensure that daily solid waste collection happens on their street—something that we saw actually occurring each day.
Next, the NGO created a new group, dedicated specifically to the management of the community toilets and called it a Sanitation and Hygiene Education team. The SHE team is also exclusively women, as the men in the community cannot be trusted to manage the money honestly and are prone to drinking and drug abuse (according to the NGO and many community members). In other areas, the NGO has been able to successfully form similar groups with male members as well, where the men join the women when the women need additional support to advocate to the city government, but such a group has not materialized in this community. The SHE team in this community is comprised of at least thirty women. Some are employed to clean the toilets daily, others take shifts to collect the tokens, others clean and oversee the community kitchen, others provided nighttime security. As part of the NGO’s exit strategy, they created a daughter organization that employs local female social workers who provide ongoing supervision and support to the SHE teams. Likely a significant contributing factor to the success of the SHE team and their community toilets in this community, the daughter organization’s office resides in a community hall that shares the land with the community toilets (side note: the community hall was built with revenue collected from the community toilets!), so they’re able to provide an additional level of oversight and support to the SHE team. The women dragged out stacks of notebooks where every paisa was counted and documented meticulously for over a decade. The women also track the number of users and the time spent by each in the community kitchen. Every time we walked past the kitchen, we saw at least four or five women using the biogas stove burners to make their rice or idly or curries, and then the women would wrap the steaming hot pots in torn scraps of old sari petticoat material and carry the pots back to their homes, just a few minutes away.
The community toilets and community kitchen are not a silver bullet for improving life and sanitation in this community. Some families still cook with firewood on the steps outside their house, since women will have small kids that they can’t leave alone at home or can’t take with them to the kitchen each day. Other women are unable to walk the distance to the kitchen, or find it hard to carry hot dishes back and forth. A small few don’t use the kitchen because of an aversion to biogas from human excreta, and others prefer to continue to pay for LPG because of the status it affords them.
I always say that India is a country of contradictions, and you can watch the pendulum swing from one way to the next in just a matter of inches. In this community, we experienced challenges and resistance to our interviews every time we went to the left side of the community. The people there are tired of foreigners or NGOs coming to ask questions and leaving without any changes, and thus would deny interviews or would provide curt answers to our questions. We later learned that the left side of the community also has a much higher number of drug addicts so I think the lives of those families are notably harder. On the other side of the community, people were very willing to talk with us. One woman invited us into her home and positively refused to let us decline her invitation for lunch. The following day, we went back to her home and ate sweets while she swept and lay fresh banana leaves on the floor and a straw mat for us to sit on. She served rice, fish curry, fried fish, sambar, rasam, curried potatoes, mango curry, shredded beets, and pickle in endless supply. The food was delicious, but one of those meals where you just know that every bite takes you closer to an evening date with the toilet—this could be owing to the fact that I was sitting cross-legged and kept dropping rice onto my feet (feet that have been in Chacos for three months and spent the morning wandering dirt roads and poking around a community toilet and treatment system), which I would eat quickly to mask my embarrassment. Probably not the most sanitary thing I’ve ever done. She made me promise to never return to Trichy without visiting her family, and despite the short-lasting illness, I definitely will. We got to learn about her family, their bike rental business, the petty fights she has with her neighbors, her dreams of moving to Bangalore, her hopes that her three sons will get a better education and better jobs than she has had. I have no idea why she was so generous and hospitable, besides the fact that hospitality is innate for many Indians, but it was really nice to share a meal with a young woman and her sons and learn a bit more about their lives, an intimacy that my interviews don’t quite reach.
I also had my longest interview to date this week, lasting over four straight hours—unless you count the short break where I was fed six small cubes of watermelon to “reduce the chili color” in my cheeks. Officially, my interviews now range from three minutes and four seconds to four hours and six minutes in length. Combining a politician, journalist, and sort of egoist personality often yields an individual who enjoys storytelling with little regard for responding to specific questions or staying on topic. I signed up for a PhD that relies largely on qualitative, semi-structured interviews, so I’m used to this, but the interview outlasted all my attempts to circle the conversation back to the specific sanitation systems I’m studying.
While in Trichy, I met with another NGO that focuses on household toilet construction, as I was interested in learning about their progress towards the central government’s goal of ending open defecation by 2019. While the government is able to boast impressive numbers of toilet construction across the country, and is seeing some of the first districts being declared open defecation free, these stories come against a backdrop of challenges. Some government officials have accepted bribes in exchange for declaring a village or district open defecation free, despite incomplete coverage, and most toilets are constructed as twin pit latrines regardless of groundwater table height and systems in place for sludge treatment when it will be needed in a few years. However, the potentially most impactful difficultly of the current organization and spread of the Swacch Bharat Mission is the way in which the subsidies for household toilets are approved and allocated. The government provides subsidies of Rs. 8000 for urban areas and Rs. 12000 for rural areas for each household toilet constructed, but most toilets cost slightly more than this and require additional contributions from houses or subsidies from NGOs. The government has chosen to prioritize rural areas first, meaning that in some cases, houses that are still part of the same community but are a few feet across the official line that separates the village panchayat from the town panchayat are ineligible to apply for toilet construction subsidies at this point in the program. Houses within the approved areas often cannot afford the difference between the toilet price and the government subsidy, so they don’t bother to apply for the loans. For the families who are able to pay the difference, they must pay the full cost out of pocket upfront, and only receive the subsidy once they show pictures of the constructed toilet and an official can confirm construction is adequate and complete. In many communities in India, toilets constructed six or eight months ago still have not received the government rebate, and this bureaucratic slowdown has discouraged many previously-interested families from constructing their own toilets since they cannot afford to go six or more months without several thousand of their limited and hard-earned rupees. Maybe instead of demonetizing currency to stop black money the government should have started a program where tax-evaders had two years to pay the taxes they owe in the form of constructing toilets in villages and both problems would be solved.
Whenever people ask me why I chose India to study sanitation, I always reminisce that despite all of the failure and difficulties, it’s the inherent complexity, the little glimmers of hope, and the never-ending facets of need and innovation, and the dedicated men and women that keep it interesting, meaningful, and important.