The travails of building a toilet – is this the road to a Swachh Bharat?

For poor and marginalized sections, building a toilet still entails a lot of red tape and costs

By Radha Gopalan
Published: Monday 27 July 2015

As the Swachh Bharat juggernaut rolls on, homes in villages across Andhra Pradesh (as I am sure inother states) are trying to build a toilet. Here is a glimpse of the process that is to be followed in Andhra Pradesh (or at least in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh).

Families interested in building toilets must inform the Panchayat Secretary. Once their application is approved, the Panchayat Secretary gives the family the go-ahead. The toilets have to be built according to the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Department's specifications which has to be communicated to the family. The conditions are—the site must be located away from the house and it must be a brick and cement construction with an Indian style latrine. A soak pit must also be constructed. The family contacts neighbours/masons/construction labour who have some experience building toilets and gets an estimate. This ranges anywhere from Rs 25,000 to Rs 35,000 (July 2015 figures), depending upon the size of the toilet and local costs and availability of cement, brick, sand, sanitary fitting, labour etc. Government will release funds of Rs 12,000–Rs 15,000 (numbers are not clearly communicated to the family but the Panchayat Secretary) after completion of the toilet and when a photograph is provided as proof. How does the family raise the money to build this toilet? Women borrow from self-help groups (SHGs), private money-lenders at high interest, friends and family etc. In almost all cases, the costs incurred are at least Rs 10,000–Rs 15,000 higher than the amount allocated by the government. The actual cost is even higher when you factor in the cost of loan repayment.

Take the case of an all women household—an old widow who receives an old-age monthly pension of Rs 1,000. She is 70 years old and therefore cannot be a member of the SHG and hence cannot avail a loan. Her widowed daughter is 40 years old, with a daily wages job earning about Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 a month. They desperately need a toilet since the mother is ageing and cannot make that early morning trip to the fields to receive herself. Where are they going to get the money? Even if the daughter takes a loan from the SHG, how is she going to repay it and feed herself and her mother. Where are the achhe din and Swachh Bharat for these families?

If the government is serious about improving sanitation, it must: (a) Provide simpler toilet design options that are not so material intensive (let us learn from sanitation programmes in African countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka) and therefore cheaper to construct while being functional (b) Create a cadre of on-the ground masons and construction workers whom people can hire to build these units rather than be at the mercy of various contractors and (c) Create a fund for women-headed or elderly-headed households and other marginalised sections of society, which will provide interest-free loans with flexible repayment options.

For once, let us really put our best foot forward and not resort to tokenism and political gimmickry! “Toilets for all” is not just about sanitation. It is also a powerful weapon against malnutrition.


Radha Gopalan is an environmental scientist and educationist. She is currently an independent researcher working primarily on issues around food sovereignty and is an active member of the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India.

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