Sanitation, a pipe dream

We can easily build toilets. The problem is that our system does not allow for easy operation and usage.

Written by Jaithirth Rao | Published:August 18, 2014 12:05 am
Unless we seriously address the issues associated with the ongoing operations involving the availability of water and power and the maintenance and service issues associated with capital assets. Unless we seriously address the issues associated with the ongoing operations involving the availability of water and power and the maintenance and service issues associated with capital assets.

Vikram Lal is a prominent and well-regarded businessman. He is one who has proved that by relentless focus on quality, India does have a role to play in the global manufacturing scene. Now in retirement, Lal, being a sensitive and caring citizen, is looking at how to improve the lot of his countrymen and countrywomen. He wrote to me and I quote below a part of his message:

Dear Jerry,

One of our foundations runs a whole bunch of schools in the really backward areas of Alwar district in Rajasthan. A lot of effort and expense goes into running these schools for the thousands of first-time learners in this rather poverty-stricken area.

One of the biggest problems we face is the building and maintenance of toilets for the kids and their teachers. Normally these are made away from the school building and are free-standing. They are made in the normal (shoddy) way things are constructed in such areas. There is a chronic problem of water in many places, and other problems, which means that these are not cleaned and therefore get into disuse. Everyone then goes back to using the wide open spaces. That is fine for males, but girls and female teachers do suffer.

My thought was that perhaps your company could develop a product — a light concrete toilet — that could be built centrally or regionally, and then distributed to wherever it was needed. It should include a sump or some such thing, and it obviously would be designed for low and easy maintenance.

The rape-murders in Badaun, UP, last month was an outcome of the vulnerability of women who need to relieve themselves at night. This is very common, particularly in the north, and it is essential that every home have an effective, low-maintenance unit.

If this is of any interest to you, please do let me know. The point of writing to you is that your company has the expertise of making thin-walled concrete shells of intricate designs in a fully engineered manner.

Warm regards


I quote below my reply to him:

Dear Mr Lal:

Sorry for the long delay in getting back to you.

I have been doing a lot of research. The problem with toilets is not so much in the building, but in the ongoing operations.

We can build the toilets — we are in the process of finalising one of two technology solutions.

The problems will start after that:

1. We have to assume that the municipality/ panchayat will NOT supply regular water. This means that we must identify a tube-well/ bore-well source near the toilet.
2. We need to drill the tube-well and install a pump for the same.
3. We have to assume that the electricity will NOT be available or will be available intermittently.
4. We therefore need a generator that can run a pump-set. We need space to store the diesel safely and not have it become a fire hazard.
5. Most importantly, the school will need to have sufficient funds to pay for the diesel to run the generator.
6. I do not think there will be a problem in having a septic tank for the waste.
Net-net it is the ongoing operation (including operating costs and the question of appropriate persons to supervise) which will be the challenge, not the construction of the toilet itself. If you are confident that the pump set, generator and ongoing diesel costs can be funded, and the operations managed, we would love to come back to you with designs and capital cost estimates.

Lal promptly replied to me. I quote below his reply:

Dear Jerry:

Your logic is irrefutable. You have defined all the problems that come up in this matter. However, the solutions suggested are unsustainable firstly because they are just too expensive, and secondly because in many cases maintenance would simply not be available in an acceptable timeframe and at a reasonable cost.

On the other hand, there are just a few schools that have regular water supply, and another few that have an electric connection that works (but only poorly like for all farmers). These few schools could possibly be dealt with first.

The solutions for schools which have neither regular water supply nor electricity would probably come through some kind of waterless toilet or one that needs very little water, and perhaps through photovoltaics. I know that makes the task even more difficult to resolve, but that is the problem.

Let me give it some more thought, and I will get back to you.


This exchange of correspondence brings out the “last-mile operating problem” quite clearly. We can easily spend money on capital assets, for example, toilets. The problem is that our system does not allow for easy operation and usage of these capital assets. The various Ganga clean-up projects suffered from the same problem. We can build sewage treatment plants. But we run out of money to pay the staff; the power supply is irregular and the plants stop working efficiently and in some time stop working altogether. Even with digital outreach efforts, we notice a similar problem. We can build a computer centre in a village; we can supply the computers; but if power is unavailable for several hours in the day, we start feeling the need for a UPS and a diesel generator — all of which then need to be serviced and maintained at considerable cost. If telecom connectivity is poor, then the computer functions (when power is available) as a standalone unit, not one which is connected to the rest of the world.

Unless we seriously address the issues associated with the ongoing operations involving the availability of water and power and the maintenance and service issues associated with capital assets, the only beneficiaries will be contractors who build the capital assets and then walk away leaving these assets to rust, decay and go to ruin, providing no value to the intended beneficiaries.

The writer is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur

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  1. A
    Aug 18, 2014 at 3:19 pm
    Wow ... Great article describing the actual problem.Wonder tics and Bhakti thought about all of this in those plans
    1. R
      Aug 21, 2014 at 1:03 pm
      The importance of volunteer ship must be taught to the villagers, who could help in maintenance . Solar power can help to provide electricity to the school as well as the village. Even the toilet waste can provide manure and some electricity. Toilets which uses less water can be developed. In a place like Rajasthan , rain water must be harvested wherever possible which will raise ground water level in those areas. Satellite can be used for internet connectivity . Lastly but most importantly . Villagers and students must be involved in all decisions so that they feel a sense of pride and ownership and that will keep the infrastructure safe from vandalism
      1. A
        A S
        Aug 18, 2014 at 3:18 am
        Providing toilets is an absolute necessity. When we prepare a project we keep in mind the operational logistics also in view. In Telecom we provided telecom facilities in rural areas. Against about Rs 20000 per line in urban areas the cost of providing a telephone in rural ranged between Rs 35000 to one lakh. We cross subsidised these costs. Yes. Most schools don't have water and no regular power supply. These costs should be built into. Most rural house holds don't have toilets at home. Decent toilet facilities need be built so that women need not defecate in open fields. We can combine public toilets for both together at same place. This helps in community partition. Imparting toilet habits to children also important. As Rotarian we adapted a rural school. And advised teachers to utilise leadership qualities of younger trained students to impart this training to their juniors.
        1. D
          D Kapur
          Aug 21, 2014 at 10:11 pm
          Mr. Rao,Informative and you are right we need to see the operation point too otherwise only the thekedars benefit. Yes the hand pump solution is doable and for the ground level storage, we could build a tank and store rain water (rather than a bore well). Instead of the hand pump we could also use a small solar pump.
          1. D
            Aug 18, 2014 at 11:20 am
            Bang on!
            1. G
              Gangu true
              Aug 18, 2014 at 3:08 am
              Continue to in the open. Start using toilet paper. Think about using vacuum to pulls the like in air craft. Think about using a vacuum truck with a hose connection to suck the away. Other countries do this for years. Problem started in India because of Mohandas Karamchand hi. He started manual night soil cleaning by himself instead of taking recourse to technology. Technology would have removed the job and hence the caste. But then Mohandas would not become Mahtma and Christ not a prophet.
              1. K
                Aug 18, 2014 at 6:40 am
                if you keep crying, nothing will ever begun, start something first...and stop being cynical
                1. M
                  Aug 18, 2014 at 3:07 am
                  A Hand pump and ground level storage tank does not need power or diesel. Have sta in hostel with this arrangement. We will take turn to work the hand pump to fill up the tank.
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