Tag Archives: urban planning

Open defecation and India’s urban poor

By Sharmila Ray, Senior Program Officer, PRIA

A couple of months back my cousin and I got talking about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It’s a good policy if it can be implemented and Prime Minister Modi is right, having strong, efficient sanitation services is a good way to restore dignity to India’s people. Sanitation is also of course an essential service and just by that it should cover 100% of the country’s population. This was my point.

My cousin agreed but raised a question. If in the last few decades of the 19th century, people in England, rich and poor both, could rally the government for water and sanitation services why was it that in India, it takes so much rhetoric and government policy pressure in as late as 2014. Why was it that Indians, regardless of social status were willing to spend so much money and energy on marriages and festivals but not on ensuring basic community or household level sanitation? He was exasperated “Why can’t they build more toilets?”

According to UNICEF, nearly 50% of India’s population defecates in the open. 37 million from India’s cities resort to open defecation which is about 12% of India’s urban households. The situation is worse in smaller cities (population<100,000) with open defecation at around 22%.

Some houses are too small for all members to dig pit toilets within its premises

Some houses are too small for all members to dig pit toilets within its premises

My experience from the field while working on SLBConnect tells me that most people do understand that these are important services. During field work, many have told me how unfair it is that they don’t have access to clean water or that even where toilets have been made, there is no water connections/source close by. There have been quite a few awareness raising campaigns in the last decade and these seemed to have worked.

In many small towns and cities, more than half the houses are not connected to sewerage facilities either because there are no sewerage connections close by, or because their households haven’t been connected to the main city sewerage network.  In some towns, houses do not want to connect with the main sewerage line because they believe they will be charged for services, something they are unwilling to pay for.

In the cities we are in the process of surveying- Ajmer, Jhunjhunu and Rae Bareli- the urban poor living in squatter colonies have dug pit toilets or arranged for soak pits and other such way of discharging waste water since their houses are not covered by sewerage networks.  Not every can afford to do so though. Some houses are too small to support pit toilets since these need constant cleaning otherwise feces starts piling high and the houses start smelling and becoming unhygienic. Only the young girls of the house use these pit toilets for the sake of their safety, the others go out in the open. Not everyone owns a residential space big enough to have soak pits either.

Young girls try and avoid open defecation as much as they can especially during daylight since the amount of safe or hidden places available have been shrinking with ubiquitous construction

Young girls try and avoid open defecation as much as they can especially during daylight since the amount of safe or hidden places available have been shrinking with ubiquitous construction

There is also the population of urban poor living in non-notified and unauthorized slums. To put it simply non-notified and unauthorized slums are those slums which are not recognized by the State. This means that residents have no claim on any service- water, sanitation, electricity etc.

These are people literally in a no man’s land. They do not own the houses they live in, the utensils are not theirs, nor the clothes, nor anything else. These can be razed, burnt, thrown, taken without any legal implications. Come monsoon, houses get washed away, and then plastic covers and mud houses emerge again out of the slush like sprouting mushrooms. Every monsoon. No sanitation either. So people defecate in the open and there is no way to clean the place. When you are in no man’s land nothing belongs to you, and nothing possibly can. In this piece of land you are the mercy of others. What can you possibly claim here?

Just building scattered toilets will not work and cannot work. Unless these basic infrastructure issues are addressed along with the necessary behavior change, an open defecation free India will remain a distant dream and the content of mere rhetoric.


Join URB.im’s discussion on “Adversity and Urban Planning: Designing Safer, more Resilient Cities”

Join the ongoing discussion by URB.im on “Adversity and Urban Planning: Designing Safer, more Resilient Cities,” which is being hosted in partnership with UN-Habitat and the Ford Foundation in anticipation of the World Urban Forum 7 in April.

You are invited to read the articles and share your own ideas in the comments (http://urb.im/c140325/) which shall be of great
value to the global network of urban planners and thinkers.

URB.im (http://urb.im/), the global online network “for just and inclusive cities,” connects practitioners, urban planners, and policymakers in the Global South to scale working solutions to the problem of urban poverty. An initiative of the Ford Foundation, it is managed by San Francisco-based Dallant Networks and currently covers eighteen cities.

2012 in review: How democracy is forcing itself onto the global urban agenda

The Global Urbanist

Kerwin Datu and Naik Lashermes of Global Urbanist trace the trends and the challenges that our cities have faced in 2012 in their recent article that can be read at : http://globalurbanist.com/2012/12/24/2012-in-review

The article questions the larger theme that has emerged tracing the urban development scenario:  how to manage and improve our cities without cutting across the grain of them. How do we repair the disruption and displacement caused by development, how do we strengthen the rights and recognise the contributions of all communities, how do we reorganise what we have rather than destroy it through reinvention, and how do we do all of this while being who we want to be, individually and collectively?

Some of the highlights of the article are:


This was a year in which news of evictions of the poor arrived with depressing regularity. As Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, suggested in Naples this September, this is a global phenomenon intensified by rapid economic growth and the free flow of capital looking for investment opportunities in the world’s urban areas. Some of the examples of the same have been threat in Rio de Janeiro (such as in Vila Autódromo on the proposed Olympic Park site or the old port areas sighted for redevelopment) and Lagos (notably the sublimely innovative Makoko community) and traders being pushed aside in the Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalorethe tourist trail in Hampithe western Chinese outpost of Xining. Even wealthy American cities like San Francisco andChicago are not above the insensitive demolition of poor communities.

The idea that development is essentially a win-win process is a fallacy. There is always some community that suffers in every urban development project, and it is wrong to pretend that such suffering is inevitable or that there must always be sacrifices to be made for the greater good. Every development project, if it has any net benefit at all, can afford to recompense the costs that it imposes on others. The human, social and economic costs of every project can be identified and to a large extent measured and evaluated.


Yet these evictions and displacements are merely the acute expression of a larger phenomenon we are inclined to call discriminatory cities — cities whose laws, policies, planning processes and economic priorities are effectively structured to discriminate against poor and informal communities, to ignore their needs or restrict their ability to claim their rights as citizens, often for the purported benefit of formal businesses and residents or worse, in desperate attempts to gain the approval of foreign observers and investors. For example, Beijing is “sealing in” immigrant residents of its urban villages, Shanghai is harassing traders and motorcycle taxi drivers, Gurgaon is refusing to acknowledge or provide services to workers who drive its factories, while Johannesburg seems to be creating separate rail systems for its wealthy and poor areas and Nairobi is circumventing its congested centre rather than relieving it. We seem to be a long way from the principle that all citizens deserve the equal attention and concern of the political system that governs them.


When we displace or demolish any community we are destroying not just homes, but also places of employment, places of education, and places of social interaction and therefore of economic support, as the above examples of marginalised traders show. Arguably we need to assert not only a right to adequate housing, but a right to adequate space so that every citizen can satisfy all the functions they carry out within the urban economy and community. This carries into the political and international dimensions: too many governments and other organisations focus on urban development as a problem of housing, neglecting to address and even to monitor our collective progress in improving the livelihoods and income levelsof all communities in our cities.


So far this is very much a social agenda, but there remain fundamental planning and environmental questions to be addressed in the face of ongoing urbanisation and urban growth. While all the world is in agreement that we need to move from fossil-fuel-dependent models towards greater symbiosis with the environment, and ideas abound for rendering the city more green, more intelligent, more resilient, more liveable, we are unimpressed that nearly thirty years after the Brundtland Commission we are still searching for ways to reduce the harm we cause to the environment and our own sustainability rather than seeking to design urban systems that replicate ecological processes and produce net benefits to the environment and our resource base.


Question of urban identities, especially those which arise through situations of political conflict has been of importance in these last few years. In postwar contexts such asthe redevelopment of Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, thereemergence of Mogadishu from the shadow of civil war or the reconstruction of Stari Most, the “old bridge” of Mostar, understanding the identities that exist within a city (those attached to communities as well as those attached to places within the city), respecting them, giving them expression, and resolving them where they continue to sow division, is fundamental to the healing process.


If the question of identity has emerged so strongly in urban planning this year, it is because it reflects the need for a major overhaul of how the wider public participates in the formation of the city. What emerges from this surprisingly insistent question of identity is a democratic agenda: how to listen to the people, since the people obviously refuse to go unheard.