Behind Mumbai's Self-Declared ODF Status, Overused, Inadequate and Crumbling Toilets 

The Swachh Bharat campaign is a clever shift in narrative from non-availability and inadequacy to the need for change in behaviour.

The Indian government’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) aims to make the country open defecation free (ODF) by 2019. This goal was to be accomplished by providing access to toilets for all, including a subsidy for construction of individual toilets. As per the mission’s guidelines, a city or ward can be declared as ODF if, at any point in the day, not a single person is found to be defecating in the open.

The necessary infrastructure and regulatory conditions to be achieved before declaring a city or ward ODF are: All households that have space to construct toilet, have constructed one; all occupants of those households that do not have space to construct toilet have access to a community toilet within a distance of 500 meters; all commercial areas have public toilets within a distance of one kilometre and the city has the necessary mechanisms to fine people found defecating in the open.

Also, importantly, the city corporation declares itself ODF and public objections/feedback ‘may be’ obtained within 15 days. Further, if no ‘substantial’ objections are received at the end of this period, a final resolution is adopted by the city municipal administration and this is communicated to respective state governments.

Mumbai’s M-East ward

Since its launch, local governments have been on an overdrive to declare their cities ODF with or without the provisioning of toilets. According to the SBM guidelines mentioned above, if households have space constraints, they should be able to access a community toilet within a distance of 500 meters.

In Mumbai, according to a survey undertaken by the Transforming M-ward project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2018, the entire population of M-East ward has access to a public or community toilet within a radius of 500 meters. In January 2017, the ward was declared ODF by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM).

The catch, however, is that the SBM norms for community toilets specify 25 female users and 30 male users per toilet seat. In the M-East ward, the average usage of public or community toilets is a mind-boggling 154 persons per seat. If we consider a fourth of the load at peak time and five minutes of wait time per person, then, on average, a person has to wait for three hours to use the toilet.

Also read: Demolitions, Evictions and Toilets for Show: How Indore Won Swachh Bharat’s Top Rank

Non-availability of the sufficient number of toilets perpetuates open defecation. It also means that the existing toilets are crumbling through overuse. In the past two years, the M-East ward alone has witnessed the collapse of two public toilets, resulting in four deaths, including of a pregnant woman.

Open defecation spots

Identification of open defecation spots also seems problematic. MCGM listed spots that were situated on the main road – but did not consider inner lanes despite visible open defecation there all through the day. Even the four spots in the M-East Ward that were on the MCGM’s list on December 31, 2016, disappeared overnight – this extraordinary feat was achieved not by providing sanitation, but by deploying police who fined people for defecating in the open.

In April 2018, the chief minister declared Maharashtra an ODF state after 60 lakh toilets were constructed in three-and-half years. Yet, in October, the MCGM’s Solid Waste Management (SWM) department conceded that they could build only 2,170 community toilet seats out of the proposed 5,170 before their September deadline. They planned to build 22,000 additional toilet seats.

But if the state is open defecation free, why is the MCGM planning to build more toilets?

Individual toilets

SBM incentivises the construction of individual toilets through the provision of a subsidy. As part of the ‘Transforming M-ward Project,’ TISS, along with community collaboration, submitted nearly 200 applications to the municipal corporation for individual toilet construction in January 2017. Of these, only 58 applications from one community were accepted but toilets have yet to be operationalised by connecting them to the sewer network. The following reasons were cited by the MCGM to the applications that were rejected:

  • Absence of a sewer network.
  • The terrain – a low-lying area, which makes it difficult to provide a slope for the sewer line.
  • Land ownership – permission for toilet construction has to be given by the owner of the land – a major impediment especially when the slums are on private or Central government land.

And while the SBM guidelines have done away with ‘legality’ based on cut-off dates for provisioning of toilets, a circular issued by the MCGM states that permissions for toilets will be granted only to tenements existing prior to January 1, 2000. Which means that even the provision of sanitation is based on a ‘cut-off date’, making it impossible for the government to implement its own dreams of making the city ODF.

Also read: Using Threats, Arrests and Benefit Cuts, Rajasthan Is Pushing Through the Swachh Bharat Mission

The ‘ODF’ slogan must be understood as nothing but a self-congratulatory process. Public health, safe disposal of faecal matter and dignified access to sanitation facilities are hardly on the agenda. The campaign is, in fact, a clever shift of narrative from non-availability and inadequacy to the need for change in behaviour. There have been instances of women being photographed while defecating in open, and others where residents of apartment buildings hurled stones at women who have no choice but to defecate in the open due to lack of toilets.

Worst of all, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has perpetuated the notion that the poor are “unclean” – and therefore, ‘cleaning up’ involves ensuring not basic services and facilities, but hiding away or displacing the urban poor.

Purva Dewoolkar currently works for the ‘Transforming M-Ward’ project at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences as a programme coordinator. She is an architect, urban designer by training.