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Some Worthy Gift Ideas: I. Sulabh Toilets

October 17, 2014


Long before Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat’ made news, this post was already waiting in the back burners.  Ever since I couldn’t wait to publish it – but something or other keeps delaying things. And now finally… its about time…




THE ORIGINAL POST: (with some edits. more pending)




When it will be your time to leave, leave knowing you are thoroughly used up. (not exact words – from ‘3 cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortenson, the single line that keeps me thinking ).

I am starting a series here, on community service in which we can play a positive role in improving the quality of life around us without physical involvement, typically the way we the noble urban middle-class would like to keep it. The role for us to play is that of sponsor, nothing more.



One of the best initiatives by our CM Jayalalitha Jayaram on resuming her office for a third time was to bring potable water into the domains of the lowest strata of our society. Water and Sanitation are an issue we have to reckon with even in our metros. Its a shame this has to be our condition in this 21st century when we want to compare ourselves with China.

What JJ has done to the slum dwellers perhaps cannot be comprehended by us the apartment dwellers who have our sumps and tanks full and who can afford a bathtub in a hot city where water is a big deal. All you have to do is picture yourself running after a water tanker for that one potful … paying Rs.2/- for each that is. Bitter pill huh?  And what is the flat tax/rate we the better-off pay for our unlimited water usage. India is such an unfair place to live in where basic amenities are like birthright only for the upper middle-class. Who bothers what is happening down under. Indifference is the hallmark of urban Indians who will not ever torture themselves with some such unsavoury thoughts. Ignorance or rather feigned ignorance is bliss after all.



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The water board and the sewerage board are merged into one single arm of the Chennai Metropolitan Corporatiion, to serve the public the better. The city is able to quench its thirst with the Krishna water brought in from canal-pipelines from erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Not a government initiative but the blessings of Shri Satya Sai Baba of  Puttarbarthi.

The door-to-door pipelines and handpumps, a recent civic undertaking by the metro corporation to reach out to the bottom-most tier comprising of mostly blue collar population hitherto uncovered by its services, banished the deadly water tankers once and for all from our city streets.Hoping we don’t have a dry spell for monsoons (the North East Monsoons predicted anytime – ‘Hudhud’ struck over 300 km from here, in Vizag, AP), the killer tankers will be off our cityscape for many more years with our reservoirs filling fast.

A monsoon-dependent country, India is always at the mercy of nature. For us in the south, as anywhere else in India, it is either the cyclone or the drought. Recall every single Diwali being a wet day when I was a little girl that would dampen my spirits; those were the seasonal rains then and were not necessarily ominous of an impending storm. Sep-Dec is the NE monsoon season in the east coast. El Nino seems to have changed it all….

One of the best religious charities we can come across in India is this water project from Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna river to Chennai, brought to us by the noble vision of Shri Satya Sai Baba, before he breathed his last.

Charity, when committed, has to translate into a definite meaning. Charity should not be wasted like on those who do not deserve it or where it won’t be appreciated. Gratitude cannot be a motive for charity still, it is best given where there is a recognition. Charity has to bring about a positive change. And charity is something not just trusts or organizations have to carry out – it is very much within the reach of us individuals, if only we have the will. We can each bring about a difference in the lives of those who touch us – and those who may need us. It is not really difficult to figure out who deserves our attention.

In India, the need for individuals to wake upto this realization is much more. Because what we have here is a skewed society, where the rich are getting richer by the day and the poor are getting poorer. Scarce commodities are not justly or evenly distributed. The gulf between the two sections is forever widening, never to be bridged easily. If you and I must be doing well today, it is by virtue of our birth that’s it. So its wrong to claim we are onto something while the lesser fortunate are not. Life humbles me at every step. I put myself in the shoes of those around me and think, ‘what if I have their life.’

If only water is charged fair, it will not be beyond any corporation/government’s ambit to see to even distribution of this precious resource to one and all. The water & sewerage board can be turned into profitable venture overnight. There is no need to subsidize water to certain sections at the expense of others  – but this is what we see is happening given the inefficient system of management and pricing policy in place today. The need of the hour is thorough re-structuring, complete overhaul. Water rationing besides stringent metering can go a long way in plugging misuse of abundant water. ‘Slabbing’ has to be factored in when it comes to metering which is the only fair method I can think of when it comes to distribution. This is all it takes to make water easily accessible to every single Indian, rural or urban. It is not that India does not have sufficient storage capacity. With what we have we can still weather 2-3 consecutive drought years if we learn to manage and optimally utilize the scarce resource called ‘water’ to our best.

Now that the water board & sewerage board are merged, it must be possible to run a smooth machinery from funds at disposal if water is priced right in the metro. Revenues cannot be an issue anymore. If service is indeed the motto, then the public are better served with a good administration.Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board is basically a revenue making government undertaking. Its a shame if our government is to claim, the board is still making losses.  I can only point to under-utilization of opportunities for reasons. Or otherwise why not privatize? Like some selective ares of the city are already under private maintenance & cleaning crews.

Revenue from Water can go a long way in sprucing up the Sanitary works in the city/State. Considering the no. of bathrooms each family can afford within their roof  (2-3 minimum) these days, it is high time sewage charges are also revised accordingly. To my knowledge the yardstick is the same when it comes to levy of drainage charges and sewerage fixed/flat tax in Chennai. It is one and the same for you whether you live in a bungalow or in the next thatched hut. Very just and equitable society we can all be proud of!

So that brings us to the other topic of interest: sanitation and drainage or sewerage.

From food to clothes to anything and everything, wherever I go, I am so finicky. That’s because I can afford the fuss.

Step into any village about 100 km from Chennai – and the lack of sanitation or proper drainage hits you hard in the face. This is one of the reasons I hesitate travelling outside the city. Our highways don’t have quality restrooms, if at all they have any. We are at the mercy of highway motels that are mostly unkempt. One reason for us for not embarking anywhere north over Bombay is this fear. Ours is a rare Indian city that witnesses hardly any power-blackout. Our trains are on schedule. Our roads are better and drivers are responsible. We keep hearing how sanitation is an issue in the north. May be its not best that we have here, but somewhat passable. Our Delhi friends complain about frequent power-outs in summers.And of bothersome crime-rate.

Toilet, over anything, is one single great issue for me. Last year had to switch flights in Sharjah. The ladies rest room was not good. To make matters worse, a Pakistani woman had showered in the cubicle whereas an Indian woman from Andhra had used water copiously and wet the floor (still adamantly refusing she showered).The Nepali janitors were cursing and screaming at the top of their voice – not that they came from any better country. But the lack of sense of hygiene and civic sense in the women of the subcontinent was open for all to see. We are dreaded everywhere because of our horrible ways and means. Many westerners turned back not wanting to use a wet toilet. I was the mute witness and judge as both women asked me what was wrong about using water.

It made me kind of sad as a woman, as someone from India, to see such an ugly scene unfolding in front of my eyes in a foreign soil. The Andhra woman explained, she had to switch flight again in Hyderabad and she had hours to reach her destination. The Paksitani woman mumbled a similar excuse. These were semi-literate women working in the middle-east for paltry wages – i knew right away.  I felt pity for the women –  but said the airport restrooms still were not meant for showering – even if they worked as labourers/semi-skilled workers who had not  had the time to clean & change before they started for the airport. And that it was an offence. It made no impression on the women though who were expecting sympathy from me.

The cubicle door was ajar and I could see waste-bins overflowing with used napkins. Made me think of Indian airports. Just made a u-turn myself. My heart went out to the Nepali girls who went about the job of scouring the place clean and emptying the bins cursing and swearing all the time. They dared me who they thought might take the 2 women’s side, telling me, ‘see the wet floor. what a mess these women have made. we’ll be in soup if anyone skids. women from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka are the worst.’ (One advantage of understanding basic Hindi. You can make friends on the spot in the middle-east. The same way Tamil works in Singapore/Malaysia.)

I thought of the kind of money the Arab countries were minting. Sharjah is an important transit point. And only 3 cubicles in the ladies rest room? How many thousands of passengers per day switch flights here. Or perhaps the arabs think, showcasing Dubai or Abu Dhabi is sufficient where the glitterati disembark? Shahraj is for mostly the labour class – the cattle class.

The women made me think, how sanitation was still not a priority in the part of the world i come from. It needs education. It needs to be taught right at home. Bred at home. It reflects on what kind of people we are, our quality of life.

Villages in India are so backward – not many have proper drainage. Most have only the septic tank system. Even in district Head Quarters like Ongole and Nellore in Andhra, I have seen open sewers. This is fertile breeding grounds for all kinds of epidemic once the monsoons set in.

Sewage treatment is only now acknowledged and accorded due impetus in India, and Chennai is fast kicking up in the area. For very many years after a mild treatment in the pumping station, the deluge was let into the open sea through canals and rivers, with the river water carrying the effluents getting contaminated in the process. One could see mounds of waste, the debris, piling up near the deltas – true of my city even now.  The Cooum river/Buckingham Canal of Chennai still serve as such channels whereas even half a century back we had boating in these inland waterways, something unthinkable in last 30 years. This channelizing effluents via water canals and rivers onto the seas is common practice in entire south Asia, not just India. The pumping stations belong to another era – and their capacity is abysmally low or insufficient. The toxic wastes that empty into seas can have serious repercussions on health of those who live close by or on those who eat sea-food. This is environmental pollution of first order with a direct impact on the ecosystem of the region. I am an interested party because this is what my husband’s current project is all about. He is heading a billion dollar sewage treatment capacity expansion plant right now – which is a very ambitious one. Its a live project like most of his are, with H2S dangerously hovering at the surface. This odourless gas is most toxic, even inhaling 0.0001 cc can cause instant death to humans. So that is the power of toxic waste substances that we do not ‘treat’ properly. Methane is the other combustible gas – a byproduct from proper treatment that can be put to efficient industrial/domestic use. Last but not the least derivative is the urea or compost.The mega project underscores how the world treats the subject with the importance and sensitivity it deserves. The whole world is like this, why are we Indians so lacksidal even on these important issues. Indian metros are in capacity expansion mode and modernizing sewage treatment finally (which still leaves a lot to be desired) but what about our rural areas.

S**t – before you utter the word next time, pause and think hard.

Sewage treatment in rural India is a long, long way but there is something that is within our easy access: THE SULABH TOILETS. First let our folks in the countryside have the privacy they deserve, the sewer treatment can wait.

Meant for the economically poorest sections of our society who cannot even build a private space on their own, the Sulabh Toilet introduced recently in the country will go miles in changing the perception on sanitation among our rural, illiterate population.

So ever since I heard about these ‘Sulabh toilets’ I feel like gifting one to any traditionally agrarian family that cannot afford one on their own.

I think it will be within our individual capacity to gift someone a ‘Sulabh toilet.’  I request of all to give a thought to donating a Sulabh toilet to poor, rural Indians.

My blog is open to very few of my closest circle of friends.  To others I want to carry on the message through Facebook.

Those of us who cannot do it direct can approach NGOs that finance ‘Sulabh toilet’ projects.

Lack of civic sense among my countrymen bothers me most and the pain stabs you whenever you return to India after a while abroad. Even the basic hygiene sense is lacking in some sections of the society. A chief reason attributable is absence of proper sanitation and drainage facilities. It is a failure of mechanism, slip by the administration, government no doubt but there is no harm in the citizens pitching in for their part.


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In Kerala, in most villages and towns you are met with a stark reality: the absence of municipal corporation in cleaning up the place. ELECTED CIVIC AUTHORITIES/GOVERNING BODIES COMPLETELY WASHING THEIR HANDS OFF THEIR PRINCIPAL DUTY OF GARBAGE COLLECTION/CLEARING & DISPOSAL CAN HAPPEN ONLY IN A COMMUNIST STATE LIKE KERALA. Living in outskirts of Thrissur and in Chalakkudi, I saw the predicament my friends were in when I visited them last year. Burning or disposing the waste every single day in their backyard was a prime domestic duty to the family members. Both my friends are working and are busy, so they are committed to this waste disposal rather religiously not devoting much time to think of any out-of-box permanent solution. From the cardboard carton of the new LED tv to food waste – bio-degradable or not, my friends lit a bonfire in late evenings to take care of their daily waste.

But of gravest concern is disposal of the non-biodegradable like plastics, mobiles, old computers etc. The state is in a fix unable to handle the crisis. My friends have a large attic accumulating these non-disposable, non-recyclable polythene and plastic material in the hope of finding a means for their disposal in near future. They are lucky to have big homes in Kerala. Imagine this situation in a metro like Chennai where living in a 2 BHK is considered a luxury….

And what about the bio-waste emanating in heaps from hospitals, nursing homes and health clinics. My friends being women face this problem at domestic level already. ‘Rodent menace makes us dispose of viscose sanitary napkins by flushing into toilet bowls which leads to choking up of septic tanks’ says the Chalakkudi friend. Last year, their entire street had a big drainage problem with septic tanks bursting at seams after monsoons. When they tried clearing up the clogs, they ended up fishing out mountains and mountains of bloated sanitary pads through an entire stretch of the neighbourhood.  Took over 4 days for the operation to complete until which time, my friend’s family took refuge in a hotel. The local residents were stunned. ‘We face this condition once in a few years’ admits my friend, as there is no other way to dispose of bio-waste in Kerala.

But another friend from Kerala who I met in middle-east told me about domestic mini bio-gas units which are installed and managed by locals themselves. Without expecting the government to come to their aid, the citizens have taken it upon themselves to find a solution to the critical issue called waste disposal/management in the state. A communist state until very recently, the Kerala municipalities and corporations are known for mismanagement and red tape. But even these domestic bio-gas plants fail to address the complex issue of disposal of bio waste and non bio-degradable matter.

Many more videos on You Tube on waste management and Bio-gas production in Kerala homes.

I suggested this remedy to my friends but being working women, they have no time or energy for trying any such enterprise in their homes.



Closing this post with the final word:

Sulabh toilet is very much affordable and the gifting can be done on community basis. Individually or through NGOs, it must be possible for us to reach out to the needy. Spoke with my NGO friends (they are a band of MBAs who are into social service as hobby acting as mostly fund-organizers for other major NGOs. Their business is to identify and access worthwhile NGOs, evaluate them and recommend their projects for prospective sponsors, routing funding to the really deserving cases on merit basis.  It is their job to ensure resources are not squandered or misused. They also follow up on implementation and submit progress reports. They are one of a kind).They like the ‘Sulabh Toilet’ idea and it is in ‘queue’ now for future implementation.  


How about considering gifting Sulabh Toilets to rural communities by Alumni Associations etc. The social media has made it possible for all of us to stay connected from around the globe and get together more easily now than ever before.Why can’t our Reunions come to mean something more meaningful and worthwhile than partying and reminiscing. This is something very nice to give back to our school I guess.

Other Sponsors: Nationalized banks have reached into nook and corner of India with their ATMs. Why not set up a Sulabh Toilet for every ATM the banks open?

Corporate sponsorships are another idea. Villages can be picked and adopted for the cause.

Sulabh Toilets are like one-time investment with a guaranteed long life.

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