Saturday, December 3, 2011

"The greatest event of our age..."

I wanted to blog this quotation a while ago, but am just getting around to it. I found it on the cover of the folder I was given at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in September.
"The greatest event of our age is the meeting of cultures, meeting of civilizations, meeting of different points of view, making us understand that we should not adhere to any one kind of single faith, but respect diversity of belief... Our attempt should always be to cooperate, to bring together people, to establish friendship and have some kind of a right world in which we can live together in happiness, harmony and friendship. Let us therefore realize that this increasing maturity should express itself in this capacity understand what others points of view are." (Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan)

Talking toilets

I was at an IFMR seminar this morning, a presentation on public toilets in Chennai by the Transparent Chennai project team.

I learned many things, and I want to share my notes here in the interest of public debate on the issue.
Please note I am just typing the notes I jotted down, without checking or polishing them. At some point all this information should be available on their website, if it isn't already.

  • We don't really know how many toilets there are in Chennai. An IFMR team member quoted the 2001 census as showing 600,000 toilets for 800,000 houses. 
  • The question is how to reach the 'open defecation-free' goal: septic tanks? sewage connections? 
  • The public toilets that there are are used in a variety of ways, from their intended use, to bathing, to washing. 
  • Transparency Chennai visited zonal offices to ascertain how many public toilets in each zone. They came up with a count of 572. They filed an RTI to get an official number, and the response was 715. 
  • In North Chennai, they found 49 public toilets for over 400,000 people. 
  • The norm is supposed to be 60 users per toilet seat, but of course, there are far more users than that in many places.
  • And many toilets don't get used, especially by women and children. The researchers heard many explanations for that: blocked latrines; blocked sewers; varying (random?) user charges; poor maintenance; cracked ceiling; no door; no lights; leaky taps; no water.
  • Mothers found the open ground more sanitary for their children's use. 
  • Safe disposal of waste was also a problem. 
    • Here, I want to mention the Menstrual Hygiene Management Consortium, a Trichy NGO represented at the discussion. All of us forget that the disposal of sanitary waste is also an important consideration in creating sanitation systems. 
  • The EXNORA team member at the table made the point that sanitation and public conveniences are ultimately the responsibility of local government and the most useful thing civil society can do is to facilitate their learning and planning, rather than take over their work. 
  • The question of accountability came up again and again. When the state contracts out toilet construction to companies, which contract out maintenance to others, who contract caretakers... who is accountable for the state of a toilet.
  • The distinction made in the discussion between community toilets (in slums, for instance, for the use of residents); public toilets (in stations, markets, etc) and mandatory toilet facilities in workplaces (like the crowded congested stores in T.Nagar) was useful here in delineating responsibility. There was discussion about regulation, coordination, etc. 
Interesting session, which I hope will open a good conversation on this issue, and some action.