A toilet in the balcony | Milaap

A toilet in the balcony

[Milaap.org visited Sambhav Microfinance, an livelihood-focused organisation working in water and sanitation initiatives in Central India since 1986]

"How easy do you think it is to educate people about sanitation," asks Dr. S.K. Singh, "when they walk miles for a bucket of water, which serves the whole family and is used for two days?"

It does take 25 years, because you are working in slums outside Gwalior in central India, where even the most urbane colonies have to depend on lumbering water tanks for their water supply. Sambhav is prominent in this region for its watsan initiatives in semi-urban and rural areas. Singh's remark makes you sit up, and realise that these organisations have a thankless task: they have to educate the poor, and even educate the not-so-interested investors/bankers about how hard it is to educate the poor.

Imagine this: you are trying to provide water to a slum. It does not have much of an idea how to get water when there's a drought. The government is clueless. So you work for a quarter century, educating, persuading, cajoling, doing whatever it takes, and finally establish a microfinance institution that serves 9 districts containing 600 villages comprising almost 110000 families.

It does take 25 years, after all, the women you employ are not usually allowed to step out of the house. You make them step out of the district. It does take 25 years, after all, because you are fighting against ignorance, cupidity and short-sightedness (who will invest in a slum? In toilets?), and there is, of course, the regular droughts to worry about, as you happen to be in water and sanitation.

Savita Bai, Jeradura Village. Former status: Dalit woman, Housewife, Current status: Community Leader.

You take the grant programmes, and squeeze every paisa you have into digging borewells and water tanks and rain water harvesting pits because this is drought country and the water goes deep. You teach the locals how to maintain the wells, and make sure you use only the masons already in the slums, so that the repairman will also be the customer. You also train a lot of community members on how to train the other locals, who might not be able to read or write, and so you draw pictures. After all, you have 25 years to train them. 

A picture speaks a thousand words. It better.

Then you call in others like you, and start pooling your resources, and decide that now is the time to put up toilets. In every slum. You reckon that you'll need about 30,000 toilets.

Then you realise something: suppose a rich man bought a good shoe, it costs him, say, 500 rupees. It will last him 2 monsoons. Suppose, also, that a poor man bought a bad shoe, it costs him, say, 50 rupees. It will last him a rainy week. At the end of 2 monsoons, the poor man has spent more on shoes than the rich man.

You tell the slum dwellers that these toilets and other facilities are not free, but they can pay the money in next monsoon, give or take a few months. Of course, you have to first explain to them why they need a toilet. And also, explain to the people paying for the toilets. And to all the people in between, designing it, making it and selling it. But after all, you've been explaining for 25 years, right?

So Jeradura, a slum on the outskirts of Gwalior, becomes your first site. You have to fit in a toilet into hutments usually smaller than the average bathroom, so you improvise. Some of these tenements have second levels, so you fit in a toilet beneath the stairs, or even in a niche in the balcony, which itself is a jutting piece of plaster with a jutting piece of asbestos on top. The roof could contaminate the water, so you come up with other solutions to maintain purity too. 


A toilet in the balcony

The Indian Jugaad in action

But then larger micro-finance institutions and aid organisations enter, with more grants and less know-how, and you get competition intent on scaling up, putting a lakh toilets badly rather than a third of that properly. And some of the people you are doing all this for still can't pay up: drought, after all, doesn't make you just dirty, it makes you starve, too. Its getting harder, but it's never been easy. In the words of Dr. Singh, "You laugh at the irony because crying isn't really an option." 

You start introducing Joint Liability Groups, organise more projects, and remember that 25 years have gone by, but you have to stay at least 20 more if everything is to work well.

The parting shot came from Dr.Singh when we reflected his optimism to that of glass half-filled, "In this region, one has to be optimistic, because you will only get a glass half-filled and you have got to use that water for drinking, cleaning and watering the plants too." 

This is the story of Sambhav Microfinance. 

They hope organisations like Milaap can give them a much needed fillip in building credit programs, so that 25 years of effort do not go to waste.