Pay as you go: clean-toilet program for India's towns

For years, Tajunisa Bano and her four daughters were forced to relieve themselves behind thorny bushes in an open field near their home in this fetid settlement on the fringes of India's IT hub, Bangalore.

But just over a year ago, life changed for locals like Ms. Bano. Through community participation, Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA), a German funding agency, built a pay-and-use community toilet for 500 local families here that is now run and managed by locals themselves.

"It came as a welcome relief, especially for women who needed this more urgently than men," Bano says. "It eased the physical distress and shame."

Such efforts are scant in India, where only one in three people has access to a hygienic toilet and sanitation complex. But a local group is sparking a quiet sanitary revolution that the World Bank and UN agencies are recommending as a model for other developing countries.

In the past three decades, Bindeshwar Pathak, the head of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, has built 1.2 million toilets and 6,000 pay-and-use community toilets in over 3,500 Indian towns.

These toilets are affordable for the poor, and the cheapest model can be constructed for as little as $10. And in a country where water shortages are a primary reason for the dearth of toilets, Sulabh's toilets aren't water-guzzlers: They require only 2 liters of water compared with 10 liters for a conventional toilet.

Sulabh's systems often come with an innovative modification: the attachment of a biogas plant. Through these plants, human waste produces biogas that, when mixed with diesel fuel, can power electrical devices such as streetlights. A similar technique of wet-sanitation is being replicated elsewhere in India by groups like BORDA.

In 1999, the Indian government launched its Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) to provide proper toilets to all by 2010. India's minister for rural development, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, says the attempt isn't simply to dole out toilets to the poor, but to build them through community participation while educating people about the importance of sanitation.

"We do not want the government to give any subsidy to build toilets," says Mr. Pathak. "We just want them to tell banks not to refuse loans if poor people want to build toilets."

India's Ministry for Rural Development says it's considering this proposal. With more than 700 million people in India without toilets, the country's sanitation coverage is a mammoth task. A lack of sanitation is seen as the main reason an estimated 1.5 million children die from diarrhea each year.

But, UNICEF says that about 85 percent of India's population has access to drinking water today, compared with just 20 percent in 1990. And because there is a direct relationship between water, sanitation, and health, experts say that India's sanitation target is achievable.

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