TBI Blogs: Dear PM Modi, Want India to Go Open Defecation Free? Then Let’s Build Well-Designed Toilets!

Open defecation continues to be a major problem in India. Governments and other agencies are constructing toilets in huge numbers to combat this issue, but overlooking certain basic issues which may make adoption very slow. Balaji Gopalan looks at one such key issue – toilet design.

The near-impossible SBM (Swachh Bharat Mission) target of a country free of open defecation (OD) by 2019 has got everyone—funders, civil society, Government, and corporations—scurrying around breathlessly. They are doing whatever they can to get toilets built in villages. On the face of it, it seems to be yielding results, and toilets are getting built in large numbers.

While having a toilet at every home is a good first step towards increasing toilet usage, it is definitely not the last. I believe that the second most important factor to ensure toilet usage is the design of the toilet. While a good toilet design can encourage everyone to use toilets, a bad toilet design can actually discourage many from using a toilet for now, and probably for good.

That begs the question, “What is a good toilet design?”

A good toilet design should give one a superior experience as compared to open defecation, so that there is an intrinsic incentive to shift. The current experience of open defecation would therefore be a good place to start understanding the design of a good toilet.

Based on extensive ethnographic research (which often involved me and my fellow researchers stepping out for open defecation in the morning along with others) across Karnataka, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan, there are four key factors that drive current behaviours of open defecation: disgust, convenience, fear, and privacy.

A common open defecation spot is far and green enough to be private and not disgusting, but also near enough to be convenient and safe.

Open defecation
Women going out for defecation. Photo Credit: WaterAid/ Mansi Thapliyal

There are also hidden spots in villages, which are used during emergencies, physical difficulties, and at night. These spots tend to be closer to home, as convenience is paramount during emergencies and physical difficulties, and safety at night. Other factors, like disgust and privacy, are—to some extent—compromised.

A toilet usually offers superior experience to an OD spot on safety (closer home), privacy (enclosed space), and disgust (OD spots tend to be dirty, though a toilet can be disgusting too if it is not kept clean). A toilet also scores better on convenience – less walking – when compared to OD. However, if a toilet is not designed well, it can be ‘uncomfortable’ to use, which can become a serious usage barrier.

Above all, relieving oneself is about comfort. All of us would have experienced, at one time or another, the discomfort of holding on in the absence of a toilet.

The aspects of a toilet design that make a toilet comfortable or uncomfortable are space, light and ventilation, layout, and water access.

A household toilet in Safeda Basti slum, New Delhi, India. Photo Credit: WaterAid/Adam Ferguson
A household toilet in Safeda Basti slum, New Delhi, India. Photo Credit: WaterAid/Adam Ferguson

For someone used to the wide, open spaces during open defecation, a toilet with less room would feel cramped and uncomfortable to sit in. A closed facility would feel dark, stuffy, and smelly. The light and ventilation can be easily improved with openings on the walls and by including a light fixture for use at night.

The toilet seat needs to be positioned at the centre, and there should be enough space for an adult to sit or squat and to open the door easily. The water access to the toilet can be improved with a water storage facility on or next to the toilet.

While building toilets that are comfortable according the above-mentioned parameters can go a long way in shifting usage from open defecation to using toilets, these features may still not mean the toilet is comfortable for everyone to use. That brings us to the next big factor in toilet design—inclusivity.

Unfortunately, we do not design toilets in villages, as elsewhere, for the physically challenged. When we think of the physically challenged, we usually imagine the blind or crippled. However, every home might have a physically challenged person. Even the elderly, pregnant women, and the bedridden have limited mobility.

In spite of the enabling policies at the national and state levels, service providers have faced challenges because of lack of awareness about the special needs of the physically challenged, and lack of knowledge about availability of inclusive and cost-effective technology options.

There are options and designs available that service providers can refer to and adopt for inclusive toilet designs.

A disabled man uses the accessible latrine designed specifically to accommodate his needs. Photo Credit: WaterAid/Guilhem Alandry
A disabled man uses the accessible latrine designed specifically to accommodate his needs. Photo Credit: WaterAid/Guilhem Alandry

In December 2015, WaterAid India, in collaboration with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, launched The Handbook on Accessible Household Sanitation facilities for Persons with Disabilities.

This handbook details how we can make toilets more accessible for the physically challenged. Implementers can use it to provide inclusive sanitation solutions. Such initiatives encourage communities to consider disabled-friendly design options and thereby enable everyone to live a life with dignity.

Comfort and inclusivity are definitely the two most important aspects of toilet design. However, there is a third factor that escapes users as well as community mobilisers—aesthetics.

The fact is that people build toilets because it is more convenient, safe, private, and less disgusting. They build them because building and using a toilet is a sign of progress.

From a community mobiliser’s vantage point, the toilet is about health and keeping excrement inside enclosed pits.

Therefore, toilets promoted in official programmes are often the basic ones, without any sign of good aesthetics.

Toilet design
A convenient toilet design. Photo Credit: Balaji Gopalan

Here are some ideas that we are in the process of testing to improve toilet design:

  • A toilet catalogue that brings alive these aspects through photographs of good and bad toilet design
  • Toilet tour around the village to look at different toilets and discuss design possibilities
  • A toilet demo kit to demonstrate good and bad toilet designs

Building thousands of badly designed toilets is a huge disservice to the Swachh Bharat Mission. It can put people off using toilets for a long time to come. If people build comfortable, inclusive, attractive, and well-designed toilets, it will create an intrinsic motivation to use them.

(The author is the co-founder of Upward Spiral, an organisation focussed on communication for social change. The article draws on research conducted with Nipa Desai, Parijat Sarkar, Teerath Rawat, Kshitij Patil, Nanda Kumar, and Ashutosh Wakankar.)

To support WaterAid India and contribute to its efforts, visit the website.

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