Improved Sanitation Improves Half a Million Lives in Pune, India

08 December 2015

By Maria Lobo and Mahila Milan


Sanitation has been the shame of India. More than 50 percent of people who still defecate in the open live in India. Most of these are from rural areas but many of them are urban slum dwellers.  Public toilets, though available, are all too often  so rundown and filthy that defecating in the open remains preferable. This affects the overall health and dignity of slum dwellers, especially women. The following is a demonstration of a bottom-up advocacy approach to sanitation which is led by the community themselves. This experience challenges the mindset of people who seldom think of slum dwellers as capable of bringing change from below.

Community Toilets in Pune

In Pune, a partnership between the municipal government, NGOs and community-based organisations has built more than 400 community toilet blocks between 1999 and 2001. These have greatly improved sanitation for more than half a million people living in slums. They have also demonstrated the potential of municipal community partnerships to improve conditions for low-income groups.

How it all began

Based on the discussions of female slum dwellers, specifically around the challenge of open defecation, the Indian SDI Alliance (NSDF, Mahila Milan and SPARC) prioritised addressing the sanitation challenge.  Given the huge problems in dense, inner city slums and the lack of formal sewerage connections the community toilet block was tabled as a solution that promoted access  to sanitation In the absence of safe disposal of faecal matter through the sewer connectivity, safety tanks were the next best option suggested .Over time, the alliance built many such community toilet blocks, initially with grants to develop, design, and get acceptance from community groups and municipalities in over 20 large and medium cities across India. In all locations, they began to explore where they could locate a municipality that would take on this strategy at a significant scale.

The first possibility arrived in 1994. The World Bank began negotiations with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) to seek a loan for a large sewage treatment project in the city. This mega-buck, mega-infrastructure project involved a large-scale expansion of Mumbai’s undersized and overtaxed sewer system. Thanks to pressure from local NGOs, the World Bank set one condition for the loan – that the project also address the needs of the poor and, to the Indian Alliance’s delight, include the building of community toilets in a selected group of slums. The project set a target of providing 20,000 toilets, enough for at least a million people at the less-than-perfect ratio of one toilet for every 50 people. When the Alliance was invited to explore ways to get involved, it saw a chance to test some of its ideas about community-managed sanitation at a much larger scale, and to strengthen a constructive partnership between the urban poor and the city government. While the Alliance was keen on community participation in taking up this project, the World Bank had the different approach of setting up a competitive bidding process which pitted one community against another to be chosen for demo projects. In addition the overall procurement strategy did not work for the alliance. So with some regrets the alliance withdrew from this project at that time.

In 1999 the Municipal Commissioner of Pune, Ratnakar Gaikwad, who co-incidentally had been the additional (deputy) commissioner of Mumbai Municipal Corporation while the community toilet project was under discussion, invited the alliance to work in Pune. He devised a sanitation program for the city of Pune  based on the strategy developed by the alliance. It was set up in several stages.  Since 1992, only 22 ‘pay and use’ toilet blocks had been built in the city of Pune. A decision was thus taken to construct around 400 community toilet blocks in two phases starting in 1999. NGOS were invited to apply for a fixed price tender and get contracted to organise communities to design construct and manage community toilets. A formal commitment was sought by the municipality  that the NGO and the community would maintain the toilet block by collecting contributions from the community. The contracts were not only for building toilets but also for maintenance. In awarding contracts, priority was given as follows:

i) settlements of more then 500 inhabitants that had no toilet facilities,

ii) areas where facilities were so dilapidated that they needed replacement

iii) areas where there were toilets but a larger population was forced to use them as against the standard norm of 1 seat for 50 persons.

Bids from eight NGOs were accepted, of which SPARC was one of the selected NGOs.

Meetings in every locality in Pune were organised by Mahila Milan. In the beginning, there was a lot of hand-holding. There were engineers and architects stationed in Pune who were always available for advice and guidance. Every site would be visited every day by an engineer who would sort out problems on the spot. There were regular visits by a team from Mumbai to give overall direction to the programme. Masons and carpenters with experience from within the slums were supported to take on jobs, along with regular contractors. There has been considerable debate about how best to fund the maintenance of these toilets. The Indian Alliance promoted a system whereby each family would buy a pass costing 20 rupees a month. This was based on the income required to cover the costs of hiring a family (who would live in a caretaker’s room above the toilet) and costs of cleaning and maintenance materials. This is much cheaper than the one rupee per use charge used by other public toilets which for a family of five would cost 150 rupees a month even if each household member only used the toilet once a day.

From the beginning the urgency in the project was based on the realisation that the Commissioner was a project “champion” and this project had to be completed during his tenure in Pune. Everyone was learning as they raced around getting things done. The downside of this was that many mistakes were made, and repairing them cost the Alliance resources that the city would not provide. The reality, however, was that if we had hesitated, we would have lost the chance to do this project and to learn from it. It’s a difficult choice but often when working on issues concerning the poor, plunging into untested waters is the only way to produce precedents. And a precedent was established in Pune, as the first location for community toilet construction at a city-wide scale. The program took off in a big way and virtually all slums were provided with toilet blocks (

As soon as the sanitation work in Pune took off the  Indian Alliance  began to once again focus on Mumbai but the World Bank and the municipality continued to go back and forth on how to proceed with contracts. Finally the procurement policy was finalized and the Alliance agreed to take part and their experience of working with slums was made a critical factor in the tender point system. The Alliance got the contract to construct toilet blocks along with two other NGOS in Mumbai. As part of the Mumbai Sewerage Disposal Project, which started in 1999 and is still ongoing in different phases, the Alliance has constructed, to date, 366 community toilet blocks with 6952 seats.

Later, Ratnakar Gaikwad was appointed director of YASHADA, a national training institute for government officials based in Pune. Discussions between his office and the Alliance led to a seminar that included NGOs, government agencies, training institutions, and other institutions that wanted to work on urban sanitation and to create a collective boost to their various efforts to address open defecation.

The work undertaken by the partnership of the Alliance, YASHADA and Administrative Staff Collage India (a major institution that does research and trains a wide spectrum of private and public administrators)  opened the possibility of working in some new cities. But it went both ways: these city processes were fed back as examples in the training and capacity-building sessions that were being held in the two training institutes. In all of these cities, as in every other experience, the Alliance had to struggle for several years to be fully paid for its work.

Tirupur followed Pune and started a sanitation programme in 2004, where the Alliance along with a private sector company (who was contracted to undertake infrastructure projects) constructed 14 toilet blocks with 254 seats. Nineteen community toilet blocks were later constructed in Vishakhapatnam, a port city of Andhra Pradesh, between 2004-2005; these blocks included 232 seats. Vijayawada is a medium-sized town in Andhra Pradesh. The sanitation project here started in 2004 when, at a national sanitation meeting, the commissioner of Vijayawada heard about the Mumbai sanitation project and invited NSDF to work in the city. Seventeen toilet blocks with 128 seats were constructed for a population of 6,400. In 2006, Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation contracted Pune Mahila Milan to construct 7 toilet blocks with 90 seats to initiate its sanitation project. The project in Pimpri reflects the importance of building demonstration pilots which can be picked up and expanded upon. In cities where the federations have the capacity to operate at scale, they can handle the expansion phase. In 2007, a project called Nirmal MMR Abhiyan (Campaign for a Clean MMR) designed a strategy to finance community toilets in slums in Mumbai and 13 other municipalities.


This programme helped to reconfigure the relationships between city government and civil society. NGOs and communities were neither “clients” nor “supplicants”, but partners. The city government recognized the capacity of community organizations, supported by local NGOs, to develop their own solutions. The division of roles was also clear in that city authorities changed their role from being a toilet provider to setting standards, funding the capital cost of construction, and providing water and electricity. The NGOs and community organizations designed, built and maintained the toilet blocks.

It was only after they had started working in Pune in 1998 that the Alliance re-entered the fray in Mumbai, where the World Bank was still committed to a competitive bidding process and where the slum sanitation part of the huge sanitation project continued to face challenges from all sides. After the success of the Pune model and project, the Alliance was contracted to construct community toilets in slums as part of the Mumbai World Bank project and all procurement procedures were redrafted.

In 2000, the Pune municipal commissioner and the Indian Alliance were invited to make a presentation to the prime minister’s office. A Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan programme was announced and the Planning Commission dedicated funds to cities that want to take up sanitation projects (Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in Hindi means “Mission to clean India”). The planning Commission is the highest Planning institution in India. Between 2000-2008, a partnership between the Indian SDI Alliance, YASHADA (training institute of the government of Maharashtra), ASCI (Administrative Staff Collage, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh), and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program led to the inclusion of slum sanitation in the training of many city officials. In 2009, after national and state-level consultations, development of city-based indicators and state government agreements, the cabinet passed the national policy for urban sanitation. In retrospect the volume of interventions desired did not take place. In many ways essential recommendations ( e.g. city wide data to create benchmarks for deficits) were taken up but instead of facilitating communities and municipalities to undertake this, the process was assigned to consultants. In this manner over 400 such surveys and follow up projects were prepared but the delivery of sanitation did not occur.

Community based organisations and alliances face the challenge that the production of a sanitation solution and working to set precedents works effectively at a settlement and city scale. However once the process seeks to take a quantum leap to become nationally embedded it gets appropriated in ways that excludes the community champions that drive it.







pimpri toilets