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Deconstructing ‘construction-oriented’: looking at the household latrines component of the Swachh Bharat Mission Urban in Ranchi

Sanitation programmes in India are usually criticised for being too construction-oriented giving little attention to the behaviour change required to tackle the country’s particular cultural context, namely caste Hindu notions of ritual purity and pollution. The Swachh Bharat Mission, the latest sanitation programme launched in 2014 has not succeeded in escaping the same censure. Our exploration of the Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban (‘SBM’), particularly focused on the on-ground construction of Individual Household Latrines (‘IHHL’) in Ranchi helped us understand some reasons as to why the provision of toilets does not result into its use. However, the recurrent impression we got from our informants led us to conclude that despite the heavy favouring of construction over the softer but more complex aspects of behavioral change, not enough thought has gone even into this!

Through a series of desk research complemented by structured and semi-structured interviews with the scheme beneficiaries and the project monitoring team contracted by the Ranchi Municipal Corporation, we tried to understand how the construction of IHHL has been tackled in Ranchi. We also wanted to reconcile Ranchi’s impressive claim to an Open Defecation Free (‘ODF’) tag with news that disagreed with this claim. Our choice for Ranchi was a practical one, based on access to relevant informants. Ranchi, as a recently formed capital facing an influx of workers from neighboring villages and cities, faces major challenges in providing proper sanitation and facilities to all its residents. That coupled with the fact that until SBM it has consistently fared poorly in previous sanitation programmes means that Ranchi offers us a good insight into the impacts of SBM.

In the official guidelines for SBM, the definition of ODF includes safe disposal of excreta. However, the guidelines themselves don’t sufficiently address treatment of waste, particularly regarding sewage systems. Given India’s low connections in sewage systems and inefficient and scarce sewage treatment plants, experts have flagged this as a major problem.



Nonetheless, the most common type of toilet we kept coming across during our field research was one that didn’t require to be connected to the already overburdened and failing sewage system in place. The twin-pit latrine system was the default option since, at an estimated Rs. 20,000, it is also the cheapest one.  It is also an ideal model since the accumulated waste undergoes a process of decomposition which turns into valuable and hygienic compost over time, thus removing any dependency on sewage systems or the practice of manual scavenging.



However, it is only when the faecal matter has turned completely into compost does the emptying of these pit latrines disqualifies as manual scavenging. This requires safe toilets to be built which, according to a report of the World Bank, is a rare phenomenon. Building safe toilets require a certain amount of technical knowledge of the different components involved.

Yet our respondents, both project monitors and beneficiaries, categorically told us that there was no technical assistance involved; beneficiaries were simply left to build toilets on their own or hire their own mason. This is an odd contrast with the SBM guidelines which offer an exhaustive comparison of the pros and cons of each type of toilet as well as the technical aspects to be paid due attention to during construction of these toilets.

This is highly problematic for several reasons. For one, as one of the project monitoring team members told us, a lot of beneficiaries attempt to construct a modified version rather than stick to the design offered in the twin-pit toilet in order to accommodate for larger families or space constraints. They are discouraged to do this because they usually face design troubles and fund limitations as a result.

But even more vitally, it is preposterous to expect that the ordinary person would have a proper idea of sanitation; studies point out that many of these on-site systems are poorly constructed. Many slum dwellers we talked to revealed poor awareness of sanitation. They harboured misconceptions such as thinking that the standard depth of twin-pit latrines would fill up very quickly, although it fills up over years, prompting beneficiaries to dig deeper and bigger pits. This thinking prompts people to opt for more expensive options such as septic tanks. People do not necessarily prioritise safety over concerns with the handling of waste. They are unaware of certain requirements for a safe sanitation system, such as the minimum distance required from sources of drinking water in order to avoid water contamination.

Without looking into the entire cycle of sanitation, SBM’s aim to eradicate manual scavenging cannot be fulfilled. As Caravan’s web reporter Sagar succinctly explains in an article investigating the SBM scheme, “Manual scavenging exists in the yawning gap between the amount of excreta produced by India’s enormous population and the country’s existing capacity for processing it sanitarily. If that gap is not closed, especially as the government strives to get more than half a billion people who did not previously use latrines to start using them, it will perpetuate the same old practices”.

This view is backed up by our conversation with the project monitoring NGO working with Ranchi Municipality: there seems to have been no efforts to look intoinsanitary toilets, as far as our conversation with them is concerned. From the lack of attention to sewage connections or treatment plants, to the poor quality of toilets and zero attempt to convert insanitary toilets, even this attention towards construction of toilets leaves much to desire. It is no wonder, aside from the cultural repulsion towards having a toilet inside the house or having to deal with its discards, that people prefer open defecation. 

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