Steps towards Clean India

A story of fear, hope and dignity in a railway slum

India's national sanitation movement has brought progress, but the target of a toilet in every home by 2019 is still a long way off.

In Rakhi Mandi the trains run all day and all night, whistling noisily as they pass, bound for Delhi or Kolkata.

This is one of the oldest slums in Kanpur, a city in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Around 3,500 people live and work here, by the railway line.

“Some days we would leave this slum and never want to come back,” says Sangeeta Srivastava.

Sangeeta is a project worker for Shramik Bharti – a non-governmental organisation and WaterAid's local partner.

In three years of working in slums throughout the city, helping people demand their rights to safe water and sanitation, she has found Rakhi Mandi to be one of her most challenging projects.

In 2013, when Sangeeta and her colleagues started work here, only four households had toilets. Open drains lined the pathways and hand pumps were contaminated or had run dry.

For the first five months they visited the community almost every day. They often left feeling frustrated; it took a long time to convince people that change was possible.

1. The world's biggest open toilet

“People go to the toilet near the railway tracks,” says Sangeeta. “Men tease girls and women there. Some are raped.”

Almost half of India’s 1.2 billion people venture into open areas to defecate and urinate, many around railway lines.

A government minister once described the country’s vast rail network as "the world’s biggest open toilet".

Three terrible dangers

Early each morning, people in Rakhi Mandi cross the busy tracks to get to an abandoned line – women to one side of the tracks and men to the other. The bushes on either side offer a small amount of privacy.

This situation poses many dangers.

There is the immediate peril of crossing the railway tracks to go to the toilet. People have lost family members in accidents; others have lost limbs.

Exposure to faeces is the most common cause of diarrhoea, which causes more than 186,000 child deaths every year in India.

Children playing risk touching and ingesting human faeces, and spreading it back into their homes. Nearly half of India's children are stunted due to malnutrition, caused by repeated episodes of diarrhoea.

And without somewhere safe and private to go to the toilet, girls and women can be more vulnerable to harassment and violence.

Risking rape, every day

In India, 93 women are raped every day. 33,707 rapes were reported in 2013 – 35% more than in 2012.

In a WaterAid survey of the Dalit community (the lowest social class in the Indian caste system), 26% of the 9,644 households we spoke to said women from their families had been insulted or humiliated and 6% said female household members had been sexually harassed when defecating in the open.

In 2014, Ashish Gupta, Inspector General of Police in Uttar Pradesh, said, “Here, ten rapes are reported on average every day, of which 60–65% took place when women went to attend nature’s call in the open.”

2. India's sanitation movement

“Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open?”

With these words Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation, in a speech to mark India’s 68th Independence Day.

After winning a landslide victory in the May 2014 elections, Modi announced his campaign to end India’s sanitation crisis.

He challenged the whole country to tackle the issue of cleanliness, and build a toilet for every home by 2 October 2019 – the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.

In 1925, Gandhi famously said that sanitation is more important than independence.

On 2 October 2014, a national holiday, Indian government officers at all levels went to work, cleaning their offices and toilets to officially launch the Clean India (Swachh Bharat) Mission.

For the first time, cleanliness and sanitation were at the forefront of Indian politics – recognised as drivers of economic growth, health, employment and the reduction of gender-based violence.

61,000 toilets a day

To date, the Indian Government has invested US $720 million in the Clean India project and more than eight million toilets have been built, according to data provided by the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation.

However, to achieve the goal of a toilet for each household by 2019, 61,000 toilets need to be constructed every day – more than three times the current rate of construction.

Though the total budget allocated to the campaign in this year’s budget has increased, it is still insufficient to complete the enormous task at hand.

The government plans to fill the funding gap from other sources such as the Swachh Bharat Kosh, set up by the Ministry of Finance for corporates interested in contributing to the Clean India mission. A proposed tax of one per cent is also expected to raise more funds.

Another critical aspect is a lack of human resources at the ministry and district level. The present system cannot fully utilise the funds, nor deliver the rate of production needed.

3. A view from the ground

In Kanpur, 1.8 million people – half the city’s population – don’t have access to a toilet. Of these, 1.1 million people live in slums like Rakhi Mandi, which the Clean India campaign has not yet reached.

From the ground up

For Shramik Bharti the greatest challenge has not been building toilets, but changing people's attitudes towards health and hygiene, and dealing with concerns about ownership.

The slum is built on railway land and people are afraid to invest in their surroundings because the government could tear down ‘unofficial’ buildings at any time.

“First we talked to people about their personal problems, their health, their kids, and built up a bond,” says Sangeeta.

Once they had built up this trust, Shramik Bharti encouraged families to build soak pits – underground chambers that enable household wastewater to drain away easily and prevent waterlogging.

Affordable, easy to build and hidden below ground, some households took a chance on the new initiative. The mud and sludge outside their homes started to dry up, word spread, and soon more than 100 families were constructing their own pits.

People began to sense change. And when the railway police arrived, ready to stop construction, Shramik Bharti staff explained what they were doing – and the police let them continue.

Mobilising community leaders

Another critical part of the project has been identifying natural leaders within the community. As well as receiving training on water, sanitation and hygiene, they’ve learned what help is available, and how to get it.

“It’s difficult to get support from most government departments because this is an illegal slum, but it’s not impossible,” Sangeeta explains.

When the committee was set up, its members also went door to door to collect money for the maintenance of handpumps, to spread hygiene messages and to encourage their neighbours to build toilets – through a low-cost two pit latrine system.

4. More than just toilets

Changing attitudes

It was a shopkeeper who built the first toilet in Rakhi Mandi. His son had married and, according to tradition, the new bride was wearing a veil.

Sangeeta asked the shopkeeper why his daughter-in-law must cover her face and yet she had no choice but to defecate in the open – surely that was undignified.

“He built the toilet soon afterwards,” she says with a laugh.

“If we encourage people to build toilets and they say they don’t have the money, we ask them: How did you celebrate the festival? What did you buy? We show them that it is not about finances, it is about priorities.”

After giving these talks, Sangeeta and her colleagues give people time to reflect. “We come back three days later and just say hello, but when they see our faces all they can think about is building a toilet.

“All these issues are very sensitive. Some people will even hide from us when we come, but later they will call us up and tell us they have finally built their toilet.”

Changing behaviours

“Just building toilets is not enough; behaviour change is also crucial,” says Therese Mahon, WaterAid’s interim Head of SoiRegion.

“Cultural practices often do not encourage toilet use. Many people feel that relieving themselves in the open is healthier than using a toilet in a small, enclosed space.”

This is where WaterAid’s partner organisations are playing a vital role.

“Behaviour change is a big issue as people are not used to using toilets,” says Laddan Siddiqui, leader of Rakhi Mandi’s water user committee.

“It will take some time to educate people to use the toilets as many have never seen one before, and some find it difficult to use them.”

5. Radha's story

Radha Verma, determined to protect her daughter after she was attacked, built one of the first toilets in Rakhi Mandi. This award-nominated documentary tells the story of how she and other local champions are working to change their community.

The future

Since Radha and the others began to generate change, many more in Rakhi Mandi have transformed their families' lives by building toilets.

By October 2015, roughly half of the community had access to a toilet. More than 100 households had built their own, while Shramik Bharti helped restore a community-managed toilet block, serving more than 500 people.

Meanwhile, Radha and others have taken the next step on the 'sanitation ladder', building brick walls for their toilets. Nearly 200 soak pits have been built and hand pumps have been repaired.

Working with her colleague Chetna Tiwari, Sangeeta helped bring the community together. Now, the two women are known throughout the slum as ‘the toilet ladies’.

“People here were not attached to each other. They didn’t talk to each other. But we treat people like they are our family. We show them love,” says Chetna.

“They listen to us now. They realise we don’t have any hidden agenda. We are attached with their problems.”

WaterAid is working with Shramik Bharti as part of a wider water and sanitation project in Kanpur. The project is funded by the HSBC Water Programme.

Find out more about WaterAid’s work with some of the world’s poorest communities at:


Writer: Brenda McIlwraith
Copy editor: Rebecca Heald
Director/Producer: Catherine Feltham
DOP: Chris Turner
Photography and second camera: Isabelle Neill
Aerial footage: Nikhil Thakkar
Music: Benji Merrison
Film editors: Chris Turner and Isabelle Neill
Graphics and Shorthand editor: Isabelle Neill
Modi image credit: Flickr user - Global Panorama

Published: 26 May 2015, updated 2 October 2015

WaterAid would like to thank the HSBC Water Programme for supporting our work with Shramik Bharti in Rakhi Mandi. Today, the project continues, aiming to bring safe water, hygiene and toilets to everyone in the community.