Meet Civic Tech Scholar: Sanitation and Health Rights in India

| Joan DeGennaro, Director at Sanitation and Health Rights in India (SHRI)


“He’s saying that he thinks we’re building an extension for the house of the man who lives across the street. And this guy thinks we’ll build the toilets and then put a big padlock on the front door so no one can use them.” These were the translated bits of conversations with community members of the rural village of Vurahi in the Indian state of Bihar on their initial perceptions of the construction as our second community sanitation facility was in its early stages in June, 2015.

Our organization, Sanitation and Health Rights in India (SHRI)’s mission is to fight alongside communities to end open defecation as a key step in the ongoing struggle for health equity and social and economic justice. Practically, this means we construct community sanitation facilities – buildings with 16 toilet stalls, sinks, and a water purification and distribution system – in rural India in order to increase access to this critical infrastructure. We also implement a health education curriculum that encourages people to use these facilities. All of our toilets convert human waste into methane gas in a biogas digester. This gas runs a generator, which powers the water filtration system. Our water sales generate revenue to offset the operations and maintenance costs of each facility, making the unit sustainable.

Most importantly, the SHRI team is committed to participatory development. We see access to toilets and safe drinking water as a human right, and therefore, the citizens in our communities are the protagonists in this fight. They are also the experts in implementing our model; without their input, SHRI would not be successful. We believe that advocating the local government for this fundamental infrastructure is a solid beginning for future civic engagement. Improvements in education, employment, healthcare, and countless other government-sponsored services must also reach the rural communities where we work.


So let’s return to Vurahi. This community is a (very) bumpy ten minute auto rickshaw ride off the nearest paved road. The vast majority of households have about seven family members who live on $400 a year, do not have a toilet, and do not own the land beneath their home. Our bustling construction site often attracts crowds who gather with the same meandering pace indicative of life here. Occasionally, chairs and offers of chai appear from nearby homes to offer hospitality to members of our team, and answers are offered to children wondering aloud if the white-skinned visitors emerged from the sand.

The government has done little for last mile communities like this one, located in the shadow of the Koshi River. This river that runs into Bihar from Nepal is notorious for its unpredictable and devastating flooding in an area economically dependent on agriculture. To be fair, the Indian government set a goal to end open defecation in India by 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Clean India Mission has provisions for a government reimbursement for up to about $200 if a family builds a toilet in their home. However, the upfront cost of constructing a toilet is often prohibitive for these families, and the process of receiving a reimbursement is long and vulnerable to having cuts taken by corrupt distributors. Beyond that, investing in a toilet is irrational or impossible if a family is living on government land. Policy plans simply don’t match the reality that most citizens without access to toilets are facing.

The numbers for the state of Bihar show the Clean India Mission’s shortcomings. There was a mere 4% increase in rural households with toilets from 2001-2011. Consistent with the last decade, only 4% of the toilets the state intended to build between 2014 and 2015 were constructed. At the district level where we work, only 489 toilets have been built through the program, none within the local panchayats where SHRI facilities stand.

The men expressing their doubts about our construction site were undoubtedly justified in their disbelief. Living in an area virtually unreached by the Clean India Mission, most people were surprised to see an active construction crew employed to build something to benefit the entire community. Few had expectation of a drama troupe performing puppet shows and skits about the importance of hygiene and sanitation. These performances were not only hilarious and entertaining, but also prompted the local mukhiya (leader) to publically remind families that they are all eligible to receive a government reimbursement for constructing a toilet. Despite these surprises, there was never any hesitation on the part of these community members to commit to helping us in identifying land for the facility, petitioning the government to sign over the plot, participating in the construction process, and committing to using and maintaining the facility upon completion. (In fact, a week after opening, the facility is averaging more than 600 users a day!)

Nearly 1,000 men, women, and children from the local community attended the Opening Ceremony for the facility on July 26, 2015, and several took the stage to express the importance of the facility and its use by everyone in the community. These compelling and inspiring testimonies shared in front of neighbors and peers affirms our belief that SHRI’s strongest asset is its commitment to fighting alongside civically engaged communities to bring about social change, starting with access to toilets and clean drinking water.

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