Cleaner and Safer

Tanya Awasthy

“Apna to life hi badal gaya” – our lives changed completely, says Kalpana Sampatrao Kamble, 60, about the transformation Tulshet Pada saw about 15 years ago.

Located in Bhandup, Tulshet Pada could well be a quintessential suburban Mumbai slum, except that it is remarkably clean. 

The lives of its residents saw a change between 2002 and 2004, when two of its sub-localities – Safiya Begum and Kera Yadav – which consists of 150 houses, had a toilet installed every home.

When Kamble’s family settled there 40 years ago, sanitation was a major problem. She recalls how open defecation was the accepted norm, and how the designated sweeper never bothered to show up. Sometime in the 1980s, community toilet complexes were constructed in the area, but apart from being few and far between, the toilets were also water-less (referred to as ‘zero water toilets’ by the slum residents). 

Besides having to carry a bucket of water every time, residents also had to put up with complete darkness after sunset because the toilets had no electricity, and the undulating terrain which made for a very dangerous walk, especially during monsoon season.

Then in 1997, the World Bank laid down guidelines for the Slum Sanitation Programme (SSP). The first stage of the program (1997-2003) was to be realised with financial support from the World Bank in co-operation with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (BMC). The project was to be implemented in four phases – from the  selection of slum communities through to the eventual operation and maintenance of toilets through Community Based Organisations. 

Individual toilets were introduced for the first time under the SSP at Tulshet Pada. 

World Bank representatives were initially skeptical when Seema Redkar, an Officer on Special Duty in the BMC, first pitched the idea of constructing individual toilets for every household. 

Even after the BMC Chief Engineer approved the plan, BMC officials were not very keen on it, as it would mean they had to forgo the bribe they would otherwise receive for the construction of an individual toilet outside of the sanitation programme. The rate at that time was reportedly 50,000 rupees for one toilet. 

When the project was finally given the thumbs-up by the BMC and official tenders were floated, private contractors did not show interest because laying of sewage lines in an existing settlement is very difficult.

It was then that Redkar approached Member of Parliament (MP) Kirit Somaiya for help. The BJP leader gladly gave a sizeable sum from his MP fund to push the project along.  Fortunately, many slum dwellers were small-time contractors who offered to help with on-site supervision. Local slum youth provided manual labour, for which the MP’s contractor paid them.

Redkar says, “We used sand bags to buttress the house walls. Fearing the collapse of structures, we only worked on a two-metre stretch at a time. This is why the process of laying sewer lines took long. We had to be extremely careful! There was just one septic tank for all the 150 houses, and the system is still running extremely well.”

Mobilizing Tulshet Pada residents was not an arduous task, as Redkar had helped them secure small personal loans under various government schemes in the past. Not only did the people know her, the women of the area were also fond of her. 

“The best part was the resolve of the community for a project that would change their lives,” Redkar said. 

“We did a similar project in Bhatwadi in Ghatkopar. I visited the place after 15-20 years recently and one lady, who could not walk, just got up and hugged me. 

She said  “I am alive just because of you.” 

She told me she had a knee problem and was unable to walk to the community toilet before the individual toilets were constructed. She would defecate in a plastic bag, and her son would go and throw it. To spare her son the agony of carrying the bag, she would try to defecate as seldom as possible and would not pass stool every day. The individual toilet solved her problem. I felt so satisfied and knew that this is real service.” 

Usha Upendra Kamath, 50, a resident of Tulshet Pada who helped organise the neighborhood for the individual toilets project, said children, pregnant women, people with physical disabilities, and menstruating girls were the most inconvenienced before the project was implemented. 

“There were many cases of diarrhoea in the slum, and since there were no toilets at home, the patients had to relieve themselves in the bathroom,” Kamath said. 

Unsurprisingly, the health of the slum dwellers has also improved remarkably in the last 15-16 years as indicated by the number of medical dispensaries in the area, falling from seven to two. Kamath adds that the academic performance of the children of Tulshet Pada has improved considerably too, as they no longer have to wait in long queues outside the community toilets as they did previously which often meant they missed their school bus. 

Apart from covering the construction cost of their individual toilets (the MP’s fund was used only for laying th sewage lines), each of the 150 households had to contribute 500 rupees to a common corpus, for the maintenance and upkeep of the sewage system and the septic tank. This fund of 75,000 rupees was to be managed by the Hanuman Mandir Samiti, a Tulshet Pada residents organisation. 

Gulab Dubey, secretary of the Samiti says, “Maintenance is an issue, since there is no support from the BMC. Also, many families of the area have moved out and put their houses out on rent. The tenants don’t take much care of the toilets. The sewage lines get choked at times and have to be cleaned manually, which requires us to spend out of the maintenance fund. However, a sizeable amount of money is still left.”

After its limited implementation in many parts of Mumbai (including parts of Dharavi, Bhatwadi and Kanjur Marg)  the concept of ‘one home, one toilet’ got a fillip in 2015 after the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). 

While the Prime Minister mentioned individual toilets in his speeches, the BMC was still reluctant to progress the concept, and Redkar had no support from her own department, yet again. 

When she discovered a letter was being sent from the Municipal Commissioner’s office to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in favour of community toilets over individual toilets, she stalled the process for a few days, approached MP Somaiya again, and with his help, got the SBM representatives to visit those slums of Mumbai where individual toilets had been constructed. 

The team studied the model, and was very impressed with what they saw.

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