Improved Sanitation Improves Half a Million Lives in Pune, India

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


Taking the Reigns: Slum Dwellers Drive the Upgrading Process in Pune, India

Pune, India

By Ariana K. MacPherson, SDI Secretariat

In March I came across Mukta Naik’s piece for Global Urbanist blog on her firm’s involvement in a project to redevelop two slum clusters in Delhi as part of the national Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) housing scheme. While her piece highlights a number of key principles in the creation of cities that include rather than marginalize the urban poor – arguing, for example, for in situ upgrading rather than relocation, and the central participation of slum dwellers in the planning process – I felt as though in the end, there was at least one critical departure from my take on the role of slum dwellers in the production of future cities. Naik concludes her piece with a statement that, “in the end, many of the demands of slum dwellers are not implementable” and the onus lies on the urban planning professionals, architects and engineers to advocate on their behalf for more realistic solutions, and to convince local governments of their rationale and viability. 

The experience of urban grassroots social movements and individual communities proves that slum dwellers are more than capable of devising realistic, implementable, solutions to their own housing and infrastructure needs. Although the process may be longer than one driven by professionals, its success is often more sustainable, and more relevant – characteristics that benefit both the government and the slum dwellers in the long term. To this end, local governments across India and the developing world have in many cases (and often after much negotiation, exchange visits to other projects, and even some heated disagreements) been brought into the process, convinced of the viability of these projects, and seen the concrete benefits of involving communities in all stages of the upgrading process – from planning to design to construction to maintenance. In addition, I would argue that the role of the professional is not to provide the right answers, but instead to ask the right questions; not to advocate for the urban poor, but rather to support their voice so that they can  advocate for their own needs and, ultimately, their own solutions.

One of the most notable examples of this is happening 1,500 kilometers from the scene of Naik’s article, in Pune, India, the second largest city in Maharashtra state after the megacity of Mumbai. Here, organized communities of the urban poor have been working for roughly twenty years to build a social movement that results in concrete improvements in the lives of slum dwellers. This alliance includes a national collective of women’s savings groups, Mahila Milan, a national slum dweller federation, NSDF, and their support NGO, SPARC

During a trip to Pune in January, I met the leaders of Pune’s Mahila Milan (MM) in their local office above a community toilet project constructed and managed by the women of MM. This group of women manages projects ranging from housing construction to water and sanitation to large-scale government-sponsored resettlements. Starting with management of daily savings, the MM women have learnt the necessary skills for management and coordination of human as well as financial resources. 

Pune’s Mahila Milan began their upgrading work by taking up an in-situ upgrading project for 1,200 households in the settlement of Yerwada under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission’s (JNNURM) Basic Services to the Urban Poor scheme (BSUP).  Here, old tin shacks have been torn down and replaced with one, two and three-story single and multiple family homes in the style of townhouses and small apartment blocks. Inevitably, political battles crop up during this aspect of such projects. The process of demolition and reconstruction requires the facilitation of intense negotiation by MM’s members and leaders. The ways of managing these grievances are maybe the most important lesson of all, and highlights MM’s integral role in the process.

In Yerwada, MM have driven all aspects of the project: from community mobilization to design of re-blocking plans and upgraded houses to negotiations with city government around building regulations and provision of infrastructure and basic services. Using social technologies such as self-enumeration, community mapping, and daily savings, the women of Mahila Milan have been able to engage at all levels, bringing empowering tools and information to both the people on the ground and the officials in town hall.

One of the most fascinating things about this project is the use of space. Most of the homes’ footprints are no bigger than 250 square feet. By adding a second floor, this footprint is nearly doubled, allowing extended families to live comfortably together. One woman’s home is a narrow triangle of only 170 square feet. The second story nearly doubles this, and MM has ensured that she has permission from the municipality to build a third story once she can afford it. 

In addition to reconstructing the homes, MM worked hard in Yerwada to realign the structures, widening pathways and making space for municipal water, sewerage and electricity connections. Management of construction was made easier thanks to MM’s direct involvement as overseers of the construction process. Footpaths, widened from crevices to lovely pathways, are now lit by street lamps. MM worked with the families to construct homes suited to their needs and personal aesthetic. Homes are painted bright colors, and front doors hung with bright flowers. It is clear that this is a community. Not a slum. Not an informal settlement. It is a neighborhood, with families living and working, improving their homes and walking their kids home from school. 

Following the successful upgrading in Yerwada, the Indian SDI Alliance’s community-owned construction company was contracted by the city to construct 750 homes in 7 additional settlements across Pune: Bhatt Nagar, Chandrama Nagar, Mother Theresa, Netaji Nagar, Sheela Salve Nagar, Wadar Wasti and Yashwant Nagar. 

Prior to PMM’s involvement in slum upgrading in Pune, city government had experienced local resistance in their attempts at slum upgrading. This was due largely to a lack of community involvement in the development of upgrading plans. The state was proposing high-rise housing projects or individual subsidies and loans, neither of which appealed to the communities. Once Pune’s MM got involved, they were able to assist the wider community to develop housing solutions for in situ development and relocation that are at the same time community designed and delivered and viable in the eyes of the city government. So far, Pune MM has constructed roughly 3,000 units in situ across Pune using a blend of subsidies, loans, and community contributions.

These citywide successes provide an important node for learning across a transnational network of organized slum dweller federations that spans the Global South.  Groups of slum dwellers, support professionals and government officials from across India and the developing world travel frequently to Pune to learn from the experiences of the Pune MM and city officials. In the past few years, these exchanges have inspired groups from neighboring Orissa to South Africa to Brazil as to the power of community participation in the upgrading process.

In addition to serving as a center of learning, Pune has become an example of successful slum upgrading for the wider urban development community. Students from Pune University and KRVIA in Mumbai, as well as universities in Sweden, Australia and the United States have all traveled to Pune for research work and urban planning studios.  

The upgrading experience in Pune clearly disputes claims that slum dwellers are not capable of conceiving and implementing their own solutions. Of course, professional expertise is often necessary in implementing large-scale upgrading projects, but it must be deployed in ways that support the experience-based knowledge of slum dweller communities. Indeed, it is this experience, skill, and history that led this community to come into being in the first place. We have to constantly be thinking and acting with the question in our mind: Does this further marginalize the urban poor? Does my work as a professional minimize the decision-making influence of residents in planning for physical upgrades that will affect their lives? Do my thoughts, actions and words serve the creation of an inclusive city, or a fragmented one, where the urban poor are kept on the periphery?

For it has been proven that through the mobilization of organized slum dweller federations like Pune’s Mahila Milan, the urban poor can take the reigns of their own development, and that city governments are often quite happy to come on board.


Diary from Mumbai: Part II

Pune, India

By: Ariana K MacPherson, SDI Secretariat 

We left the city in an early morning haze of pollution and sunrise, making our way through flat green valleys and into Western Ghat mountains. We are on our way to the smaller city of Pune about three hours north of Mumbai. With a population of roughly 3 million, Pune is the second biggest city in Maharashtra state after Mumbai (population ±16 million). 

Mahila Milan (MM) has had a presence in Pune for years. Savita Sonawane, one of the longest-standing members of MM in Pune, first met the women from Mumbai when she was only 22 years old. That was nearly twenty years ago. Today we meet Savita in MM’s Pune office, located above a community toilet project constructed and managed by MM. She is sitting alongside her daughter and her two baby grandchildren. Savita has made lifelong friendships with the other women of Mahila Milan, and with Celine d’Cruz, a colleague of mine at SDI who has spent thirty years working with the women of Mahila Milan in Mumbai and Pune. Celine and Savita sit cross-legged beside each other, laughing as Savita’s granddaughter, little Arya, writes out the alphabet and pours us imaginary tea. These connections, these friendships, make up the foundation for Mahila Milan’s strength, their ability to persevere, their determination and courage. 

Alongside a group of local leaders, Savita manages projects ranging from housing construction, slum upgrading, and government sponsored resettlements. Starting with management of daily savings, the MM women learned the necessary skills for management and coordination of human as well as financial resources. 

The first project we visit is at Yerwada, a settlement near Pune city centre where Mahila Milan has facilitated a very impressive slum upgrading project. Old tin shacks have been torn down and replaced with one, two and three story single and multiple family homes in the style of townhouses and small apartment blocks. The most fascinating thing about this project is the use of space. Most of the homes’ footprints are no bigger than 250 square feet, but adding the second floor nearly doubles this space, giving the family a significant increase in their amount of living space and allowing for space for extended family to live comfortably together. One woman’s home is a narrow triangle of only  170 square feet. The second story nearly doubles this, and MM has ensured that she she has permission to build a third story once she can afford it.  

Pune, India

In addition to reconstructing the homes, MM worked hard to to realign the structures in order to widen pathways and make space for municipal water, sewerage and electricity connections. The pathways, widened from crevices to lovely pathways, are lit by street lamps. Each home has been designed in partnership with the family, so no two are alike, and construction overseen by the women of MM. They are painted bright colors, and front doors hung with bright flowers. It is clear that this is a community. Not a slum. Not an informal settlement. It is a neighborhood, with families living and working, improving their homes and kids walking home from school. 

Next we travel a bit further out of Pune to a settlement called Shanti Nagar, where the second phase of slum upgrading is taking place. Being further from the city, this settlement is far less dense than Yerwada, making roads and pathways wider and the footprints of houses larger. They have recently started demolition of homes here, so much of the settlement is still under construction. Of course, convincing people to demolish their homes and live in rental housing for six months can be a challenging task, and MM must take each family’s situation into consideration. Some people are not ready to make this kind of commitment. Children are in the midst of exams, or they do not have the money to pay rent while their house is reconstructed. These are things that would hardly be taken into consideration if the government, or even an external NGO, was heading up the process. But with MM working on the ground within their own communities, there is sensitivity to these realities. 

On our way out of Pune we visit a resettlement project that is still under construction. The government has requested that MM assist in relocating just over 1,000 families to these new buildings to make way for various public works projects. Mahila Milan has agreed, but it is going to be a challenging task. They have not been involved in the design phase of this development, and the blocks of flats are looming structures, towering high into the sky and far from the city centre. Perhaps the one saving grace are the middle-class developments sprouting up on either side. Jobs as domestic workers and drivers for these middle-income families might serve as incentive  for families to relocate here, as they will be next door to (some) economic activity. But still, for many this will be a hard move. The buildings lack character. The footprints are small, there is little cross-ventilation, and the location is not great. But Savita says they will come. They have to. And once here they will form housing societies, start daily savings, become an organized community with a voice, and they will be heard.