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This article is part of a 24-part series, covering the sanitation crisis in each Indian state. Each part will be accompanied by a visual documentary on the specific state, highlighting the effects of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the continuation of manual scavenging in India. The series is based on the Rehabilitation Research Initiative (RRI India) and South Asian Labour Network (SASLN) study in 27 states, between 2017 and 2021.
Indore: In the last five years, Indore has had the distinction of being India’s cleanest city, according to the Swachh Survekshan Rankings. This renown is well-earned: the Indore municipal corporation could teach the rest of India lessons in waste management and sanitation coverage. One of the most important aspects of this is a record-breaking shift in the pattern of sanitation behaviour in the people of the city. They now segregate waste at the source more than any other city in India.
However, in terms of toilet usage behaviour, Indore’s record is drastically different. The data is shocking because urban Indore, despite the claim of being open defecation free, still not only defecates in the open but also constructs more makeshift toilets than any other city in India. According to data from the Rehabilitation Research Initiative (RRI India) and a South Asian Labour Network (SASLN) study in 27 states, between 2017 and 2021, more than 30,567 people defecate in the open in Indore, and there are as many as eight to nine makeshift toilets per township. Gwalior, also in Madhya Pradesh, comes second in India on this standard, with three makeshift toilets per township.
A matter of categories
Makeshift toilets are not ‘dry latrines’, that is, toilets that are used to deposit human excrement but without a water supply to flush the excrement into sewage pipes. Rather, makeshift toilets are the result of a combination of urban and rural sanitation sensibilities: sanitaryware of the kind normally used in toilets that have running water is installed in outlets without a water supply. These makeshift toilets are often found inside temporary constructions and sometimes even on top of older dry latrines at the same spot.
It is important to know the characteristics of a ‘makeshift’ toilet because this kind of toilet is neither categorised as a dry latrine or insanitary toilet, nor as a toilet with a water supply or sanitary toilet, putting it beyond the reach of organisations that work on the eradication of manual scavenging. The lack of categorisation means that makeshift toilets are ‘hidden’ in plain sight. And because sanitation workers do not often work in these toilets since they are built by communities of individuals in a temporary settlement, often near a factory, warehouse or a construction site, they remain unseen by most people except for the community concerned.
Despite this lack of visibility – or perhaps because of it – many of these makeshift toilets endure for more than five to six years, making them more permanent than temporary and thus leading to the situation in which Indore has the most makeshift toilets in the country.
Quick and easy construction
There are many reasons for the proliferation of makeshift toilets in Madhya Pradesh. For one thing, Madhya Pradesh in the past few years has had the most cases of ‘missing toilets’. Many people who wish to avail the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) scheme that constructs toilets in their homes have complained that the toilets were built in their names on paper but not in reality. Given this situation, makeshift toilets have become the only way out for those people who want to build a toilet through the SBM but are told that a toilet has already been constructed in their house.
Makeshift toilets are also popular because they can be quickly constructed anywhere. According to Rajjo, a sanitation worker from Dewas, people ‘take away’ these toilets to a different area when the usage of a given toilet increases and makes the spot a dry latrine again. Three years ago, she told The Wire, someone in her basti (tenement) built a makeshift toilet. Now that toilet has been taken away.
Madhumita Devi, a domestic sanitation worker, builds makeshift toilets for people in Jhabua for Rs 2,500 per toilet. In the absence of any other means of livelihood, Madhumita sometimes purchases the commodes from sanitary markets, but usually picks them up from construction sites at midnight and stores them in her house. In 2021, Madhumita built five makeshift toilets in Indore’s Shiv Vatika colony while working part time as a construction worker.
Makeshift toilets continue to exist in the state also because the communities and colonies that had them constructed refuse to let the government demolish them, on the grounds that they are not dry latrines. Unfortunately, ill-managed makeshift toilets become hotbeds for disease, especially in the time of pandemic.
Finally, makeshift toilets become a necessity because even some SBM toilets are unusable and lack water supplies. A lot of these unusable toilets are hence used as spare rooms to store construction materials, wood, food for livestock and, in the last two years since the beginning of the pandemic, dry rations and COVID relief packages as well.
Storage and shelter
Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of ‘empty’, ‘unused’ and storage room toilets with over 12,560 toilets completely abandoned in the last two years in the urban areas and more than 22,300 such toilets in the rural parts of the state, according to the RRI India and SASLN data.
In some parts of the state, unusable SBM toilets are even used as temporary lodging by the rural homeless seeking shelter on rainy or cold nights. Bhind, for example, has 131 toilets used as ‘night shelter homes’.
Sanitation workers in particular tend to appropriate these toilets as housing because they know of their existence. All they need to do is place a stone slab on the actual latrine and it instantly becomes a raised bed. Seema Devi, a sanitation worker from Seoni, has lived in toilets with her six children since the beginning of the pandemic, moving from one to another as the need arises. Tulsi, also a sanitation worker but from Balaghat, lives in an SBM toilet because being indoors at night helps her feel secure.
Both Seema Devi and Tulsi have constructed makeshift toilets near their SBM toilet homes; Tulsi has taken the commode out of the sanitary SBM toilet to use in her makeshift one.
Tulsi, who lives in Katangi Tehsil, earns a living by manual scavenging. She works in a nearby kacchi basti (temporary tenement), cleaning eight to ten dry latrines a day. Thirteen districts out of the 58 in Madhya Pradesh have dry latrines, making it the worst performing state in India in the Swachh Survekshan Rankings. While Indore may well be the cleanest city in India, it is important for Madhya Pradesh to also focus on other districts and earn itself the distinction of ‘cleanest state’.
Pragya Akhilesh is the director of the World Sanitation Workers Alliance, Raja Karosiya is the National Convener of the Dalit Adivasi Adhikaar Manch, India and Jhallu Bai is the head of the Safai Karmachari Women’s Collective, Panna, Madhya Pradesh.