Tackling the Sanitation Challenge

This is an article I wrote for the Indian Express that was published on the 18th February 2012:

One of the major problems faced in underdeveloped settlements is lack of sanitation. A project initiated by the author seeks to bring about sanitation solutions through community participation and retrofitting systems.

This project was undertaken in Savda Ghevra, a community on the edge of Delhi as part of the author’s PhD work in building technology, and in association with the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence, a Delhi-based voluntary organisation that has initiated a project on sustainable livelihood spaces for the poor.


Savda Ghevra is a resettlement suburb developed by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board about 40 km west of New Delhi to re-house slum dwellers from inner city areas.

When fully occupied, Savda Ghevra will most likely be the biggest resettlement colony in Delhi — home to more than 20,000 families.

Savda Ghevra provides a marginal civic experience: families were provided small housing plots, water arrives by tanker, general health is compromised by the lack of any holistic sanitation strategy, and the site is so far that commuting to work is both difficult and expensive.

When the original residents arrived in 2006, they found barren land — it is difficult to imagine how families managed to make a town from nothing. Although the state has granted 10-year licences to stay and families have invested in building homes, the use of good quality construction only represents 12 per cent of the housing stock.

The area is characterised by self-built poor quality housing ranging from chattai houses to one-storey chadar houses to consolidated simple two-level-and-roof-terrace ‘linter’ constructions built over time — incrementally — a process, which responds to available skills, economic capabilities, materials and resources occurring with little to no external assistance or intervention.

The project began during community consultation sessions in 2010-11 regarding improved access to basic services. Most residents listed sanitation as their primary concern.

The current provision in the form of community toilets, in the case of women, is approximately one latrine for every 250 — well under any recommended level. The use of community toilets has proven impractical, so most defecate in the open.

Women in particular are adversely affected as open defecation leaves them vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. The overwhelming evidence from the functioning community toilets suggests they are neither sustainable nor suitable solutions because of a mixture of issues including management and cost — both social and functional.

For a planned suburb with legal tenure, residents aspire towards in-house provision: a toilet is a milestone in the incremental upgrading of homes.


The project strategy acts from two sides: intense on-the-ground research to identify inhabitants’ needs and expectations; and top-down, involving and urging the municipal authorities to reconsider regulations more practicable in poor neighbourhoods.

The key factor, which governed the choice of sanitation was the (debilitating) size of the plots: 18 sq metres or 12.5 sq metres and low levels of income. The plot sizes are too small to contain, within that plot, space for meeting basic standards and any effluent treatment.

This means that although individual in-house toilets can be provided, the treatment of the effluent must be outside the plot boundary and therefore most appropriately communal which also signifies an opportunity to reduce the cost.

Given extremely high rates of urbanisation and the need to create high-density low income areas, unconventional sewerage is technically and financially very attractive. Simplified sewerage uses small-diameter sewers laid at shallow depths — the survey has found this to be an ideal solution.

The project is testing this approach in combination with a communal septic tank to treat the effluent — an intermediate technology, which can provide an off-plot/on-site system capable of being plugged into conventional sewerage once the city expands its infrastructure. Because we are retrofitting new systems to houses which are already built and where no two houses are alike, some challenging design issues have been raised.

Certain decisions such as clustering and laying of piping are proposed in line with engineering, space and cost restrictions. The construction techniques and engineering principles appropriate for service upgrades such as load bearing columns, walls and roofs were discussed at community workshops.

The whole process is as inclusive as possible, encouraging community ownership but also creating centres for information exchange, which in turn will develop a platform for further livelihood schemes.

Following the consultation workshops a management team comprising of members of the community is being established and trained to prepare contracts and who will be responsible for implementation supervision and general maintenance such as manhole inspections.

It is hoped that through such participatory project management processes, other emancipatory benefits will be felt by the community as a collective vision or aspiration takes precedence over individual needs.


Structural changes, especially in the pilot stage, may cost more and need more time which the residents may not be able to afford.

Decisions that involve added costs are even more challenging to introduce, as the poor often adopt measures that are cost effective in the short-term.

In order to assist in the financing a ‘savings group’ was set up to enable households to save. A ‘Toilet Revolving Fund’ is being set up to lend money at zero interest and a ‘Housing Credit Fund’ is also being established to offer loans at affordable rates based on flexible/delayed repayment plans for house upgrades.

Such structural changes require change in conventional construction strategies, which in turn requires an attitudinal change — both in the construction worker and among people. By involving the community and not imposing upon them our ideas mean that while there is greater ownership locally, there is also a constant adjustment that must be inbuilt into the design process and that may require real time modifications and changes to ideas and proposals.

The pilot project is currently undergoing detailed design and community mobilisation looking at starting construction mid-2012. Great care has been taken to ensure that the pilot is affordable and replicable so that more clusters can develop.

It is hoped that the outcomes and lessons learned from this process will serve as a model for similar applications in other resettlement and upgrading schemes throughout urban India. Current work is on-going in creating guidelines for large scale master plans for both medium sized cities and new urban developments that will test the mettle of this model.

— The author is a PhD student at the London Metropolitan University. The concept bagged the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction, whose proceeds are being used towards the implementation of the project

Photographs of Savda Ghevra (c) Julia King 2011:

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About juliakingat

British / Venezuelan, Architect & Urban Researcher; PhD Candidate

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